On November 9, 2018, the northern Kazakh city of Petropavlovsk hosted the 15th forum of interregional cooperation between Kazakhstan and Russia. The presidents of both countries, Nursultan Nazarbayev and Vladimir Putin, took part in the forum, as well as more than 250 Russian delegates, including the regional governors and the heads of large companies. The main topic of the Kazakhstan-Russia forum was the development of tourism [Akorda, 2018a]. Indeed, Kazakhstan has begun to pay special attention to cooperation with its neighbors in this area of the economy. For example, the first interregional forum with Uzbekistan held on November 15 was also dedicated to the joint development of tourism [Primeminister.kz, 2018].
Despite the important role of tourism, the anniversary Kazakh-Russian forum gives reason to analyze the relations between the two countries. We should not forget that this year also marks the 20th anniversary of the Declaration on Eternal Friendship and Alliance between Kazakhstan and Russia. Moreover, President Nazarbayev, in his State of the Nation Address from October 5, 2018, called Kazakhstan’s bilateral relations with Russia “the standard of interstate relations” and stated his intention to continue working in this direction [Akorda, 2018b]. Meanwhile, our strategic ally is a party to the geopolitical confrontation with the so-called collective West, and, against this background, Russia is moving closer to another neighbor of Kazakhstan – China, which, in its turn, is on the verge of a full-scale global confrontation with the United States. The role of Kazakhstan in all this global game is negligible, but it will certainly influence Astana’s foreign policy, no matter how it tries to emphasize its neutrality and equidistance.
The first factor that can put pressure on the development of Kazakhstan-Russia bilateral relations may be the economic development of the two countries. It is clear that the sizes of their economies are incomparable, with Russia obviously prevailing here, but the standard of living in Kazakhstan becomes higher than in Russia. In 2015, Kazakhstan overtook Russia in terms of per capita GDP at purchasing power parity [Tengrinews, 2015], and this remains the case today [World Bank, 2018]. At the same time, the Gini coefficient, which shows the level of inequality in the country, is much lower in Kazakhstan, meaning that capital is spread more evenly among Kazakhstani people compared to Russians. Besides, the average monthly wage calculated in U.S. dollars is higher in Russia than in Kazakhstan, but in the latter case basic consumer goods are somewhat cheaper. Thereby, purchasing powers of the two countries’ populations are equalized.
Meanwhile, the forecast for the growth of the Russian economy in 2018–2020 ranges between 1.5-1.8% [World Bank, 2018]. Kazakhstan, in turn, is expected to grow in the same period by about 2.8-3.7% [World Bank, 2018]. So, if the forecasts are correct, then the productivity and purchasing power of Kazakhstan’s citizens may by 2020 slightly exceed the similar indicators of Russians. Higher effectiveness of one economy compared to another can become a factor affecting bilateral relations.
At the same time, we should expect that each year economic rivalry between Russia and Kazakhstan will increase inasmuch as the economic structures of the two countries are similar. For example, they could engage in competition for foreign direct investment. Herewith Astana in the near future may get a competitive advantage if it succeeds in realizing the already launched program on the privatization of state-owned Kazakh companies.
In general, the strengthening of Kazakhstan’s economic position can lead to an increase in nationalist sentiments in Russia towards Astana, which could be enhanced due to the participation of both countries in the Eurasian Economic Union. So, bearing in mind that the nationalist rhetoric today prevails in the Russian political discourse, the Kremlin may be under pressure from the conservative part of the elite. What this could lead to is clear from the example of a Moscow-imposed ban on the transit to Kazakhstan of U.S.-produced poultry through the Russian territory [Forbes.kz, 2018].
The second factor in interstate relations may be the gradual pressure of Moscow on Astana on the status of Crimea. Today, Kazakhstan remains neutral on this issue, regularly abstaining in voting at the UN on the status of the peninsula. Perhaps now, the pressure is not so strong due to the fact that Kazakhstan is a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council (UNSC). Since Astana is in full view of the global community, it will not take any action openly favoring the Russian side. Obviously, it can be noted that Russia does not insist on the recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, but one thing is the recognition of these separatist republics, and another is the status of the Russian-held territory. Therefore, it cannot be ruled out that after the completion of its membership in the UNSC, Astana will be forced to state more clearly its position on the issue of the annexation of Crimea. No doubt, Kazakhstan can continue to operate under the current scenario, but if sanctions are strengthened and the Russian economy remains in stagnation, with domestic political rhetoric being the same, Moscow could start putting pressure on its allies, including Kazakhstan.
In April 2018, Kazakhstan already faced the Russian information campaign against itself. Then the reason for the pressure was Astana’s vote in the UNSC on the Russia-initiated resolution condemning the U.S. strikes on Syria. Kazakhstan abstained in that vote, and the Russian side took this fact negatively. Nevertheless, the April campaign was only a small demonstration of Russian information opportunities. This example shows what Russia can do to influence its neighbor’s foreign policy.
