Central Asia has not historically been viewed as a harbinger of global developments. But this appears to be changing. Among the most obvious examples is the recent flurry of interest in the far-flung Chinese province of Xinjiang. In light of this interest, it is worth considering that for 1120 miles, what was once known as Chinese Turkestan borders was once known as Russian Turkestan. But while on one side lies a troubled Chinese province slowly being colonized by its rulers, on the other lies a young country that has had remarkable success creating a 21st century nation-state and looks set to play an ever-increasing role in regional and world affairs. I have found my own experience with Xinjiang’s little discussed western neighbor ever more valuable, and the contrast between the two all the more informative. Nowadays, we know much of what was Russian Turkestan by its proper name: Kazakhstan.
As I arrived in Astana—the capital of Kazakhstan—for the first time, I was struck by the strange position it occupies in the region. Not so much because of the foreignness of the place, but rather the coexistence of that foreignness with the modern metropolis which surrounds it. In many ways, this is not at all an experience unique to the city of Astana. Globalization has brought unprecedented wealth to parts of the world once dirt poor and irrelevant, and whose names are now synonymous with futuristic skylines and nouveau riche glamor. Kazakhstan may not quite boast the wealth of Dubai or Singapore, but it is much more than a wealthy city-state.
Since declaring independence in 1991, Kazakhstan has pushed the limits of what many thought was true or possible about building and maintaining a successful authoritarian nation-state in the 21st century. Through a mixture of abundant resources and political ambition, it has managed not only significant economic success, but also an unprecedented demographic turnaround most countries could only dream of. Kazakhstan’s size and position in Central Asia—bordering two of the world’s three superpowers, China and Russia—gives it a cultural mix that links it not only to its neighbors, but to the Turkic and Muslim world as well. This gives the country incredible potential to make its presence in the world felt and to reap the benefits. The country’s first, current, and only President, Nursultan Nazarbayev, understands this well.
The Great Steppe
I remember looking out of the window of a friend’s apartment on the 22nd floor of one of the many skyscrapers that make up Astana’s strangely futuristic skyline. We were enjoying the colorful nightly light shows that play out across the city’s many new buildings when in the distance, on the gargantuan structures built to house the national bureaucracies, a message scrolled by: «Астана — столица великой степи». Astana, the capital of the great steppe.
Bold claim. But no one can really dispute it. Astana is the only real city on the steppe, where the winter lasts six months and temperatures reach -40 °F. This makes it the second coldest capital city on the planet after Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. And yet, over a million people now call Astana their home.
A million people in a city may not seem particularly impressive, especially by Asian standards, but Astana was founded just 20 years ago. Since then, it has drawn hundreds of thousands of people from all over the country, despite the miserable conditions and—as I have been told by nearly every Kazakh I’ve met—its soulless character. What draws people to Astana, though, is very real economic success. It’s a success that has gone largely unnoticed to the outside world. In the years following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan experienced much of the same poverty and economic decline as the rest of the former Soviet Union. But since 2000, unlike most of its counterparts, it has experienced tremendous economic growth and development.
From 2000 to 2008, Kazakhstan’s economy grew at an average rate of about 10% per year. Despite being slowed down by the global financial crisis and later a fall in oil prices in 2014, it has continued growing at about 5% per year from 2008 to the present day, with a brief slowdown in 2015-16. Nowadays, the country boasts a GDP per capita in terms of purchasing power approaching $26,500. That places it above Bulgaria, Croatia, and Romania, all countries more than half a decade in the European Union, as well as its former imperial overlord, Russia. Kazakhstan also receives more foreign direct investment than all other members of the Commonwealth of Independent States (an organization consisting of most former Soviet countries, including Russia). And for the first time in 2018, the United Nations ranked Kazakhstan in its list of countries scoring ‘very high’ on its Human Development Index, a composite statistic of life expectancy, education, and income per capita. While Kazakhstan is certainly no Germany, all this just goes to show that Kazakhstan is certainly doing something right.
