The Political Stability of Kazakhstan:
The Gift & The Curse
by Danny Krikorian
Florida Political Science Association
Florida Political Chronicle
Kazakhstan resides in one of the most volatile regions in the world, Central Asia. Various characteristics of the region make this a reality. Some of these characteristics, which I call variables, help to explain the unconventional history of development in Kazakhstan, and perhaps explains why the country has lagged in terms of democratic reform. The purpose of this research is to dissect the political stability of the Central Asian country of Kazakhstan. In this paper, I argue that eight independent variables determine the political stability of Kazakhstan, four of which serve as the primary influences. In this case, the political stability of Kazakhstan is the dependent variable. I furthermore suggest that of these eight variables, six share a negative relationship with political stability, while the remaining two share a positive relationship with political stability, and demonstrate how this reality has largely shaped the modern state of Kazakhstan today. In other words, the majority of these variables make Kazakhstan less politically stable. To analyze these variables, I have organized the body of this paper into three sections: First I begin with a brief introduction with some background information about Kazakhstan. Secondly I discuss the literature on the subject of stability in Kazakhstan within the framework of the eight variables. Finally I demonstrate, based on the research, why it can be argued that foreign policy is in fact the most significant variable in determining the political stability of Kazakhstan. I will argue that threats to Kazakhstan’s stability can only be mitigated by proper foreign policy measures that reduce attempts at exploiting the country’s sovereignty. This foreign tug-o-war, or the New Great Game rather, whose main external players are the U.S., Russia & China, has evolved over the years, depending on the international political landscape. Today, foreign pressures come in numerous and diverse forms. Finally, I will provide a conclusion in which I discuss the future of Kazakhstan and why these findings are important and what they mean in today’s world, in theory and in policy.
- Introduction & Background Information
Most literature in the Western scholarly tradition presumes that democracy is universal. Perhaps this is why the majority of the focus is on issues such as corruption, institutional underdevelopment, resource curse and rentier-states. However more and more scholars are beginning to address other forces contributing to instability outside the realm of political reform, such as geopolitics, colonialism and cultural relativism. With regards to Kazakhstan, most scholars have echoed the former tactic, often ignoring the complexities of the country and region’s nature. This research attempts to demonstrate how an unconventional combination of variables such as different forms of leadership as well as collective cultural decisions often dictate the stability of a nation as much as the political or economic compositions of that state. It shows how, variables such as foreign relations, security conditions, socio-cultural fabric, and the resource-curse often outweigh the significance of the internal politics of a nation. This is not to suggest that political reform is futile or unnecessary, but rather, that too much focus on this element is intellectually irresponsible. The purpose of this research is to isolate the main cause of instability in Kazakhstan. While I present four primary, and four minor variables, I argue that in fact, foreign policy is the greatest challenge to the region’s security and stability, especially in Kazakhstan, and that proper manipulation of its foreign relations is in direct correlation with its ability to maintain stability.
By nature of this analysis, it challenges previous literature by suggesting that the tradition of analyzing non-western countries has been largely dominated by a culturally relative perspective that essentially misunderstands the complexity of regions like Central Asia (39). It challenges the notion that democratic reform is the only recipe for stability, that is, outside of the Western world. That western democracies have often sided with and funded the most authoritarian regimes in the region and in the rest of the world, as well as, perhaps indirectly, allowing for the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, makes the prospects for democracy in the region more dim. Perhaps one of the greatest tools in this situation has been pragmatic leadership, which has been exhibited most by Kazakhstan’s President Nazarbayev himself.
What this means for the universalism of democracy has broad implications as it could suggest that, much like the USSR’s communism, the West’s neoconservative crusade for democracy in the post-Soviet world has in fact threatened international security and has destabilized societies. Perhaps what we are witnessing in the modern world is what will become the “containment” of Western neoconservatism.Whether or not democracy is compatible with Central Asia remains questionable, but what is less vague, is that foreign powers are little concerned with the genuine interests the region.
In the coming section, the heart of this research study, I list each of the eight independent variables influencing the political stability of Kazakhstan. I explain that the majority of these variables share a negative relationship with political stability — in other words, they make Kazakhstan more unstable. The others, despite being the minority, serve as resilient forces for stability. Nonetheless, I argue that the overall nature of Kazakhstan is of instability — it has been unstable since its earliest history.
However Kazakhstan’s recent history leaves a window for opportunity, given its cunning leadership, resilient economy, its relatively healthy population and strong centralized state, and the comparatively lower threat of terrorism. I further argue that the greatest threat, even historically, has emanated from the foreign relations dimension of Kazakhstan’s politics, with special regards to the so called, New Great Game. In totality, the aim of this research is to explain why Kazakhstan is relatively unstable; it seeks to isolate the primary force of instability; and finally, it resolves to suggest prospects for its future amidst an array of chaos.
- Literature Review of Eight Variables
- Political Development
The political stability of Kazakhstan cannot be understood without analysis of its political structure and process. In this section I argue that the internal politics of Kazakhstan, while negatively affecting its stability, due to corruption, fraudulent elections and opposition suppression, is also a source of stability with regards to the strength of the state and its overall legislative structure. Of the eight variables, only political development and economic conditions pose a challenge in analysis. In a sense, both the endurance of the state, and the vast endowment of oil, which I discuss in the economic section, are a “gift and a curse”. While the political development of Kazakhstan shares a negative relationship with its political stability, it arguably serves as a window of hope for its future, noting its resilience in the face of radicalism and foreign pressure.