The third factor may be the cultural and historical sphere. Here there are two points: the transition of the Kazakh alphabet to the Latin script and the common historical past. The reform of the alphabet is primarily an issue of modernization of the Kazakh language, because the Cyrillic script is not very convenient and complicates the process of learning the language. Besides, Kazakhstan already used the Latin alphabet previously, in the early years of the USSR. Nevertheless, a number of Russian commentators believe that the renunciation of the Cyrillic alphabet is a symbolic decision, as well as an attempt to move away from Russian culture and education. It should be noted that a number of Kazakh commentators who praised the reform only confirmed their concerns. Moreover, the transition of the Kazakh alphabet to the Latin script was commented by Vladimir Solovyev, whose TV show is one of the key elements of Russian propaganda, although it happened in the spring of 2018 as part of the Russian information campaign against Kazakhstan. In the meantime, mainly marginal and peripheral politicians, as well as some prejudiced publicists, continue to comment the transition to the Latin alphabet. It is clear that the alphabet reform itself will not significantly affect the relations between the countries, because the level of interest in the Kazakh language in Russia is low. The overwhelming majority of Russians are absolutely indifferent to which alphabet written Kazakh will use. However, in certain cases, the transition may become an instrument of Russian propaganda.
If we talk about the common past of the two countries, it is a very important aspect in bilateral relations. Both states try to relate to their joint long historical past carefully and scrupulously since they fear negative consequences. Today, the joint past is under the control of the states, with historians in each of the countries realizing the boundaries for studying the common history. For example, the Kazakh government avoids discussing such thorny questions of the past as the topic of Alash-Orda.
However, the common history of Kazakhstan and Russia has other interested participants, such as Ukraine. In October 2018, the U.S. Senate recognized the Holodomor of 1932-1933 as the genocide of the Ukrainian people [Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty, 2018]. In the same years, about 50% of all Kazakhs died of hunger in Kazakhstan, meaning that Astana faces pressure inside the country about the need to make a clear decision on that national tragedy. Meanwhile, Moscow takes very painfully even a simple public discussion of this issue. But Astana must make a decision on how to interpret the hunger of the early 1930s, because right now the country is in the process of forming its own identity, and finding answers for the Soviet period of history is very important for this process. However, apparently, the authorities prefer to concentrate on the remote past and avoid questions about the common history with Russia. This is probably a necessary, pragmatic decision for now.
In summary, it should be noted that Kazakhstan and Russia are definitely too important for each other. Nevertheless, the relations of the two countries have many pitfalls and require constant collaboration. The two states need not only good personal relations between their leaders, but also horizontal structures, trust and equality. In its turn, Kazakhstan should remember that in the conditions of global confrontations the opportunities for a multi-vector policy increase, not decrease, and efficient maneuvering requires professional decision-makers possessing necessary competencies.
Akorda.kz. (2018a). Meeting with President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin. Retrieved from http://www.akorda.kz/en/events/astana_kazakhstan/astana_other_events/meeting-with-president-of-the-russian-federation-vladimir-putin-7. Accessed on 20.11.2018.
Akorda.kz. (2018b). State of the Nation Address of President of the Republic of Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbayev. Retrieved from http://www.akorda.kz/ru/addresses/addresses_of_president/poslanie-prezidenta-respubliki-kazahstan-nnazarbaeva-narodu-kazahstana-5-oktyabrya-2018-g. Accessed on 20.11.2018.
Forbes.kz. (2018). Will poultry meat become more expensive in Kazakhstan if there are no American legs in the stores? Retrieved from https://forbes.kz/finances/markets/podorojaet_li_myaso_ptitsyi_v_kazahstane_esli_v_magazinah_ne_budet_amerikanskih_okorochkov/. Accessed on 21.11.2018.
Primeminister.kz. (2018). First Interregional Forum Kazakhstan-Uzbekistan held in Shymkent. Retrieved from https://primeminister.kz/ru/news/all/first-interregional-forum-kazakhstan-uzbekistan-held-in-shymkent-17470. Accessed on 21.11.2018.
Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty. (2018). U.S. Senate Says Stalin ‘Committed Genocide’ In Famine-Hit Ukraine. Retrieved from https://www.rferl.org/a/u-s-senate-passes-resolution-on-ukraine-famine-a-move-hailed-by-kyiv/29526188.html. Accessed on 20.11.2018.
Tengrinews. (2015). Kazakhstan is ahead of Russia in per capita GDP. Retrieved from https://tengrinews.kz/private_finance/kazahstan-operejaet-rossiyu-po-vvp-na-dushu-naseleniya-279118/. Accessed on 20.11.2018.
Note: The views expressed in this blog are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the Institute’s editorial policy.
Asset Ordabayev is a junior research fellow at the Eurasian Institute of the International H.A Yassawi Kazakh-Turkish University. He holds a BA in International Relations from the KarSU (Karahanda) from 2012. In 2014, he earned his Masters degree in International Relations the Kazak National University (Almaty). From 2014 to 2017 he worked at the Institute of World Economy and Politics as a foreign policy expert. The main research interests are the geopolitical processes on the Eurasian continent within the framework of the development of transport infrastructure, as well as the ongoing proces