From the Horde to Eurasia. Kazakhstan’s struggle as a regional power

Obscured from the presence of Russia, in the center of Eurasia lies Kazakhstan. In this little article I want to analyze the role of this country in the Eurasian map and what are possible future scenarios. I will first analyze how was it formed as a country, secondly I will analyze the role of Nursultan Nazarbayev, the role of Kazakhstan in Eurasia and why Kazakhstan is so important.


The Emerging of Kazakhstan inside the Soviet State
The first time in contemporary history, that the “Kazakh state” appeared on the geographical maps was in 1920 and it was called “Kyrgyz Autonomous Socialist Soviet Republic” inside the RSFSR “Russian Socialist Federative Soviet Republic” the capital was the Russian city of Orenburg that until 1925 was part of the Kazakh state. In 1925, we have the first change, the city of Orenburg and its oblast shifted administration under the RSFSR, and so the capital for the next two year became Kzyl-Orda (actually Kyzylorda). In the same year, the Kazakh state received the “Karakalpak Autonomous Oblast” or simply “Karakalpakstan”, this territory was formed from the dismantling of Bukhara and Khiva Khanates that survived the fall of the Russian Empire and Bolsheviks allowed them initially to exist with the same autonomy they had under the tsar. But after the dismantling of the two Khanates, the territory was divided between the neo-formed Uzbekistan and the Karakalpak territory.
In 1925, the Kazakh state is renamed “Kazakh Autonomous Socialist Soviet Republic”, while the near Kara-Kyrgyz Republic became “Kyrgyz Autonomous Socialist Soviet Republic”, known also today as Kyrgyzstan or Kyrgyz Republic. From this moment we can freely use the word “Kazakhstan”. In 1927 the capital was again moved to Alma-Ata (or Almaty), and has been the capital for the next 70 years until 1997 when it was moved to Astana. In 1934, some territories in north-west Kazakhstan were given to Orenburg oblast, but the most important change is related to Karakalpakstan. The Autonomous oblast was part of the Kazakh Autonomous Republic from 1925 (as I described earlier) until 1930 when it was moved under the administration of the RSFSR. In 1932 was upgraded with the status of Autonomous Republic, at the same level of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan and finally in 1936 since both Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan became “union” republics and Karakalpakstan didn’t satisfy the geographical requirements (more than 1 million population and a border with a foreign country), the autonomous republic merged within Uzbekistan.
I strongly asked myself how that happened and why detach it from Kazakhstan. The first reason I thought, was to not make Kazakhstan much stronger in order to control it better from Moscow, another reason that could fit was, for balancing the “territorial loss” of Tadzhikistan that in 1929 became an union republic, leaving the Uzbeks (the biggest population of Central Asia) with a small republic compared to the population, but then I finally have found what I think to be the answer, looking one day to a map of the Persian Empire (the Achemenids’ one). The Southern side of the Aral Lake and the Amu Darya river was part of Persian civilization in Central Asia and Nukus (the capital of Karakalpakstan) was one of the centers of Zoroastrianism. The reason why, Karakalpakstan was firstly assigned to Kazakhstan was for the common Turkic “Kipchak” origin (like Turkish population in Northern Caucasus, in the Volga religion, in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan), but being for centuries under Persian influence made it change and so was more natural for the Karakalpaks to be together with Uzbeks that with Kazakhs.