Kazakhstan is a unitary republic, with its president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, as the head of state. Legislative powers reside in a bicameral legislature, with includes the Majlis, the upper house and the senate, the lower house (16). Political parties are allowed to compete, but the authenticity of the election process is challenged by internal and external sources (42). Some parties however are deemed illegal, wholly banned and actively suppressed (16). Neither of the opposition parties possesses enough support or power to pose a significant threat in the election process. Furthermore, private media is largely suppressed, with the majority of publications being in support of the current administration (42). This is telling of the credibility and reputation of the constitution of Kazakhstan, which nominally protects private media — nominally.
Kazakhstan’s leadership. under President Nazarbayev has been remarkably effective in stabilizing the country (38). It has endured less attacks, and Nazarbayev has done well to smear his opponents as “gangsters and criminals” (36). He has displayed his effectiveness in maintaining a steady economy, while appeasing both his Russia, American, and Chinese counterparts, in what has been deemed a “multivector foreign policy” (28).
Kazakhstan has made many strides with regards to political reform, but it has also been guilty of backpedaling (23). Nonetheless, with careful consideration of the diverse forces forming the political fabric of Kazakhstan, there is reason to believe that its successes are equally worthy of attention as its shortcomings (43). Key points must be considered in order to clearly understand why the country’s progress towards democracy has lagged and been the subject of criticism. Kazakhstan has been independent for barely 30 years. To compare the status of its political institutions to those of the West, where independence and democracy have hailed for centuries, would be premature (40).
In context, compared to its neighbors, especially Uzbekistan, it has undoubtedly surpassed them in terms of stability and progress (27). Research indicates unprecedented civic activism and voter turn-out rates in Kazakhstan’s presidential elections (43). That being said, opposition parties are largely disenfranchised and discouraged from participating in the political process, often echoing accusations of fraudulent elections (7). In this regard, Kazakhstan’s leadership has been able to deploy the rentier mechanism by which political reform is substituted with public services funded by oil-wealth. The immense importance of the role played by oil in shaping the political dynamic of Kazakhstan can thus not be ignored, for they have been the pretense for tension between the various domestic and foreign political forces influencing Kazakhstan’s political stability (45). These tensions, whether they are between members of the political elite, or between the political elite and the mass, have often been the subject of exploitation by global powers, using the fragility of the region to their own advantage. This leads us directly to the next variable.
- Foreign Policy & Relations
In the realm of foreign politics, Kazakhstan is a key player in “The New Great Game” (24). Russia is arguably the greatest threat to Kazakhstan’s political stability. Managing the longest contiguous border in the world, Kazakhstan’s leadership is constantly having to fend itself against the threat of Russian imposition (3). However the US has also played an influential role in this regard. As global hegemonies play tug-o-war over the region, it becomes more apparent that its foreign relations share a negative relationship with Kazakhstan’s political stability.
Statements made by Vladimir Putin at the Selinger Youth Camp in 2014 revealed that Kazakhstan’s vulnerability to Russian domination, especially with a significant Russian population living in mainly Northern Kazakhstan. The Georgian and Ukrainian crises, and Russia’s post-soviet neo-imperialism tradition, have done nothing to mitigate Kazakh fears of Russian influence. (22). The threat of Russian separatism emanates from the Northern Kazakhstan Province, (4). For this reason, Nazarbayev moved the capital of Kazakhstan from Almaty to Astana, which is along the Northern border, closer to Russia (24). An act of defiance against Russian hegemony, Nazarbayev further proved himself a prolific player in the great game. On the other end of the foreign political dynamic rests Kazakhstan’s intimate economic relationship with the US. Nonetheless, by associating demands for democracy with neocolonialism, Nazarbayev has legitimized his ideology. By balancing the priorities autonomy, growth and stability, he has solidified what has been coined as his “multi-vector-foreign policy” (4). That he has maintained Kazakhstan’s independence, autonomy, and economic progress, has further legitimized his position. But Russian hegemony is nothing new to the Cental Asian giant; as the stains of Imperial Russia surely remain engrained in the memories of Kazakhs (13). But the demise of the USSR has essentially opened a vacuum of power it could be argued. The world, having transitioned from a bipolar to a unipolar political dynamic, with the US essentially having grip on global power, has essentially allowed the US to reign in on the region’s vulnerability and economic appeal.
Like its eastern counterparts, the West, namely the US, has simultaneously played an inconsistent role in the region; often indirectly propping up extremists, neglecting delayed reforms, and dipping their hands in scandalous oil politics (24). Despite pro-democratic rhetoric, it seems neither hegemony, Russia, China or the US are genuinely committed to the “democratic process” in Kazakhstan (34). This factor is perhaps the most overlooked in current literature on political stability in Central Asia.
