Well this was unexpected. But Kazakhstan’s President Nazarbayev, who has effectively led the country since 1989, is stepping down and handing over power to the head of the ruling party until a replacement could be found.
I wrote about him here:
In short, [the secret of his success] is pragmatism over ideology. The narrow-minded nationalist would have demanded Russians learn Kazakh or go home. Nazabayev made Kazakh the official language, but at the same time denoted Russian as “the language of interethnic communication,” a status not unlike that of English in Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore. Incidentally, and unsurprisingly, Nazarbayev is a big fan of LKY, naming him as one two “eminent founding statesmen” (the other is Charles de Gaulle), and his policies reflect these beliefs: Low level economic liberalism, high level state industrial policy and financial management (the oil windfall has not been squandered, but stored up in an investment fund), and a commitment to intelligent authoritarian leadership that does not however overspill into the tyrannical brutality that you see in neighboring Uzbekistan or Turkmenistan.
Unlike LKY’s Singapore, corruption is pretty high; then again, pretty much no strongman apart from LKY ever managed to solve this. Even so, corruption in Kazakhstan is managed and contained – i.e., it is a “known quantity” – so it does not really scare away businessmen and foreign investors. Revolutions bring with them redivisions of the spoils, so elites are very hesitant to commit to long-term development projects in unstable countries like Ukraine or Kyrgyzstan; instead, their incentives are to maximize extraction in the here and now, before new people take their places at the trough. In stable authoritarian polities like Kazakhstan or Belarus, the people in power have more of an incentive to promote development because they have a reasonable degree of confidence that they will still have access to a what would be a much bigger pie a decade hence. It’s basically Mancur Olson’s theory about “roving bandits” vs. “stationary bandits” – the latter tend to be much better, because they are invested in the longterm success of their demesnes.
This pragmatism extends to foreign relations. Kazakhstan is on good terms with pretty much everyone who matters. It is in good standing with Russia; Nazarbayev was, in fact, the first post-Soviet leader to propose something along the lines of the Eurasian Union. But he is no Russian stooge either. Separatism and even talk of separatism are harshly suppressed, and all the more remarkably, this was done with Russia’s willing acquiesence: Eduard Limonov, a National Bolshevik and once Putin opponent, served two years in prison for allegedly trying to raise an army to “liberate” north Kazakhstan in the early 2000s. The capital was moved from Almaty to ethnic majority Russian Astana in the north, which gave Russians more of a reason to feel invested in Kazakh statehood while at the same time filling up a strategic city with ethnic Kazakhs to the extent that it now has a big Kazakh majority. This is a microcosm of changes taking place across the country as a whole, as highly fertile Kazakhs push up their share of the population back to where it was before Stolypin’s time. Over the longterm – i.e., another generation or so – this will likely solve Kazakhstan’s demographic/ethnic Russian northern majority problem in its entirety.
As the incarnadine cherry on the cream and custard pie, this careful equidistancing between Russia and the West, and his economic liberalism, has made Western elites very much appreciative of Nazarbayev. No American NGOs bother pushing for patently ridiculous concepts like free elections, or human rights, while holding them near sacrosanct in less wholesome countries, like Russia or Ukraine.
Central Asia only fell into the Russian Empire in the mid-19th century.
While relations have been far less acrimonious than with the Muslim Caucasus, which was acquired at around the same time, they were still – Eurasianist myths regardless – characterized by cultural distance and a lack of any deep integration.
But as the Soviet legacy fades away, so will the historical links between Russia and the countries of Central Asia.
This is, of course, hardly a singular affair. Kazakhstan is moving to the Latin alphabet by 2025. Tajikistan banned this year’s Immortal Regiments march on the grounds that it is non-Islamic (though it was not enforced). Uzbekistan has been particularly hostile, removing Europeans from important state positions, dismantling World War II monuments, and leaving both the CSTO and Eurasian Economic Community around 2010. Russia’s response? Mayor Sergey Sobyanin is going to use city funds to install a monument to the late Uzbek President for Life Islam Karimov in the center of Moscow.
And there are no signs that this is going to come to a stop anytime soon. As a rule, the Central Asians are ruled by Soviet relicts with strong cultural ties to (if not exactly sympathy for) Eurasia’s other post-Soviet elites. These are people whom the likes of Putin understand and are comfortable with. But as they age and die off, these countries are going to drift farther and farther away from Russia as the ethnic draw of Turkey, the religious draw of the Islamic ummah, the economic preponderance of China, and the cultural preponderance of America make themselves fully felt on the youngest generations and on the intelligentsia. This is already happening and there is no absolutely no reason to expect that Russia’s alternative, the Great Patriotic War victory cult – in which Central Asians played a marginal role anyway – is going to be a competitive one.
The future of Central Asia is nationalist and Islamic – probably, more of the former in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, and more of the latter in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.
Russians as share of Kazakhstan population (2010).
There are now just 3.6 million Russians in Kazakhstan (20% of the population), down from 6.0 million in 1989 (40%). Other European minorities, such as Ukrainians and Germans – and Koreans, who in practice identify with Europeans in the Central Asian context – add up to less than another 5%.
Furthermore, 2/3 of them want to emigrate due to Kazakhstan’s language policies and worsening inter-ethnic relations.
I am not surprised this is the case. I have read and heard – including from a couple of first hand sources – that Kazakh hiring practices in state institutions (e.g. academia) are highly nepotistic, favoring well-connected ethnic Kazakhs. There are no real opportunities for the Russians remaining there, apart from serving Kazakhs as a kind of cognitive caste (e.g. engineers at oil wells).
Kazakhstan age structure as of 2013.
Kazakhs [blue]; Russians [red]; Uzbeks [ green].
This, together with vastly lower fertility – there is a ~1 child gap between Russian and Kazakh fertility within Kazakhstan – means that its share of the population will continue to plummet as Kazakhstan becomes more and more of a mononational state.
Anyhow, should this leadership transition go smoothly and result in the appointment of another reasonable dictator who will continue Nazarbayev’s careful policies of maintaining good relations with all and sundry while steadily promoting Kazakhization – as opposed to a fire-breathing nationalist who attempts to turbocharge the process – then Kazakhstan should have made it as an entity that could be assured of its current borders. In another decade or two, even the old Russian territories of “South Siberia” will have lost their Russian majority, making the idea of reacquiring them in the case of an anti-Russian Kazakh government coming to power less and less of an attractive prospect.
That, in turn, means that there are fewer and fewer reasons not to vigorously encourage the mass repatriation of the remaining Russians in Kazakhstan.