Never less, Kazakhstan borders achieved in 1934 remained unchanged until today. There was the fear of a possible annexation of Northern Kazakhstan to the Russian Federation, since the northern regions are inhabited by Russians. This was one of the reason that made Nazarbaev move the capital from Alma-Ata to Astana in 1997, Russian is the official language of the country (like in Kyrgyzstan, last two countries that have Russian as official language outside Russia



Nursultan Nazarbayev since 1960 worked in a metallurgical factory, but it’s in 1984 that for the first time had an important political role, in fact he was elected as prime minister of Kazakhstan. Obviously, the leading political figure in Soviet Kazakhstan was not the premier, but the leader of the Communist Party, Kunaev in 1984. Nazarbayev, succeeded, like Stalin to transform is political position to most important in the country. The occasion happened in 1986, when Gorbacev, in December of this year, decided to substitute Kunaev that was “leader” of Kazakhstan since 1955, and alternatively has been or premier or leader of the party. The main reason for the Kunaev’s substitution was corruption, but that must be seen in the wider renewal of the political class in the USSR made by Gorbacev. The substitute of Kunaev was Kolbin, a Russian, leader of the party in the Ulianov oblast. Suddenly, Kazakhs erupted in a strong protest against Gorbacev and the Politburo. Protesters were not denying Kunaev’s corruption and bad governance, but the substitution of the leader of Kazakhstan with a Russian. This fact, can be considered the beginning of the opening of the nation question inside the Soviet Union, something that remained asleep for many years and suddenly came back. Kunaev obviously was supporting the protests, and Nazarbayev that was prime minister at that time appeared to be the possible candidate, supported from Kunaev and from the Kazakh leadership and from the Kazakh people. In 1989, Nazarbayev officially took the place of Kolbin as general secretary of the party becoming the undiscussed leader of Kazakhstan (this time he was on the top, while in 1984 he was under Kunaev and successively under Kolbin). After just a year, when Gorbacev decided to create the figure of president both of the USSR and then of every union republic, Nazarbayev became president of Kazakhstan inside the USSR and the year after his presidency was confirmed as for the independent Kazakhstan. From now on, he ruled the country until now, and after the last elections he will be president at least until 2020.
From 1984 to 2015, are 31 years of Nazarbayev’s presence in the political scene. We can understand that in all the post-Soviet space there are problem with political succession, in this case for Kazakhstan, Nazarbayev it is seen as symbol of stability for the whole country. The first occasion after the anti-Kolbin protests was, after the Belovezhskie agreements, when Russia, Ukraine and Belarus as three of the four founding member of the Soviet Union. Nazarbayev strongly protested for its non-involvement and that led to the Alma-Ata protocol, few weeks later. His first fear was the presence of Russian population as a majority in the northern regions of Kazakhstan. Since many conflicts started around all the territory of what was the Soviet Union, Nazarbayev feared the possibility of revolts among the Russian of Kazakhstan and the possible annexation of Northern Kazakhstan to the Russian Federation. This didn’t happened, from the one hand, there was not the interest of the RF to open a possible conflict even political and not military with a neighbor, on the other hand, Nazarbayev made the conditions so good for the Russian living in Kazakhstan that there was not possible from Russia to advocate any reason against. Russian it is still official language of Kazakhstan and Russia it is really close with Kazakhstan.
The politics of Nazarbayev can be described as: still, balanced, constant and in support of order. From this point of view, it is more different from the Russian’s one, and it is more Asian, and based on the ruling elite, the main families of the country. Nazarbayev is the element that connect the Kazakh elite and also the people, but the structure of power of Kazakhstan is not based around Nazarbayev like we would think, but around the elites, that are in majority the heirs of Mongolian
Horde. It cannot be foreseen what will be the future of Kazakhstan, but we can guess that the next president of Kazakhstan will be a member of Nazarbayev’s family, and in the case in which there is no a possible successor or is not enough strong, another family will take the place. We have similar examples of that all around Asia.
Nazarbayev, has searched from the beginning a political closeness with Moscow, but on the other hand has seen as partner also European community (and the European Union) and with China. The balance consists in the need of the West for technology and investments, but also the interest in attracting investments and signing projects with China, a powerful neighbor. In this way Kazakhstan is not dependent from Russia and Moscow cannot control Astana like with other countries.
Until now, this system has functioned well, that made Russia a partner for Kazakhstan, a strategic one but not the only one.
One important issue analyzing Nazarbayev’s politics is the energy policy of Kazakhstan that represents totally what I defined the balance.