With regards to its regional and local allies, Kazakhstan has maintained a positive relationship for the most part, with perhaps Saudi Arabia being the only exception. The greatest threat to its stability comes from its relationship with the global powers of Russia, China, the US and the EU, who have engaged in double-dealings, policy inconsistency and moral negligence. Kazakhstan has maintained a positive reputation among international organizations, especially the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, or SCO, of which it was a founding member (9). Nonetheless, it faces continued scrutiny over the process of its elections and accounts of corruption various international organizations, despite being an active member of the U.N (35).
This segment of the research is of particular importance as, I argue later in the paper, it is the most crucial variable in the relationship with political stability.
- Security/Military Condition
The threat of Islamic fundamentalism is perhaps the greatest security issue for Kazakhstan. The threat of Russian separatism, though very real, especially following the Georgian and Ukrainian crises, has been thus far contained. In this section I demonstrate how the security and military condition of Kazakhstan has made it less stable.
National security poses a very unique challenge for Kazakhstan. However Kazakhstan has been essentially able to mitigate the threat relative to its neighbors. The threat is both foreign and domestic, with large swaths of ideological fanaticism being imported from abroad, mainly from Saudi Arabia in the Middle East, in the form of Wahhabism (34). Kazakhstan has remained stable despite the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in Central Asia. Repressive retaliation by Central Asian governments have only aggravated the situation (10). Various influential terrorist and extremist networks operate in the region, such as the Hizb-ut-Tahrir, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, Islamic Jihad Union, Soldiers of the Caliphate, and the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (5). There also exists a threat from Uyghur separatist groups within Kazakhstan as well as a threat from external sources of radicalization emanating primarily from the Middle East (4). These forces altogether represent obstacles to Kazakhstan’s national security, which is evidently a significant factor of consideration in the political stability of Kazakhstan. They suggest another reason why democratic reform has lagged. Furthermore, they focus attention on the authoritarian nature of the regime, and the relationship of that authoritarianism with the rise of dissenting groups of radical Islamic persuasion. On the other hand, the existence of these extremist networks is perhaps another reason why Nazarbayev has been able to maintain power—by portraying himself as a champion of the cause against terrorism, he has garnered immense support from the U.S. and has replaced Uzbekistan as Central Asia’s primary force force against Islamic fundamentalism (41). These forces also underscore the immense responsibility bestowed on the government of Kazakhstan in balancing the agendas of all power players and potential threats to Kazakh stability and autonomy. Since the inception of the post 9/11 era, and the ensuing “War on Terror” as led by the US, there has been little success in mitigating the overall threat of terrorism in the region, further underscoring the need for reconsidering policy measures (2).
It becomes uniquely difficult to isolate the security threat from the other variables. There have been instances in which groups like the IMU have engaged with global hegemonies directly and indirectly (24). If this is true, it could be argued that religious radicalism is exploited by foreign powers as means of destabilization.
In sum, the there is a negative relationship between the security conditions of Kazakhstan and its overall political stability. Despite its leader’s attempts to mitigate the threat compared to his neighbors, especially Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, the threat remains. Since 2011, there has yet to be an attack (19). Furthermore, Kazakhstan’s military has been relatively dormant in terms of full-fledged combat. This is a signal of its relative stability compared to its Central Asian neighbors.
- Economic Conditions
It is impossible to understand the complexity of Kazakhstan’s politics without considering the implications of its enormous oil wealth. For this reason, I have reserved this section for an analysis of the negative relationship between Kazakhstan’s economy and its political stability, focusing primarily on the country’s rich oil fields in the Caspian Sea.
The economy of Kazakhstan is complex and rich. This reality has complicated its political atmosphere, often fueling tensions between various entities; elites, the general public, political activists and insurgent movements (44). In this segment of the article I will argue that Kazakhstan’s economy has negatively impacted its political stability by making it the focal point of global hegemonies competing for control. Nonetheless, the vast wealth resulting from oil has allowed Kazakhstan to continue as a so-called “rentier-state”, keeping its citizens at least minimally satisfied without actually initiating reforms that might threaten the political elite’s grip on the economy, and subsequently, power.
Kazakhstan possesses the eleventh largest oil-reserves in the world. (15). This serves as a tremendous asset in Kazakhstan’s politics, often wielded as a political weapon to gain concessions from or secure relations with foreign actors. Kazakhstan’s economy is largely dependent on its oil exports (6). While this has allowed for economic growth, it has certainly underscored the country’s political volatility, serving as somewhat of a double-edged sword; a gift and a curse rather. In political science, this phenomenon is referred to as the “resource-curse”, in which natural resource endowment serves as a substitute for tax and political reform through rents (6). But it has also allowed for a degree of self-sustainable autonomy for Kazakhstan. Still, the country remains dependent on foreign investment and technology for the maintenance and development of oil pipelines in the Tengiz & Kashagan oil fields. The existence of these oil fields had essentially deemed Kazakhstan a central focus of “the great game”. Kazakhstan’s overall economic performance has been positive and has improved significantly over the years. With a GINI index score of 39, Kazakhstan boasts a relatively low income disparity (31). These are further indicators of Kazakhstan’s potential to prosper. Only 8.5% of the population is living on less than $2 a day, compared to 27.2% in Kyrgyzstan, the second lowest, and a disturbing 77.5% in Uzbekistan. Kazakhstan also boasts an unemployment rate of 8%, compared to 18% in Kyrgyzstan and 60% in Turkmenistan (31). All of these economic indicators suggest why Kazakhstan has maintained a politically stable climate, compared to its neighbors, where Islamic repression is severe, insurgency is rampant and economies are stagnant.
