March 11, 2016

What to Think of Kazakhstan?

The late Hardo Aasmäe would be the best person to comment on articles about politics in Kazakhstan. He was the senior deputy to the first secretary of the erstwhile Kazakh SSR, and Nazarbayev even offered him the position of second secretary. Consequently, the newly independent Kazakhstan nearly had an Estonian prime minister. My discussions with my colleague Aasmäe were enlightening, and spurred me to search for secondary sources and to thoroughly review my short-term experience of this state and society.

The articles in this issue of Diplomaatia focus on president Nazarbayev. It does not do to overly idealise him, but he truly is a very popular head of state—albeit simply for the reason that Kazakhstan is the only former Soviet state in Central Asia that has not suffered from civil war, bloody ethnic conflict and mass murder. People forgive a lot in exchange for this. Thus, to a certain degree, Nazarbayev is Kazakhstan.
When speaking with Kazakhs, one quickly realises that they use Oriental elegance to avoid direct confrontation. The authors here do not mention how Kazakhstan actually balances itself between Russia and the European Union or that Nazarbayev promised to leave the Eurasian Economic Union should it turn out to be economically disadvantageous. Nazarbayev sincerely believes that his state is destined to become the centre of Eurasia, and a short walk in central Almaty supports this: all the large eastern and western banks and many multinational groups have branch offices there. This, however, demands great political flexibility in dealing with China, Russia and the European states. That is why Kazakhstan has joined an impressive number of international organisations. However, given the country’s multidirectional orientation, the one-dimensional writings of the Kazakh political scientists in Diplomaatia should be interpreted carefully. Many issues are simply not mentioned in the articles.
Thanks to my colleague Aasmäe, I finally understood that Nazarbayev must be judged by his actions, not his words. Political scientists claim that Nazarbayev was the greatest opportunist among the leaders of the Soviet republics because Kazakhstan was the last to leave the Soviet Union. According to Aasmäe, Nazarbajev said: “The Union will collapse no matter what, but we have an issue with Russia in North Kazakhstan”.
In March 2014, Nazarbayev berated Ukrainian Banderites in a speech but extensive military exercises were quickly organised in Kazakhstan. The parades held on 7 May (Defender of the Fatherland Day combined with Victory Day) that year and the following year were a pompous demonstration of the state’s military power. Large-scale military exercises also began in Kazakhstan this January. Восток, дело тонкое! (The East is a complicated subject.)


This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.

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