The crown jewel of this success is without a doubt the capital city Astana. As you fly into the city, it seems to literally spring out of the ground. It appears as an oasis of skyscrapers and futuristic monuments in the middle of the vast steppe. There are no suburbs of small single-family houses surrounding the city. Rather, it abruptly ends with the latest new 20-story housing complex, and the steppe begins. The city itself is mostly planned, with enormous landmarks that grace the city’s skyline, including an enormous pyramid, the world’s largest sphere building, and an enormous steel and glass tent. All these are designed by leading Western architects, and yet are somehow unmistakably Kazakh. It isn’t just the enormous buildings that shock, though. Modern cafes, restaurants, bars, and nightclubs seem to be opening constantly and offer quality to match any Western city. To say it wasn’t always like this would be an understatement of unbelievable proportions.
To really grasp the full weight of the success of the modern Kazakh state, it is essential to be aware of the tragic events that gripped the country over the last 150 years. Up until the mid-19th century, Kazakhstan was ruled by the Kazakh Khanate, a distant successor to the Mongol Empire in the region. The society was still entirely nomadic, and since the 18th century had come under increased contact and friction with the Russian Empire to the north. Eventually, this resulted in the conquest of Kazakhstan and the rest of Central Asia by Russia, after which the region became essentially a contiguous Russian colony. Not only was it treated as a colony, but it also became a dumping ground for whoever was deemed unfriendly to the Russian government. Fyodor Dostoyevsky was exiled to Kazakhstan, as was Ukrainian national poet Taras Shevchenko. But the real tragedy did not come until the birth of the Soviet Union.
In the 1930s, Joseph Stalin appointed Filipp Goloshchekin—otherwise known for presiding over the brutal murder of the Romanov family—as local dictator of Kazakhstan with the goal of carrying out mass collectivization on an entirely nomadic population. This entailed the forced settlement of millions of ethnic Kazakhs, destroying their ancient nomadic way of life. In the years 1930-1933, this policy lead to famine. Between 1.5 and 2.3 million Kazakhs starved, the consequences of which are felt to to the present. That famine killed 40% of all Kazakhs and reduced them from 60% of Kazakhstan’s population to 38%, the highest percentage of any ethnic group killed in the Soviet Union. Throughout the Soviet period, millions of people continued to be exiled and deported to Kazakhstan, considered to be worse than even Siberia. It was not only Russians sent to Kazakhstan, though, but also Tatars, Ukrainians, Koreans, Uyghurs, Germans, Poles, and dozens of other nationalities from across the vast Eurasian landmass. The result of all these policies was that by 1959, Kazakhs were just 30% of the population of their own country, while Russians made up around 43%, and various other exiled nationalities a further 27%, or 3,600,000 people.
In 1990, the Chairman of the Supreme Soviet of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, was named president. In 1991, as the Soviet Union was falling apart, he declared the country’s independence. A new constitution was adopted not long after, with an extremely strong executive branch. In the years since, various amendments to the constitution have allowed Nazarbayev (and only Nazarbayev) to remain in power indefinitely.
Back in 1991, however, none of this was certain. Nazarbayev found himself the leader of the world’s 9th largest sovereign state, rich in oil and other natural resources (the country is the world’s largest producer of uranium, all for export), and with a nationally and religiously divided population. It was no easy situation to manage. The 90s are synonymous in post-Soviet countries with economic and social collapse, and Kazakhstan was no different in that regard. But this was also when the Kazakh leadership developed a strategy which would bring Kazakhstan out of the shadow of its past and into the 21st century. This strategy is really no secret. Nazarbayev has spoken at length about his goals and ambitions for his country, and for the most part, the country has acted accordingly over the past 25 years. It is derived from Kazakhstan’s geographic and demographic position, and is described officially, albeit vaguely, by one idea: Eurasianism.