In many parts of the world where oil wealth is vast, democratic reform is scarce. There could be a strong correlation, but nonetheless, it is a question of theory. Oil has impacted Kazakhstan immensely. It has increased competition between elites, spurred corruption, bribery and greed, all of which have fueled dissent, fanatical and non. Still, Nazarbayev has managed the politics and economics relatively well compared to his neighbors. Thus, Kazakhstan has enjoyed lower rates of unemployment, higher GDP per capita, less income disparity and more political freedom than all other Central Asian states (38).
The history of economic development of Central Asia is not much different from most regions endowed with natural resource wealth and geopolitical significance. These two attributes have served as a double edged sword to the region’s economy, resulting in major booms or, on the contrary, incidents of upheaval and economic uncertainty.
The “multifaceted institutional weaknesses” of regions like Central Asia symbolize the complexity of the relationship between illegality, crime, and human security. Nonetheless, the authors here echo the sentiments of many in the Western tradition. This begs the question: is the western academic tradition of analysis largely negligent of its own perhaps indirect complicity in enabling the socio-economic dynamic that is described in Central Asia, and more specifically in this case, in Kazakhstan? In these contexts, names such as Edward Said, and his philosophy of “Orientalism”, are of significance, because it helps to illuminate the biases inherent in the study of indigenous populations by non-indigenous sources.
The most recent terrorist attack in Kazakhstan in which the President blamed organized crime instead of radical militants, which could be true; could very well be a political tactic to undermine the opposition. Nonetheless, that Kazakhstan is the least vulnerable to attacks, and that it has enjoyed a relatively secure atmosphere complemented by a robust economy, altogether could perhaps challenge the legitimacy of insurgent movements.
The presence of oil, terrorist threats, radical Islam, organized crime, the drug trade – the overall illicit economy – combined with the geopolitical reality of the region, underscore the volatility of the region. This has a tremendous impact on the economy of the Central Asian region. Not only are markets often held hostage to the political dynamic, either through competitive limits or foreign exploitation; they are completely vulnerable to violent disruption, a common characteristic of countries with vast natural resource wealth. Perhaps it is this dynamic which produces overbearing political systems that run contrary to the conventional “democratic” models of the West (12).
The majority of Central Asian economies exhibit the predictable characteristics of non-democratic nations, with regards to economic performance. High income disparages between the elite and the poor; relatively low GDP per capita income; and high restrictions on competition, with national governments controlling much of the economies. The exception to this dynamic is Kazakhstan. The cunning of President Nazarbayev has secured the country politically, allowing noticeable economic mobility and competition. It is no surprise that his country enjoys the lowest income disparity between the rich and poor, with a GINI index of 28 (14). That Kazakhstan does possess the vastest oil deposits in the region, among the top 15 in the entire world, should not be overlooked (45).
Overall, the literature suggests a prevalence of two major perspectives; externalist and internalist, in terms of trying to adequately attribute the blame for instability in the region, be it in the form of organized crime or violent insurgency. Unfortunately, this dichotomous tradition excludes the possibility of a third (or fourth, fifth, etc) perspective. While in some cases, it seems national governments are more responsible for violence and general discontent, other cases suggest otherwise, that foreign elements are playing a huge hand in destabilizing the region. That the dynamic is so complex, perhaps means that the oversimplification of the matter plays right into the hands of foreign powers seeking to exploit the region’s resources. In this explanation, concepts such as “choice” and “ideology” play a bigger role in determining the overall dynamic of each country; that is, the leader’s choices in managing the situation at hand; and the prevailing ideologies of the region, imported, such as Wahhabism on one end or “Westernization” on the other, and exported, such as the Hannafi demographic. This reality calls into the question the motives of western democracies, as much as it challenges the abuse of power of particular autocrats in the region, blaming both, but acquitting neither (42). It further underscores the complexity of the political dynamic, as emphasized by Williams.
- Historical Evolution
The history of Kazakhstan is rather unique. Its interactions with the outside world have historically influenced the political dynamic of the region. In this portion of the research paper, I will demonstrate why history is a crucial variable in the political stability of Kazakhstan. Firstly I will begin with Kazakhstan’s early history. This will be followed by the arrival of Islam, a period of autonomy. The final historical segment will cover the period from Tsarist Russian Imperialism, USSR integration, and the eventual collapse of the USSR leading to the modern independent Kazakh republic. The purpose of this segment is to demonstrate how these historical incidents reflect in Kazakhstan’s anomalistically diverse nature.
The history of Kazakhs as a nomadic, tribal people with clan-based hierarchies greatly reflects in its political structure. There is an immense respect for the “way of the elders” which suggests that Kazakhs are willing to making certain, though perhaps temporary compromises in the realm of political competitiveness for the sake of long term stability, and sovereignty. This tradition is symbolic of Kazakh culture. The word Kazakh itself means “free spirit; nomad”, perhaps an allusion to Kazakhs’ longing for independence, autonomy and stability; a struggle balanced and juggled pragmatically by President Nazarbayev.
