Kazakhstan’s Eurasian illusions
Trying to find out what “Eurasia” means for Kazakhstan’s foreign policy turned out to be much harder than predicted.
The Heart of Eurasia. This slogan, popularised through a far-reaching campaign funded by the Kazakh government, has defined how mainstream international observers approached the geopolitics of post-Soviet Kazakhstan for almost two decades.
Framing the answer to a captivating question (“Do you know where the magic lives?”), the campaign’s flagship video suspends Kazakhstan in an intermediate space, situated at the crossroads between East and West, tradition and modernity, the vastity intrinsic to Steppe nomadism and Astana’s hyper-urbanised locality. The in-between space described by Kazakhstani propagandists is Eurasia, an opaque entity with poorly delineated contours, but a distinctive core: the territory of today’s Kazakhstan. As an instrument to obliterate Kazakhstan’s post-colonial sense of peripherality, the message of this campaign seems to have reached its targeted audience: the debate on the boundaries of Eurasia goes on, yet there is virtually no doubt that Kazakhstan is, indeed, an Eurasian state.
While other scholars problematise the nation-branding implications of this campaign, I have often wondered about the influences that such an over-played Eurasian identity exerted on Kazakhstan’s perception of its place in the world. Asking a simple question - What does it mean, in foreign policy terms, to be an Eurasian state? - I embarked upon a long research journey that investigated how ideas and constructs associated with Eurasia steered the foreign policy course followed for almost 30 years by Kazakhstan’s first president Nursultan A. Nazarbayev.
Through regular visits to Kazakhstan and methodical engagement with innumerable pages of propaganda written in glorification of Nazarbaev’s evraziiskaya strategiya (Eurasian or Eurasianist strategy; the Russian expression does not differentiate between the two terms), I came to see the political facet of Kazakhstan’s Eurasian-ness under a completely different light.
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I found no working definition of Eurasia in the official documents issued by the Kazakhstani regime or in the propagandistic narratives farmed by the official press to describe these documents. In other words, the Kazakhstani regime never attempted to identify the geographical settings wherein its foreign policy was meant to operate: the scope of Eurasian integration - the principal aim of Kazakhstani foreign policy - was in this sense restricted to a mere exercise in geopolitical dissimulation.
Constituting an oblique spatial entity, Eurasia becomes an idealised policy context, where trading conditions, connectivity options and collaborative opportunities are intrinsically superior to those available to Kazakhstan in the several multilateral milieux where integration is actually taking place.
There is a patent dissimulation game at play here: the wider population (the target of this narrative) are invited to contemplate the benefits of a specific policy (Eurasian integration), yet their attention is directed first and foremost to the regime that is operationalising this very policy. Turkmenistan is reportedly living through its golden age; mutatis mutandis, Kazakhstan is located in an equally mythical region where opportunities for cooperation are not only limitless but also, and perhaps more importantly, unprecedently beneficial for the prosperity of ordinary Kazakhstani citizens.
Attempts at dissimulating Kazakhstan’s complex geopolitics are a recurring feature in Nazarbayev’s vision of Eurasia. More than any other policy driver, this vision - which has the potential to remain central to the making of Kazakhstani foreign policy in the post-Nazarbayev era also - has inspired Kazakhstan’s international activity for the last thirty years. Nazarbayev’s vision is reportedly set in the path traced by prior waves of Eurasianism, a very flexible intellectual and political doctrine that continuously re-imagines how the cohabitation of Russian and Asian populations shapes Eurasia’s geopolitical specificity.
Unlike prior thinkers, however, Nazarbayev has not produced a comprehensive intellectual framework to enunciate his Eurasianist vision, which is affected by a fundamental spatial uncertainty and a worrying degree of temporal confusion. Empty references to globalisation, state sovereignty and post-Soviet integration failed to explain how collaborative mechanisms are meant to work across the yet-to-be-defined Eurasian space. Similarly, Kazakhstani Eurasianism crystallised in indeterminate temporal settings: its problematic correlation to historical forms of connectivity in the Eurasian space prevented the identification of infrastructural networks facilitating the interaction of Eurasian states in the 21st century. As Nazarbayev’s Eurasia is meant to be mythical, its supporting propaganda does not need to offer any detailed description of the policy mechanisms in place to operationalise this vision.
The pursuit of the myth of Eurasian integration led independent Kazakhstan to enthusiastically join in numerous multilateral initiatives, with the Nazarbaev regime emerging as one of the staunchest supporters of inter-governmentalism across the post-Soviet space. We are used to thinking of Kazakhstan as a multivectoral foreign policy actor, a state that is willing to act as the key integrator across multiple regional contexts. My research suggests that this characterisation needs to be comprehensively revisited.
Kazakhstani input to post-Soviet regionalism appears to be rather questionable, at least so far as the construction of an integrated Central Asia has been concerned. Since 1992, there have been many instances in which the Nazarbayev regime all but disengaged with its immediate neighbours - and supposedly sisterly republics - to embark upon multilateral initiatives wherein a range of more distant partners, usually including the Russian Federation, committed to inter-governmental cooperation. Despite his much shorter presidency, current Uzbek president Shavkat Mirziyoyev may be said to have contributed more significantly to the advancement of Central Asian regionalism than Nursultan Nazarbayev did in almost 30 years at the helm.
So far as Kazakhstani multi-vectorism, my book argues that this is simply a nicely packaged idea destined to have no policy relevance for the 2020s. Beyond integration in the post-Soviet region - which remains an essentially Russia-centric policy environment - what other vectors continue to influence the Kazakhstani foreign policy framework of the early post-Nazarbaev era?
The relationship with China, to begin with, constitutes a deeply divisive issue across the Kazakhstani public space and a matter of constant discussion amongst the élites in Nur-Sultan. Cooperation, which Kazakhstan accepts with regularly displayed reluctance, is enhanced only through bilateral ties, rather than via the patterns of multilateral association predicated by Kazakhstan’s Eurasianist doctrine.
At the same time, the hardening of authoritarian tones during Nazarbaev’s last decade in power reduced Kazakhstan’s engagement with western partners (and the European Union more in particular) to a merely commercial endeavour, establishing a relationship equation wherein values have no role to play. As the regime in Astana became more authoritarian, the western vector disappeared almost completely from Kazakhstan’s foreign policy radar.
A series of interwoven policy illusions hence underpins the vision of Eurasia popularised in Kazakhstan. Deeply entrenched in the authoritarian environment that sustained Nursultan Nazarbayev throughout three decades in power, flawed representations of Eurasia assisted the Kazakhstani government in projecting domestically misleading images of the regime’s international activity.
Vague geopolitical constructs and the continuous reproduction of mythicised Eurasian imagery worked very well for Kazakhstan’s first president, who - despite a superficial contribution to the advancement of the Eurasianist doctrine and a limited policy input to the strengthening of Eurasian integration - is universally recognised as an accomplished Eurasianist. It is the figure of Nazarbayev, rather than Kazakhstan’s territory, that sits in this sense at rhe core of the distorted image of Eurasia sold globally by propagandists in Nur-Sultan.
Determining whether this context is acceptable to his successor, Kassym-Zhomart Tokayev, has to be seen as the fundamental line of inquiry to make sense of Kazakhstan’s place in the world during the next decade.
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