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19 October 2016

Between the lion and the dragon

Can the legacy of the Kazakh khans help Nazarbayev?

Historiography habitually uses the term “between the lion and the dragon” to delineate policy pursued in the mid-18th century by rulers of Kazakh khanates who teetered on the verge between the geopolitical interests of two prominent Eurasian empires: the Russian Empire and Qing China. Ablai Khan is considered to be the most distinguished of these rulers in today’s Kazakhstan. His 300-year anniversary was celebrated in 2013 with great fanfare. On the occasion of the anniversary, President of Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbayev even penned an article paying tribute to the wisdom of one of his predecessors, commending him on his diplomatic talents.

Frankly speaking, we do not even have to reference events of three hundred years ago in order to conclude that Kazakhstan is actually facing the same choice today that Ablai Khan faced in his day. The country still has to construct its foreign policy while taking into account the interests of China which has gained unprecedented strength. Central Asia is sinking deeper and deeper into its sphere of influence. On the other hand, it has to take into account Russia, languishing from imperial ambitions and habitually adopting mentoring positions with respect to post-Soviet republics.

The business forum, as part of the 13th Russia-Kazakhstan Interregional Cooperation Forum attended by the presidents of both countries, was held in Astana in early October. It is noteworthy that Kazakhstan has become an out-and-out leader in terms of the number of visits by Putin. In total, he has paid 22 visits to Kazakhstan (he has visited Ukraine 21 times, Belarus – 19 times, Germany – 14 times and both France and China – 12 times). Putin spouted figures at the forum illustrating the scale of Russian-Kazakh cooperation: 12 billion dollars in mutual investments, 6 thousand joint ventures and bilateral projects in the spheres of mining, mechanical engineering, shipbuilding, the chemical industry and agriculture. Talks between the two presidents have resulted in the announcement of bilateral agreements worth 27 billion dollars.

However, mutual overtures cannot conceal the fact that the value of Kazakhstan’s trade with Russia has almost halved over the past two years (dropping from 17.7 to 9.6 billion dollars). At the same time, trade turnover between China and Kazakhstan has soared from 28.6 to 40 billion since 2013. While Russia struggled with “the Power of Siberia” pipeline (supplies through this pipeline will begin in 2019 at the earliest) and was striving to overcome the consequences of Western sanctions, China and Kazakhstan managed to launch a joint gas and oil pipeline Atasu-Alashankou used by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to pump millions of tons of hydrocarbons per annum.

The Celestial Empire ranks first in terms of investment in Kazakhstan: Astana and Beijing signed off a package of bilateral agreements in early 2015 according to which the Chinese are to invest a further 14 billion dollars in the Central Asian republic (the total volume of China’s accumulated direct investment in Kazakhstan amounted to 22.57 billion in 2014). However, Chinese investment is not limited to the energy sector alone as the Chinese also drew up plans to invest in logistics (in the infrastructure of the “Great Silk Road” which will now most probably bypass Russia), industrial production, agriculture and the banking sector.

Putin’s deliberations concerning the strategic nature of the partnership with Kazakhstan pale in significance against the backdrop of the successes of Kazakh-Chinese cooperation. On the other hand, it would be remiss to reduce all relationships in the Moscow-Astana-Beijing triangle to rivalry for influence over Nazarbayev and his possible successors between the ”dragon” and the “lion” and equally unwise to overestimate the influence of foreign partners on decisions made in Astana. Astana has gradually assumed the role of regional leader. Unlike in the days of Ablai Khan, it can afford to form its foreign policy without fear of foreign conquerors suddenly invading the country.