Nomadism has played a huge role in the history of Kazakhstan. In modern times, this is expressed through informal social institutions such as nepotism and patronage. That Kazakh culture embraces informality arguably induces corruption. Nonetheless, since its early history, Kazakhstan never thoroughly experienced autonomy, that is, until the 15th century, when the first Turkic-Kazakh Khanate was established It endured until the 19th century, when Kazakhstan fell to the Russian Empire. The period of the Kazakh Khanate is generally accepted as the ethnogenesis of Kazakh statehood and national identity. It would be interrupted nonetheless, by a series of new empires mimicking its past of domineering hordes and conquerors.
Despite a rugged, mountain terrain that almost isolates the region, Kazakhstan was always vulnerable to domination by various conquerors and civilizations. With these empires came new cultures, religions, customs and languages that have shaped Kazakhstan’s national identity, all of which are still visible today. The country boasts of its ethnic diversity, with claims of an existing 120 different ethnic groups in the country. Traditionally, the influx of ideas, religions and cultures came along what is now called the Silk Route, connecting the east and west through trade networks and other forms of cultural interaction. Prior to the introduction of Islam by Arab warriors into the region in the 8th century, Kazakhstan exhibited a diverse religious demography, including the mystical Shamanism, Tengrianism & Buddhism (11). This legacy has impacted Kazakhstan in forming its national identity in modern times as it struggles to balance the tenets of Islam with its rich religious history. Furthermore, extremists have often used religion to ostracize or vilify unconventional religious customs. This has only further polarized conservative Islamic movements, thereby contributing to the regions instability. Simultaneously, the leadership has used its ethno-religious diversity as a mechanism for unity among the moderate social groups. For this reason, among many others, Nazarbayev has maintained control, by associating himself and his administration with Kazakh’s diverse national identity, stoking paranoias of Islamic radicalism.
Kazakhstan’s integration into the USSR only reinforced the tradition of authoritarian statism and the centralization of power. They have carried on even into the post-soviet era—Nazarbayev was former First Secretary of the Kazakh SSR. Thus, without a history of liberalism, the political condition of Kazakhstan becomes more comprehensible (40).
The disintegration of the USSR produced the exact opposite result, opening a vacuum of power. This vacuum was either to be filled by extremists or a continued legacy of authoritarianism. Kazakhstan, like the rest of the Central Asian states, chose the latter. The Politburo was replaced with Nazarbayev’s state. Similar security measures were adopted nonetheless, a continued legacy of Soviet-inspired statism which Nazarbayev carried with him after transitioning from his post as First Secretary of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan to its President. The only difference was that Moscow had essentially less control over the fate of the nation it once easily swallowed up.
Kazakhstan has been independent for barely 30 years (40). Perhaps this helps to explain why democracy has lagged, and the relatively unstable and vulnerable nature of the region. Still struggling to form a national identity amidst a barrage of violations of national sovereignty and autonomy, Kazakhstan has become prey to the global hegemonies at play in the great game.
- Geographic Setting
Kazakhstan’s geography is a crucial variable to its political stability. Below is both the support for the assertion that geography plays a central role in determining the overall political stability of Kazakhstan. The section will be divided into two categories. First will be the topographic aspect of Kazakhstan’s geography. Second will be the demography.
Kazakhstan is the world’s largest landlocked country by area and the ninth largest country in the world. It is larger than Western Europe. It borders Russia, China, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan as well as a significantly large portion of the Caspian Sea. The terrain includes flatlands, steppe, taiga, rock, canyons, hills, deltas, snow-capped mountains as well as deserts. This suggests immense topographical variation within the country’s borders. While Kazakhstan’s topographical variation may have provided a natural form of security through isolation and rugged terrain, its proximity to Russia seems to have overshadowed this sense of security. Perhaps then Kazakhstan’s most crucial geographic feature is its border with Russia, the longest and most contiguous border in the world (44). That this border-relationship with Russia has adversely contributed to the political stability of Kazakhstan, is without question. It would then be safe to suggest that Kazakhstan’s geographic dynamic has a negative relationship with political stability. Perhaps it was this reality which inspired President Nazarbayev to relocate the capital city from Almaty to Astana, which is much further north, closer to Russia and inhabited largely by Russians.
This brings us to the second aspect of Kazakhstan’s geographic dynamic; its demographics. The total population of Kazakhstan is approximately 17.5 million. Kazakhstan boasts an unprecedented variety of ethnic groups (about 120), often celebrated as one of its most dignifying characteristics (29). Nonetheless, the country is generally homogenous, with the majority of ethnic Kazakh background making up 74% of the population The second most significant ethnic group is made up of Russians, accounting for 13% of the population. Other ethnic groups include Uzbeks, Tatars, Uygurs, Chechens, Koreans, Turks, Azerbaijanis & Germans (30). It is important to note that the population of Russians is the second largest. Before independence, Kazakhstan’s own national ethnic group, the Kazakhs, comprised less than 40% of the total population. During this time Russian was more widely spoken. Following independence however, Kazakh was nationalized as the official language. Furthermore, quite recently, Kazakh’s became the official ethnic majority within their own national boundaries for the first time in their history (20). This reflects in Kazakhstan’s ongoing struggle for national sovereignty in the face of foreign and internal threats to power. This dynamic serves as a major political dilemma for President Nazarbayev and future leaders who struggle with balancing the pressures of major powers, namely Russia. The conflict in Ukraine – especially Moscow’s assertion of its self-proclaimed right to intervene in foreign countries on behalf of Russian speakers – has focused Astana’s attention on interethnic relations.