Nazarbayev actively took part on the Caspian Issue, and also on the Caspian legal division, wanting to mark a certain sovereignty of Kazakhstan over natural resources. After giving up, some of these to Russia, Kazakhstan has developed a double direction for the selling of resources. One towards Russia/Europe, the other towards China. Russia is used to buy cheaply resources from Central Asia and then to re-sell to Europe for higher prices. This happened also for Kazakhstan, the main problem is that the majority of the infrastructures were constructed during the period of the Soviet Union, and connect Kazakhstan with Russia, in this way, if Kazakhstan wants to sell oil and gas to Europe, the resources have to transit over Russia, making it Russia the favorable player. Totally different is the situation over China, where Kazakhstan like Turkmenistan has constructed new pipelines. China is importing only the 10% of its own energetic need, the other 90% it comes from carbon that is highly polluting. The only solution is, to give other resources to China, there will be no competition in this sense, China is ready to buy and consume all the resources possible.
The energetic partnership with China, is something really important for Kazakhstan, since it doesn’t involve neither Russia, neither Europe, it’s a neighbor country and it is ready to invest in Kazakhstan to support its own interest.
Another characteristic of Nazarbayev politics was the denuclearization of Kazakhstan. The bigger test site, Semipalatinsk, was closed in 1991, after strong protests of the local residents that had cancers and genetic mutations. Nazarbayev, thanks to its own power, succeeded in dismantling all the nuclear weapons and in 1995 Kazakhstan entered in the non-proliferation treaty. The denuclearization in Kazakhstan was one of the few things that saw political commitment from the population, which led to a political confrontation with the political center. Nazarbayev understood, how Kazakhstan didn’t need the Soviet Union arsenal, but also Kazakhstan couldn’t afford to maintain it. More over all the un-healthy citizens from radiation, were another reason that led to the denuclearization and still today near the test sites, people have genetic problems and illnesses.

EURASIA – The role of Kazakhstan in Eurasia.
In 1994 Nazarbayev during a speech at the MGU, proposed the idea of an Eurasian community, uniting Europe and Eastern Asia, and idea at the beginning was in support of economics, so Eurasian community was imagined by many as a trade bloc, that would connect the West and the East. This idea was supported initially from the business “area”, but with the time, the support and the awareness for the Eurasian project increased, not only in Russia, but in many territories of the former Soviet Union (and Russian Empire).
In January of 1995, Kazakhstan succeeded bringing Russia and other former Soviet Republic to sign the agreement on the Custom Union, Belarus firstly and then Kyrgyzstan and Tadzhikistan. In March 1996, another treaty was signed, and Kyrgyzstan was part of that since the beginning. This “new” treaty advocated and increased integration in economic and humanitarian field. This treaty included denounce to social inequality, the research of sustainable development; this was related to the strong environment against pro market reforms and their result in the FSU (former Soviet Union). In February 1999, the previous four
signatories’ countries together with Tadzhikistan this time have signed a treaty on Custom Union and single Economic space a predecessor to the actual Eurasian Economic Union.
In 2000, in Astana was signed the treaty for the establishment of the Eurasian Economic Community. The main objective was to find a finally solution for the failures of the CIS, that was simply not practically existing, there was just a little cooperation between the FSU countries during the decade. The main idea was economically to reconstruct the market of the Soviet with a real integration. In Moscow, finally and fortunately the presidency changed, and Vladimir Putin was much more interested to reconstruct the former Soviet Space. We can compare these attempts of re-integration to the Gorbacev’s proposal to reform the USSR in Union of free Sovereign Republics. The destruction of the Soviet Union or Russian Empire, like Putin described was the worse geopolitical catastrophe of the XX century, and quoting again him, “Only careless people cannot miss the USSR, but only stupid people can want it back like it was”.
The so-called Post-Soviet (or Eurasian) integration follows Putin line, and Nazarbayev and Kazakhstan have found a good interlocutor in Vladimir Putin, much better than Boris Eltsin. From 2000, the tie between Kazakhstan and Russia was really strong. In 2006, Uzbekistan became part only for two years of the EURASEC, but in 2008 withdrew. Tashkent thought that there was a possibility to strengthen relations with the West and to receive western funds and investments since the strong economic crisis damaged already Uzbekistan’s precarious economy.
From 2010, it was established the Custom Union, between Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan (Таможенный Союз). The main objective was the removal of all barriers between members and establish of common external tariff barrier. Although it hasn’t any official political aims, it is for sure that in order to make such an agreement, there must has been at least a basic common grounds between the parts. From 2012 the single economic space, came into action.