At the Heart of Eurasia
The concept of Eurasianism has a variety of meanings in different countries and contexts, but it has two main iterations: a geopolitical conception of the world, and a socio-cultural idea. The geopolitical conception is extremely influential all over the globe, viewing the Eurasian landmass as central in world geopolitics, and control over it as the key to global hegemony. Various Russian émigré writers in the early 20th century used this conception to claim that Russia is neither European, nor Asian, but rather Eurasian; they further looked to create a unique national identity which reflected Russia’s Eurasian, rather than European, character. This idea is still quite influential in Russia, though not as much as some alarmist foreign observers occasionally claim. In Kazakhstan, however, Eurasianism is promulgated as official ideology by the very leadership of the country.
In every single state of the union address given to the country since 1997, Nazarbayev has referred to Kazakhstan’s position as a crossroads between Europe, Asia, and the Islamic world. This is the single most important idea guiding not just Kazakh government policy, but the identity of the country itself. In Nazarbayev’s words, Kazakhstan is a country “in the epicenter of the world,” and Astana is the “heart of Eurasia.” This kind of rhetoric is not just government posturing, but is a view shared by most Kazakh academics and intellectuals and has been thoroughly integrated into Kazakh cultural life and education. In the words of the president himself:
“There are individuals who like to make a link between Kazakhstan and Europe; and there are those who also like to see Kazakhstan to be in close tie with the Asian Tigers; still there are others who want to consider Russia as our strategic partner, while suggesting not to ignore the Turkish model for development. Paradoxically, they are right in their own way, since they have felt the issue from different angles. In reality, Kazakhstan, as a Eurasian state that has its own history and its own future, would have a completely different path to travel down the road. Our model for development will not resemble other countries; it will include in itself the achievements from all other civilizations.” (Eurasianism in the 21st century, 2009)
Kazakhstan has integrated the concept of Eurasianism not only into its geopolitical stance, but also into its national identity. This is by no means a natural development. In other countries such as Russia and Turkey, where Eurasianism was developed as a philosophical and socio-cultural idea, it remains marginal. It has taken deliberate and enthusiastic state policy on Nazarbayev’s part to integrate Eurasianism into the country’s mainstream cultural life and thereby influence the nation-building process. One of Kazakhstan’s leading national universities bears the name of the most famous Eurasianist, Lev Gumilyov (who also spent years interned in Kazakhstan), with the full name being Lev Gumilyov Eurasian National University. Through the press and various other institutions, this conception of Eurasianism is continuously being reinforced and strengthened. Kazakhs are extremely proud not only of their place in the center of the world, but also of the coexistence of many different traditions and cultures on their territory, a key tenet of Kazakh Eurasianism.
This whole ideology is aided in no small part by the fact that knowledge of the Russian language is universal in Kazakhstan, and in cities even preferred to Kazakh. Russian was formerly recognized officially as the “language of interethnic communication”, and while it has since lost that status it remains the most widely spoken language. Practically every product sold in Kazakhstan is written in both Russian and in Kazakh, and most places such as restaurants will be marked with the Russian “ресторан” and the Kazakh “мейрамхана”. Though Kazakh is more commonly spoken in the south of the country, in Astana almost everyone will be heard speaking Russian. For the most part people are perfectly happy with this arrangement, as it connects Kazakhstan to the outside world—and for the leadership, plays into the Eurasianist conception of the country.
But what was it about the geopolitical situation of Kazakhstan in the 1990s which led Nazarbayev to believe that the state would benefit from the adoption of Eurasianism? And how has this conception of Kazakhstan as a crossroads of civilizations played into the state’s larger ambitions?
