Writing Armageddon

Writing Armageddon
Furious writing or writing furiously?

Monday, May 23, 2016

Foreign Policy Implications of Kazakh Protests - Part I

Kazakhstan has just experienced a wave of protests relating to deeply unpopular land reforms. Whether correctly or not, many Kazakhs assume that these reforms will lead to an influx of Chinese farmers into their sparsely populated country. Promises to the contrary and a delay in the implementation of the land reform has not convinced the nationalist public. The authoritarianism and corruption of the Kazakh regime also made it more difficult for the Kazakh government to sell its official story to the public.

The main impact of the protests is likely to be in the domestic sphere, particularly in government-civil society relations. That is not, however, the topic that will be addressed here. Instead, I will focus on the effect these protests are likely to have on the foreign policy of Kazakhstan. In short, these protests will dampen ties between Astana and Beijing, raise Washington's costs of engagement with Astana, and push the latter even more firmly into Moscow's orbit. These outcomes are not foreordained, but it would take unprecedented skill in Kazakh diplomacy and moderate attempts at democratization for other options to become available.



Kazakhstan's current foreign policy

Kazakhstan has long claimed to pursue a policy of multi-vectorism - playing major powers off each other to maximize gains from each. Most scholars and analysts take these claims at face value. A simple google search will produce dozens of hits on some variation of "Kazakhstan multi-vectorism'. The reality is more complex. The Kazakh government certainly attempts to maintain good relations with the US, Russia, and China. It readily joins Russia-backed international organizations, was an enthusiastic participant in Bush's Coalition of the Willing against Iraq, and has agreed to rent significant amounts of land to Chinese farmers.

Yet the desire to extract concessions from all major actors involved in Central Asia has to compete with the reality of Kazakhstan geographic, economic, political, and military position. Kazakhstan is far closer to Russia's center of power than it is to China's or America's. A large portion of northern Kazakhstan's population is composed of ethnic Russians, over whom Russia wields influence and whose existence Russia can use to justify heavier involvement in Kazakh affairs. Kazakhstan does trade more with China than with Russia, but it is a part of the Russian-dominated trading bloc, the Eurasian Economic Union.

What the above shows is that Kazakhstan is currently highly dependent upon Russia, which limits its ability to pursue close relations with other countries. It also means that Russia will play a key role - whether through its actions or inactions - in determining the ultimate consequences of the recent Kazakh protests. China has the potential - especially economic potential - to displace Russia as Kazakhstan's main benefactor, but that potential is a long way from being realized. Lastly, the US plays no more than a peripheral role in Kazakhstan, enjoying no real source of influence over the country.

Effect on relations with China 

Kazakh, and more broadly, Central Asian, fears of China are unusual in that the two have no real history of conflict. The threat is mostly an abstract one: Kazakhstan has a population of 17 million, while its southeastern neighbor is edging towards 1.4 billion people. The one recent historical reason for Kazakhs to be weary of China is China's insistence on obtaining nearly 15,000 square kilometers of Kazakh-controlled land in the 1999 border demarcation, a treaty that the Kazakh government unsuccessfully attempted to spin as a diplomatic success.

Furthermore, many of the protests took place in western Kazakhstan, while geography (and some recent investments) suggests that China would prefer land in the eastern part of the country. One way to interpret the current situation is to posit that the land reform was merely the last straw and that there are deeper reasons for the protests. Even though it is true that the Kazakh people have many reasons to resent their government, this type of explanation accounts neither for the timing of the current protests nor for the similar territory-related protests in Kyrgyzstan.

Figure 1. Map of Protests in Kazakhstan


The stronger explanation for the current protests is that territory is an important issue for the public, especially in authoritarian regimes where rallying around other issues is made extremely difficult by the lack of a civil society and government repression. Those same governments are loathe to be on the wrong side of a nationalist issue, which limits their ability to stifle territory-related protests. Instead, they are more likely to co-opt nationalist protests towards their own ends. Ironically, the same nation-building that the Kazakh government engaged in to protect Kazakhstan's independence is the most potent weapon that could be used against the Kazakh regime.

What this means for Sino-Kazakh relations is that Kazakhstan will have to reconsider the pursuit of closer ties with China. China was already viewed as a threatening behemoth by parts of the Kazakh public, and the land reform bill has confirmed those people's fears. Any future agreement can be seized upon by the Kazakh opposition or civil society to paint the Kazakh regime as stooges of China. While the Kazakh government might be tempted to ignore public opinion on this issue, it has likely been spooked by the recent protests and do not want to provoke a recurrence. This means steering clear of China in the near future, even on issues of mutual concern. I'll leave it to others to delve more deeply into the impact of these protests on the Chinese New Silk Road project, but there's a real risk that the protests will slow down the project's implementation, especially as it passes through eastern Kazakhstan.

On the other hand, Nazarbayev is unlikely to take up the mantle of Sinophobia in Kazakhstan, even though that would provide a boost to his regime's domestic popularity. Any overt signs of nationalism from the Kazakh regime risks antagonizing not only China but also Russia. This means staying away entirely from the China issue is a safer path for Nazarbayev than taking any kind of a position, whether friendly or hostile.

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