Kazakhstan has avoided major ethnic clashes, although occasional incidents reveal boiling tensions. Azamat, a Kazakh born in Bostandyk, is quoted saying: “We’ve always lived in peace with the Uzbeks, Tajiks, Russians,” (25). To highlight the significance of demography, the presence of Uzbeks in southern Kazakhstan provide insight into the assertion that modern Central Asia is an artificial creation traced back to the initial “cutting up” of the region by USSR leaders. It is likely that the environment and conditions created by these “partitions” created much of the imbalance and instability in the region today. Despite being Uzbek by ethnicity, Kazakh Uzbeks are loyal to the soil in which they have inhabited for centuries (24). That ethnic irredentism really highlights the role of the New Great Game in determining the overall demographic structure and dynamic of Kazakhstan, and Central Asia altogether (29).
Another key component of demography in Kazakhstan that should be of note is that more than a fourth of Kazakhstan’s population is under the age of 30. This creates a volatile situation and an unpredictable future as it is likely more youth will grow intolerant of the corrupt practices of their government. Foreign elements as well as extremist groups do nothing but exacerbate the situation by exploiting the otherwise legitimate grievances of the population — especially the youth (46). That President Nazarbayev has established a Youth Policy Program to address the growing needs of his young constituency, six million of which were born during independence, underscores the important role youth development plays in securing the stability of Kazakhstan (46). Kazakhstan enjoys a better system of education than its neighbors despite a shortage of educational facilities. It has an impressively high literacy rate of 98% and a Human Development Index score of 73 out of 177 (8). All these points are indicators of Kazakhstan’s relatively successful performance, especially when put into context as a newly emerging post-soviet, autonomous state.
In the religious dimension, almost half the Kazakh population is Sunni Muslim (47 percent), while Russian Orthodox makes up the second majority of 44 percent, which isn’t very much less. This is an important dynamic. Despite the fact that, like many other countries in Central Asia, Kazakhstan exhibits a moderate religious tradition (8).
These points are important to note as there could be a correlation between countries exhibiting bipolar religious heterogeneity and authoritarianism, as well as the rise of fundamentalist movements and separatism in the region, often incited by actors on both angles of the global spectrum, the US & Russia.
Together, the complex topographic nature of Kazakhstan, coupled with its unique demographic dynamic make it easier to comprehend the political condition of the country, as well as the government’s behavior. It further challenges universal understanding of political philosophy, through cultural relativism and geopolitical anomalies. Its positioning on the map has exposed Kazakhstan vulnerability as another victim of an age long tug-o-war match between Eastern & Western political giants, deeming this variable negatively related to its overall political stability (17).
While the overall geographic characteristics of Kazakhstan offer mechanisms for stability, especially in the realm of its demographics, its proximity to Russia takes precedence as the greatest influence, and therein renders the relationship to be negative.
- Quality of Life
One of the more difficult to measure, the quality of life in Kazakhstan helps paint a vivid picture of the reality at hand, going beyond the mundaneness of statistical and empirical analysis. Overall, it appears the quality of life in Kazakhstan has served a force of stability, showing a sense of loyalty and unity among the citizenry (39).
Compared to the rest of Central Asia, the quality of life in Kazakhstan is rather positive. The literacy rate in Kazakhstan is quite high. With the majority of its population educated, it gives hope for a more stable future. The average Kazakh has managed to enjoy a relatively high income compared to his neighbors (30). This is likely due to the country’s vast oil wealth, as well as Nazarbayev’s multi-vector policies. In terms of freedom, Kazakhstan’s rather liberal social fabric allows for relative freedom of expression. However this freedom becomes more limited when intertwined with political expression, as many opposition groups and parties are either banned, suppressed or discouraged.
Generally, the quality of life has improved in Kazakhstan, allowing for levels of modernization that surpass its neighbors. Increased urbanization in Kazakhstan is also evident, implying its ability to integrate into today’s international political economy (25). This suggests that the quality of life is among the few variables that provide stability in Kazakhstan.
- Socio-Cultural Setting
Kazakhstan’s social fabric is intricately woven. As mentioned in the history section, Kazakhstan’s location along the Silk Route made it vulnerable to various conquerors, who often brought with them their religions and cultures (26). This includes but is not limited to Shamanism, Tengrianism, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, Communism & Islam (1). Sufism is claimed to have its origins in this region, which underscores the rather liberal tradition of religion in Kazakhstan. The socio-cultural setting is one of the two variables bringing stability to Kazakhstan.