As pointed out earlier, Kazakhstan shares an enormous border with China. Even more impressive though, is that it shares the largest continuous border in the world with Russia. Russia is, by far, the most important outside player in both the country’s geopolitical strategy and the internal nation-building process. By the time of the country’s independence, Kazakhs had become a slight plurality at about 40% of the population. Russians still made up about 35% of the country and were (still are) concentrated in the north of the country. Immediately following the collapse of the Soviet Union, there were very public calls by prominent intellectuals and politicians to push Russia’s claim not just on Crimea, but on northern Kazakhstan, too. Most famously, Alexander Solzhenitsyn—who himself spent years in prison in Soviet Kazakhstan—called for a new Russian state to annex the northern provinces of Kazakhstan populated by Russians. With a tiny army and an enormous country almost entirely comprised of flat steppe lands, Kazakhstan is essentially indefensible. Russia or China could easily steamroll the country with little resistance; but they won’t. At least not anytime soon.
Nazarbayev has put a great deal of effort over the last 30 years into making the country Russia’s closest friend and ally. This has not only removed his greatest geopolitical threat, but has also given his country a close alliance with one of the world’s foremost powers. This culminated in the founding of the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) in 2014, the most integrated organization of post-Soviet states since the USSR’s collapse—an idea Russian President Vladimir Putin himself attributed to Nazarbayev, and the result of his decades-long attempts at integrating post-Soviet states into a new economic and political bloc. Many critics of Nazarbayev’s foreign policy have considered his friendly policies towards Russia as undermining Kazakh sovereignty. In many ways, they’re not wrong, but the state’s sovereignty is not something absolute and infinite, and it has been undermined since the very inception of the country.
It would be very easy for Kazakhstan to have ended up much like Georgia or Ukraine, with a frozen conflict leaving the country in turmoil for the indefinite future, but instead it has opted for a different route. It may have sacrificed some sovereignty for security, but the geopolitical reality doesn’t leave many other options. This seems to be a fact other countries have recognized and has not constrained Kazakhstan’s foreign policy in any significant ways. Despite its close relationship with Russia, Kazakhstan maintains excellent relations with the United States and cooperates on military, economic, and counterterrorism issues. Relations with China also remain excellent, with Kazakhstan also playing a prominent role in China’s Belt and Road Initiative. The state has even gone so far as to conspicuously ignore Kazakhs being mistreated in Xinjiang as part of China’s crackdown on the region, even while many citizens are increasingly outraged by it. Recently, the Kazakh government announced that China has agreed to allow thousands of Kazakhs to leave Xinjiang and renounce their Chinese citizenship for Kazakh. All of this is known as Kazakhstan’s “multi-vector” foreign policy, balancing strategic relationships between the world’s great powers.
Each of these great powers has a great deal to gain from close relations with Kazakhstan. For Russia, it is the champion of closer cooperation between post-Soviet states and the key to Central Asia. For the U.S., it is its closest partner in Central Asia, and important economically insofar as the U.S. is one of the largest foreign investors in Kazakhstan. This has occurred despite the fact that Kazakhstan continues to receive regular condemnations for its authoritarian governance from outlets such as Freedom House and The Economist. Nazarbayev and Kazakhstan have even been praised by top U.S. officials from Dick Cheney to John Kerry to Hillary Clinton. The latter gave perhaps the most frank summary of American realpolitik toward the country: “We view Kazakhstan not only as a regional player, but also as a global leader.” For China, it is the “buckle” of its ambitious Belt and Road initiative. It will be the main land route by which Chinese goods reach Russia and Europe. Through this diplomatic balancing act, the country is making good on its promise to be a crossroads between East and West. All these positive diplomatic relations also provide great legitimacy to the regime at home, which gives it even more power and flexibility in its ambitious state-building projects.