Nazarbayev in 2011 re-launched the idea of the Eurasian Union, economic, political and maybe in future military organization in the FSU. Putin totally supported this idea, Kazakhstan once again was the promoter of the Russian/Eurasian integration. In 2013, Armenia decided to join the Custom Union and also the Eurasian Union that will become one only institution. In 2014 Kyrgyzstan joined, moreover, Uzbekistan and Tadzhikistan are interested in joining it.
The signing of the treaty that officially created the Eurasian Union, happened the 29 of May 2014 in Astana and finally created the Eurasian Union, which entered in action from the beginning of 2015. The Eurasian Union, was born from the Post-Soviet integration process, but opened itself to countries that were never part neither of the Soviet Union, neither of the Russian Empire.
The Eurasian Union has become a way for Moscow to channel its political power and to attract other countries. Normally countries who decide or are interested to apply in this organization are skeptic about the West and it values. After the economic crisis, the failed austerity measures, the failure from the actual European Order to solve the crisis and the discontent against it in many European countries, led to see Russia and Putin has an alternative solution to the actual order. This is the case of Hungary, Serbia, Macedonia and Greece that are now supporting the so-called Turkish stream.
But the Eurasian union attracted interested mainly in Asia, Vietnam for example was interested in joining it. And also Iran has been invited from Moscow to join it. Many other countries, politically friends of Russia could in the future join the Eurasian Union. Even if is the Kremlin who uses the Eurasian Union as an instrument for Russian influence, we cannot look at the fact that from the beginning it was Kazakhstan who thought, wanted and created this project.
Kazakhstan, wants to be a bridge between Europe and Eastern Asia, on the other hand, Nazarbayev wanted to re integrate Kazakhstan with Russia, building a big framework, one reason is for the big presence of Russians in Kazakhstan, the other reason is for the development of the country. The West for Astana is an economic partner, but the “family” is not towards the Atlantic Ocean.
Kazakhstan is a member of the SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organization) and a founding member of the Asian Infrastructure and Development Bank (AIIB), leaded by China. Kazakhstan has found its success being “in the middle” between Russia and China, playing strategically this game and succeeding in being the winner. In Astana there is also the bank for the development of the Eurasian Union. Kazakhstan following the principle of the Balance succeeded in its role of “Heartland”, a regional equilibrium that can give always more power to Astana, but obviously always remaining under Moscow and Beijing.
HEARTLAND – Why is Kazakhstan so important?
Halford Mackinder, described the area around the Caspian Sea as Heartland or Pivot Area. This area is strategically important, and who controls it is the powerful country in geopolitical term. Kazakhstan lies in the center of this area while around it other countries are struggling for the dominion of the region. I will analyze them one by one.
– Russia: for Russia Kazakhstan is the most important ex-soviet Republic, Russia cannot loose Kazakhstan because it is its heart, (Казахстан – Сердце России). Russia has the advantage that Kazakhstan wants to be connected to Russia, and leadership and the Kazakh people are very strongly pro-Russia. Kazakhstan from the beginning considered itself a part of the Russian world and today is one the closer countries to the Kremlin. For Russia, Kazakhstan is the “Heartland” and together with Siberia are strategic assets for the Kremlin.
– USA: The US putted their army in Afghanistan an important place for trying to control Eurasia, fortunately their influence in Soviet (or Russian) Central Asia is really weak, despite of the presence of some military bases. After 14 years from 9/11, all the understood how the anti-terrorist campaign was an excuse for entering in the Greater Middle East and messing it. The decline of the American economy and of its own influence, made the American Empire more aggressive, towards those who do not agree with it.
– China: China holds a “piece” of Heartland, the western Islamic region, Xingjian. Until few years ago, it was the more backward region of China, today it is strongly developing, thanks to the big investments made from the centers towards this “peripheral” region from Beijing point of view, but “pivot area” looking Eurasia as Mackinder. Kazakhstan is the neighbor country whom China has better relations with. Pipelines for Gas and Oil have been built in Kazakhstan to bring its own resources to China, while China supplies Kazakhstan mainly with what the Kazakh internal production is not able to produce. I’m not saying the Kazakhstan’s import is totally from China, but China has a big role on it. Kazakhstan has decided to participate and to invest in China’s project “Silk Road” for the connection by land of Europe and Asia.