Most of Kazakhstan adheres to the Hanafi branch of Islam, which is of the Sunni sect, and is known to be the more liberal of the bunch (11). This strange amalgam of ideas, cultures and religions has likely contributed to the unconventional development of Kazakhstan over the ages. The country’s roots in tribalism, nomadism and mystical religion perhaps helps to explain its resistance to full-fledged westernization, modernization and democratic reform (11). In a sense, this rich cultural history, which enables Kazakhstan to boast some 120 ethnic groups within its borders, makes Kazakhstan’s interactions with various political actors, both internally and externally, rather complex. Perhaps this also explains why Kazakhstan and the Central Asian region at large finds more solace in its neighbors in the East, like China & Russia, who have been most significant in countering western expansionism. The less the outside world is willing to acknowledge the significance of Kazakhstan’s cultural distinctiveness, the more likely that tensions will rise between Western nation’s seeking to secure economic interests and Kazakhstan’s leadership. Furthermore, Kazakhstan’s cultural dynamic shows how ostracized, disenfranchised and “foreign” Islamic fundamentalism, as an ideology, really is to the Kazakh people (19). It is not surprising that most fundamentalist movements receive their support from outside of the region, namely from Saudi Arabia, where fundamentalism is rampant.
The status of women in Kazakhstan is generally regarded positively, considering the liberal Islamic tradition which permeates the country (32). Unlike some other Islamic countries in the Middle East and Southeast Asia, Kazakhstan exhibits no constraints on women’s rights. This could be said generally of the Central Asian region broadly. The greatest threat perhaps to women’s rights as well as children’s safety is Islamic fundamentalism, which, perhaps arbitrarily, refutes women’s rights (37). Nonetheless, it could be said that Kazakhstan secures the rights of women. An example of this is the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women which essentially forbids all forms of institutional discrimination on the basis of gender (18).
Kazakhstan boasts 120 ethnic nationalities within its borders. This is symbolic of its rich history of interaction with external societies, whose cultures and religions they often imported.
One of the most important notions in Kazakhstan is the struggle for national autonomy. Culturally, this struggle is deeply rooted, as Kazakhs have scarcely endured autonomy. Perhaps this is why in their modern setting, Kazakhs are willing to compromise their urge for democratic reform for the sake of preserving national autonomy, given the presence of endless threats to Kazakhstan’s stability, internal and external.
- Implications and Conclusion
The overall analysis, including previous literature and the data gathered on my own, suggests many implications for Kazakhstan. Since the beginning of its history, much before it even existed in the form of state, Kazakhstan has faced the challenge of balancing the variables that seem to directly affect its political stability. Kazakhstan, like the rest of Central Asia, is an anomaly, in a sense. Like many regions of the world where indigenous populations struggle to sustain their national identity while simultaneously trying to embrace modernization, tensions are prevalent, and often produce political systems foreign to the traditional mode of governance in the West. A tradition of tribalism, a history of colonialism, and its complex geography, including the vast amount of oil it possesses, make it the target of aggressive political actors, both domestic, in the form of opposition, dissent and extremism, and foreign, in the form of competing interests between global powers, namely the US, Russia & China, as mentioned earlier in the paper. That Kazakhstan has outdone most of its neighbors politically and economically could be attributed to both its immense oil wealth as well as the cunning leadership of President Nazarbayev, compared to his peer from Uzbekistan for example, Islam Karimov, who has been “less pragmatic” to put it mildly. Kazakhstan has managed to acquiesce any mass-dissent more than any of its neighbors, a reality often overlooked in the literature. The low levels of democracy is often the reason for this oversight. While it cannot be argued that authoritarianism has fueled violence and instability in Kazakhstan, so to has pressure from foreign powers and their ideologies, be they democratic, communist or colonial in nature. The insistence for democracy has often produced disastrous results in regions like Central Asia, for example, in the Middle East. Whether or not democracy is universal, due to variables such as the four mentioned here, comes into question here. This could be described as cultural relativism, the idea that there may be no universal standard for societies globally. It could also suggest something less extreme, that democracy could unfold, but with perhaps less intervention from foreign powers seeking their own interests. Western actions in Central Asia and abroad have been contrary to democratic principles. It is furthermore without question that the West, namely the US, has turned a blind eye to authoritarianism in the region.