One should not expect major changes to the restrained and careful foreign policy pursued by “the leader of the nation” as long as Nursultan Nazarbayev remains in power. Current policy has proved its effectiveness despite the country going through its most difficult period. Of course, no one denies how the historical achievements of the Kazakh khans have benefitted their compatriots, but Nazarbayev was faced with the task of rebuilding the nation state. And judging by the political stability in the country, the lack of social conflict and its macroeconomic performance (of all of the post-Soviet republics, Kazakhstan is second only to Estonia and Lithuania in terms of GDP PPP and is ahead of Latvia and Russia, not to mention its neighbors), he has coped well with the task. He has also managed to avoid external interference in internal affairs from other superpowers despite solid preconditions for such, with Russia in particular posing a threat in this regard (taking into account that country is home to a vast Russian-speaking community and the Kremlin’s desire to gain a foothold wherever “the great and mighty” language is spoken).

Of course, Kazakhstan can hardly be considered a developed democracy with a fully-fledged market economy. The Soviet management system continues to have influence as, currently, no real political competition exists and the entire country is, in fact, controlled by several financial-and-industrial groups. From time to time, the system built by “the leader of the nation” fails and skirmishes in Aktobe or riots in Zhanaozen ensue. However, these outbreaks of violence are not systemic in nature and the authorities are able to curb them in the absence of any serious consequences.

The experience of Uzbekistan and earlier, Turkmenistan, where power was smoothly passed on from one dictator to another, is unlikely to be replicated in Kazakhstan. Still, Kazakhstan more closely resembles Russia than Uzbekistan when it comes to civil liberties. By the end of the reign of Islam Karimov, daily life in the latter had almost come to resemble that of North Korea. Still, the potential power shift in the country is fraught with political instability and fertile ground exists for the emergence of various marginal, nationalist and Islamist forces vying to play first fiddle. The likelihood that Russia will interfere in Kazakh affairs given the precedent of the Ukrainian scenario increases automatically.

No matter how vehemently Moscow asserts that Kazakhstan is an equal partner, some disingenuousness shown by the elder brother towards the younger brother is still traceable in Putin’s slips of the tongue and lapses in concentration of less prominent politicians. This does little to boost Russia’s popularity amongst Kazakh society. In turn, influential groups, which came into being under Nazarbayev’s rule, blessed with multi-billion dollar assets and accustomed to following their own rules, are unlikely to rejoice should new terms of business be imposed by Moscow. Any attempts to settle these two bones of discontent with the growing influence of the Northern neighbor could eventually lead to a situation similar to that which spawned the Kazakh “Azov” battalions.

Taking into account that the fight against foreign intervention will probably be characterized by additional religious overtones, one imagines that this conflict will be far more wide scale and even more bloody than the war in the Donbas.

The probability of such a scenario is not particularly high, although, to be fair, nobody really believed in the annexation of Crimea or the emergence of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) and Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR) until these events had already taken shape. Therefore, such a development cannot be ruled out. In this respect, China’s direct intervention in Kazakhstan’s domestic matters seems far less likely. No one in the Celestial Empire suffers from nostalgia for bygone might, not in the least because China has reached a pinnacle it has previously found unachievable since the days of the Tang dynasty.

Moreover, as  already mentioned, the result of the dispute over which party is redundant in the Russia-China-Kazakhstan triangle may well be decided not by China and Russia, but by Russia and Kazakhstan since deals for the supply of oil and gas to the PRC are at stake. It is noteworthy that the Kremlin has propelled Astana to the fore, having engaged in a protracted and debilitating confrontation with the West. Now, the question is whether Nazarbayev and his entourage, from which the heir to “the leader of the nation” will emerge, will seize this opportunity. Obviously, there exist some troublesome issues between Kazakhstan and the PRC, as would be true of any other adjoining nation states. The irksome points include, for example, the issue of the use of water (the riverheads of the largest rivers in Kazakhstan – Irtysh and Illi – are located on the territory of the PRC and the Chinese water intake there is rising constantly) and the issue of Uighur separatism. Both potential problems are resolvable should good will prevail. The adoption of a pragmatic approach, typical of the Kazakh leadership at odds with Moscow’s great imperial doctrines, should prove beneficial to the heirs of Ablai Khan. 

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