– Europe: The Great Britain was interested in controlling the “Heartland” and Central Asia during the XVIII and XIX centuries, but after the various agreements, finally the one of 1907, the borders and areas of influenced were decided. For all the 20th century, Europe was not involved in the heartland; what changed things were the two revolutions first, the socialist’s one in Afghanistan (1978) and the Islamic revolution in Iran (1979). The presence of the red Army in support of the Afghanistan government, led to a new awareness that the Versailles and Yalta post-war orders didn’t concern
the whole Eurasia. The Caspian area was more dynamic than everyone thought. The end of the Soviet Union and the Independence of Eight new states in the area, changed again the equilibrium between the different actors, and Europe realized that at the beginning of the century was the century of the world while at the end it was in the periphery. The economic center shifted to the Eastern Asia pacific region, the strategic focus shifted to Greater Middle East, and the center of powers shifted away from the European Community or European Union. Europa has found itself vassalized by the United States of America, military occupied with NATO, and unable to pursue independence policies from the “Transatlantic World”. Europe is today a weak player, it has no regional power in the area, neither towards Central Asia, neither towards Kazakhstan, which instead is a good partner for Europe. The Silk Road Project could be the right opportunity to bring Europe in the Heartland, not as a colonial power but as a player, equal among the others already present, for a better “balance” and overall development of all the parts.
– Turkey: Turkey is a regional power in the Greater Middle East, and is observer of the SCO (the only NATO member that has an official relation with the SCO). After the fall of the Soviet Union, and the revival of the Turkish nationalism, and Pan-Turkism, Turkey has thought to gain more power and influence, failing totally. The only ex-soviet Republic friend with Turkey is Azerbaidzhan, while in Central Asia like inside the Russian Federation the concept of Pan-Turkism didn’t work or with really small results. We can understand how this frustrating for Ankara, that tries to play the Ottoman way, with scarce results. The country is a half looking at Europe, begging for the EU membership from decades, while the other half looks towards East and South. The status of observer in the SCO, together with NATO membership and EU candidate status, make Turkey a country divided in a half. In Ankara they have understood that the perspectives for the future are towards East and not West, and economically there are there interest, looking practice Turkey, nearly always support Western foreign policy, participating in the Middle Eastern de-stabilization (like in Syria).
– Iran: the territory of Iran partially is the “Pivot Area” but, Iran can be totally considered a strategic country in the Middle East and in general in Eurasia. Thanks to the closeness between Iran and on the other side Russia and China; Kazakhstan and Iran shares good relations. Kazakhstan with Turkey and Iran and with their own power aspirations in the Middle East. Iran interests over the Caspian area are directed towards Azerbaidzhan and Turkmenistan, the two neighboring countries. Kazakh-Iran are good and Iran main interests are in the Persian Gulf, while Kazakhstan main interests are towards China and Russia, so until now, and also in the future there will be no conflict.

Kazakhstan in the future could be a regional power in the Heartland, like Turkey and Iran. Why still so much is tied Russia? Why cannot cut the cordon with “Mother Russia”?
For the same reason that made Turkish, Neo-Ottoman Pan-Turkism fail. Kazakhs speak a Turkish language but they are not Turks as the Republic of Turkey, they are Kipchak, Turks of the Steppe coming from Siberia, with a nomadic origin that used to live in Clans. Kazakhs and Kyrgyzs are Kipchak like Tatars of Tatarstan, Bashkortostan, Chuvashia, Kumuks, Karakays, Balkars, Nogais. In the Russian Federation many Kipchak Turks and even the most nationalist Russians consider them part of Russia, like these populations consider themselves part of the Russia nation even if they’re not Slavic. Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan still maintain as I earlier said Russian as official language and Cyrillic alphabet.
Kazakhstan could become a regional power, in the future, for osmosis from Russia and China, actually there is no space for plans or actions, that go in a totally opposite from Russia and China, and the Kazakh strategy will be in find some power between the two bigger brothers.