The move of the capital city from Almaty, in the far south of the country, to Astana, was seen by many as a move to reassert Kazakh claims to the majority-Russian north. If so, it has in large part succeeded, with Kazakhs increasingly migrating to the new capital and the regions surrounding it. The largest internal and external security threat to Kazakhstan is really solving itself. Russians now only make up about 20% of the country, while Kazakhs are a healthy majority of around 65%. This is not only thanks to Russian out-migration, but also to the high birth rate in Kazakhstan, which heavily skews towards ethnic Kazakh families. In fact, while birth rates plummet across the developed world, Kazakh birthrates have steadily risen and are now higher than they ever have been in the country’s post-Soviet history, with the rate hovering around 2.7 births per woman from 2014 onward. The reasons for this trend are not absolutely clear, but likely a traditional set of social norms along with general economic success and political stability have all helped to create conditions favorable for child rearing.
Islam and Identity
There is something exotic about hearing the azan (the Islamic call to prayer) for the first time. The melodic Arabic singing echoing across the massive boulevards and empty squares is unmistakable, even hearing it the first time—a clear reminder that you have left the Western world. And yet in Astana the experience falls a bit flat. It feels more like a distant plea for you not to forget that 98% of ethnic Kazakhs identify as Muslim, even if most of them aren’t answering the calls to prayer. Instead, you can find them in the many fashionable bars and restaurants knocking back beers and vodkas and smoking their lungs out well into the night with their non-Muslim countrymen. Though not totally uncommon, you’ll probably see more women in modest Islamic dress among European Muslim populations on the streets of Paris or London than in Astana. Not exactly what most people picture when they think of a Muslim country, least of all other Muslims. When I described this to a friend of mine from Pakistan, he incredulously replied “What kind of Muslims are those?” Well, a different kind: these are Muslims of the steppe.
Owing to their historically nomadic lifestyle, Kazakhs did not build mosques and generally lacked an Islamic clergy. Islam was instead adopted along with many other native beliefs such as Tengrism and Shamanism, as well as Zoroastrianism and Buddhism. Kazakhs followed the Sufi tradition almost exclusively until the 18th century, which meant a much more mystical and less legalistic form of Islam than is widely practiced today, which accounts for the mixing of beliefs from other faiths. Part of the Russian colonial program of the 18th and 19th centuries in Kazakhstan was actually encouraging Kazakhs to be more Muslim. This was a move to ‘civilize’ the nomads who were seen as savage due to their clearly non-Muslim, traditional nomadic beliefs. The Russian administration brought in Tatar clerics loyal to the Russian Empire to set up the first Sharia courts and establish mosques, laying the foundations for organized Islam in Kazakhstan. But whatever development had started was quickly stunted by the Bolshevik Revolution and Soviet rule of Central Asia.
A historic non-adherence to more formalized Islamic practices as well as 70 years of state-sponsored atheism and religious persecutions left Kazakhs about as religious as Russians or other Eastern Europeans. There is, of course, a significant highly-religious minority, mostly in rural areas, while nearly everyone identifies as a ‘cultural’ Muslim. However, a key difference between Christianity and Islam is that Islam has experienced a revival in recent years across the Muslim world, and Kazakhstan is no exception. Even if it has been far more controlled than elsewhere, in the 1990s hundreds of mosques were opened, mostly with funding from Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey. Islam has been experiencing a steady growth in importance since. Just how much of a growth is hard to say considering the country’s history but Nazarbayev has certainly been worried enough about its influence to take many measures to control its spread.
Such measures include deporting dozens of foreign imams and creating an Agency for Religious Affairs staffed with party apparatchiks who have the power to appoint imams and Islamic teachers. These measures were adopted in the years following the attacks on 9/11, which affected Kazakh policy in no small way. Al-Qaeda and the Taliban were—and to some extent still are—-seen as two of the greatest security threats to Kazakhstan and the region. This has lead to a great deal of cooperation and stronger relations with the U.S., with American planes making hundreds of approved flights over Kazakhstan during the War in Afghanistan. Counterterrorism policies seem to have done well to combat extremism, as Kazakhstan lacks any influential domestic Islamic terrorist organization and at least on paper appears to exercise a great deal of control over how Islam is taught and propagated in the country.