For Kazakhstan, the road ahead is paved with uncertainty. Balancing its internal politics, the threat of militants, foreign hegemonies, as well as its intricate geography, will not be easy for future leaders by any means. Perhaps that is why Nazarbayev has stayed in power for so long – there is a succession crisis. With various candidates offered as potential incumbents, his daughter being one of them, the question of how future leaders will play the “great game” will surely determine the country’s fate. Based on the research, I believe the future of Kazakhstan’s political stability rests mainly on the leaderships ability to balance the threats of Russia & the US, and the internal forces of opposition, from political elites, parties and the average constituent, to insurgent groups. A steady transition to political reform could help mitigate the threats posed by these variables to instability, but whether that means full fledged democracy, a hybrid-democracy, or neither, is of question – but is mainly up to Kazakhs to decide for themselves. The idea that western democracies promote this sort of reform or solution in Kazakhstan is premature, based on the US & Europe’s history of negligence and double-dealings. Furthermore, Russia’s more recent expansiveness poses a threat to the possibility of reform in Kazakhstan. That is why it becomes difficult to associate reform with democracy, because the “bad neighborhood” theory – in a landscape of competing hegemonies and security threats, could a fragile democracy survive – would it better serve the people of Kazakhstan? For now, Kazakhstan enjoys the most stable political atmosphere in Central Asia. Aside from its geography, history, and economy, this research suggests the greatest threats to stability in Kazakhstan to be “political” in nature. The more power the indigenous populations of Kazakhstan and elsewhere in the world are able to wield using the natural resources and geopolitical positioning as leverage, the better chance the country has at mitigating foreign exploitation. This would in turn provide greater political stability to Kazakhstan, and could essentially induce a more prosperous future. It could possibly usher more accountability in governance that could more appropriately address all aspects of Kazakh livelihood; whatever “form” that mechanism for accountability may take. But besides all the analysis which seems to often blind us from the more tangible realities that reflect the cultural sensitivities of Kazakh society, it is important to note that among the greatest grievances of the population is the immense frustration towards Western hypocrisy in simultaneously promoting democracy while destabilizing the region. This has given credence to extremist movements and has further blurred the lines between nationalists and foreign forces. The stubbornness of the West has furthermore strengthened the resolve of authoritarian governments, and has furthermore increased public support for the incumbents, deeming western initiatives of promoting peace or democracy suspicious. All these realities have certainly been considered and managed by the current leadership. Critics would certainly dismiss the possibility that Kazakhstan has maintained its stability by the machiavellian pragmatism of the leadership. But this possibility cannot be overlooked, especially when trying to predict the future of Kazakhstan. That the current model of politics in Kazakhstan has performed relatively well compared to its neighbors gives analysts reasons to believe that the future leadership will be not much different from the incumbent, that is, if the stability of Kazakhstan is to be maintained.
The common thread in the literature is rather imbalanced, and often ignores the double-standards of the West. Seeing that the Western world is dominant in the world today, it is unsurprising that the scholarly conversation is biased in its favor (from bipolar to unipolar), usually promoting democracy and ignoring the differences in culture and politics between nations. Also, many democracies exhibit the same injustices as authoritarian regimes. Furthermore, democracies have often engaged with authoritarian regimes, making them complicit in crimes against humanity, a reality that is often shoved beneath the roundtable. We criticize non-democratic countries as though we are infallible, despite out own democratic shortcomings. The political hubris of foreign powers is manifesting in nationalist movements as well as radical insurgent movements. But historically, empires that have grown too proud have collapsed. Internationally security is also at stake. Stability and prosperity are only possible if foreign hegemonies contain their own exploitations and expansive-hunger. But if the trend continues as is, it is unlikely that the US, Europe, China, Russia or the regional powers of Iran & Turkey, will stay out of the sovereign affairs of Kazakhstan and Central Asia, prompting more authoritarianism, heightened security threats, and greater instability for the region, and the international community at large. Whether democracy can unfold or whether or not it is even in the best interests of the Kazakh people is a matter of theory. It is also up to the Kazakh people to decide. Foreign hegemonies are quick to speak for the Kazakhs. Nonetheless, what is likely, is that the light of justice will become more dim if foreign powers continue meddling in the affairs of Kazakhstan, making both prosperity or reform very unlikely.
The quality of life in Kazakhstan as well as the socio-cultural setting, the two perhaps most difficult variables to measure, are the only variables that share a positive relationship with Kazakhstan. This is an interesting dynamic because these two variables are non-empirical in nature — what I mean is that, such variables are determined by collective choices, which are not necessarily based on cost-benefit analysis, like the other variables of political development and economic conditions. In the West, democracy is presumed as the rational form of government — the product of a series of failures of non-populist government forms which led to the enlightenment, and the french revolution. While democracy has prevailed in the West — it hasn’t in other regions, like Central Asia. Kazakhstan is great example of it, where democratic reform continues to lag. It could be too early to dim the lights on democracy for Kazakhstan entirely, but as the research indicates, the country’s historical development is significantly distinct from those countries which are in today’s world described as “western democracies”. The greatest hope for Kazakhstan, and the region at large, is that foreign hegemonies will learn to contain their ambitions for the sake of international security and genuine political reform, whatever direction it takes. Meanwhile, if Central Asian states could learn to settle their differences, this could serve as the greatest threat to exploitative global hegemonies. Perhaps what it feared is a united, sovereign and self-reliant Central Asia. Perhaps it is this possibility which has driven global powers like the US and Russia to be negligent of the threat of radical forces in the region, while simultaneously working actively against the more moderate forces of Central Asian society. If the United States continues to follow the trend of the current administration, there is reason to believe that the ineffectiveness of the “war on terror” as well as previous traditions of meddling in the sovereign affairs of Central Asian states will be further realized. Given the contentious tone of ongoing political conversation in the US, the most influential power in the world, as well as Russia’s interventions in Georgia and the Ukraine, a future of further instability is equally possible (4). It is a question of whether or not Central Asian states like Kazakhstan will manage to fend themselves, or surrender to a relationship of dependency.
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