Kazakhstan is officially a secular and non-Islamic country according to its constitution, unlike the other Central Asian republics which give special status to Islam. Despite the fact that Kazakhstan is a member of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, the country still likes to portray itself as a bridge between the Muslim and Christian worlds, rather than a fully fledged member of the Islamic one. Kazakhstan maintains positive relations with not only its direct Muslim neighbors, but with Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Turkey as well. Any crackdowns on religion in the country have been portrayed as simply a battle against ‘nontraditional’ Islam and protective of domestic ‘traditional’ Islam, even if in many cases this seems to just be a cover. Whatever the future relationship of the state with its Islamic heritage, its current strategy requires that it be balanced with strong ties to Russia and the post-Soviet world.
It is no surprise that Nazarbayev is not very well-educated about Islam and not particularly interested in it, considering he was a Communist Party member in the Soviet Union for 30 years and would eventually come to lead the Communist Party of Kazakhstan. The same generally applies for most of his associates and his generation. This has undoubtedly aided their nation-building project and avoided sectarian tensions by propagating a more inclusive Eurasianist ideology. The alternative could have been an exclusive Kazakh nationalism closely connected to Islam, especially considering ethnic Kazakhs dominate the ranks of the civil service. However, the changing demographic map of Kazakhstan as well as generational cleavages relating to identity could challenge the foundations of the modern Kazakh state, especially once Nazarbayev is gone.
Young people may not be very religious compared to other Muslim countries, but they identify with Islam and connect it to Kazakh identity more than their elders raised in the Soviet Union. Considering Kazakhs are an ever increasing ethnic majority, a more homogeneous Kazakhstan could lead to a more assertive Kazakh national ideology, which would be in direct conflict with Nazarbayev’s Eurasianist ideology and undermine his entire geopolitical strategy for Kazakhstan. To be clear, there is rather significant opposition in Kazakhstan to this entire conception of the country, and as it stands there is no guarantee that the country will keep its course after Nazarbayev. The opposition, however, is not well-organized, not to mention essentially illegal. The Eurasianist elite which occupies the state is not directly threatened by any competing factions as far as we know.
Though succession is still not absolutely clear, Nazarbayev appears to be preparing to reduce his role in government. He will be celebrating his 79th birthday later this year. In 2010, Nazarbayev was declared ‘Leader of the Nation.’ The lifetime role will protect him and his family from any prosecution, as well as giving him a broad range of powers until he dies—even if he decides not to run for president again in 2020. This means whoever becomes president next will be a kind of half-president, sharing power with Nazarbayev. In recent years he has also delegated more powers to the parliament, which is overwhelmingly controlled by his ruling Nur Otan party. Given all this, the most likely situation for succession appears to be that Nazarbayev picks his successor for president and oversees the transition while remaining firmly in control of the direction of the country in his role as Leader of the Nation. This could happen as early as 2020.
Kazakhstan is not a world power, nor does it strive to achieve this impossible goal. What it can be is a significant player on the global stage, owing to its position at the center of the Eurasian landmass and as a genuine bridge between civilizations. For decades, the leadership of the country has pursued this goal enthusiastically and with great success. Rather than becoming yet another failed post-communist state, it has grown into a stable and relatively wealthy country with strong diplomatic ties not only to the world’s powers, but also other regional players. The continued success of this strategy will likely see Kazakhstan’s wealth and power grow to the point where it becomes one of the world’s important secondary powers, comparable to Saudi Arabia, Turkey, or Iran. Additionally, if Central Asia is to become a flashpoint anytime in the future, Kazakhstan is uniquely well-positioned to influence the course of the region as a whole.
But with Kazakhstan, one never knows. Kazakhs are a Turkic people and speak a Turkic language. This binds them not just to the other countries of Central Asia—Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkmenistan—but to Turkey, Azerbaijan, and Xinjiang as well. This facet of Kazakh identity is strongly linked to the Eurasianist ideology, and Nazarbayev has even stated he believes the Turkic peoples of Central Asia to be one people, only divided by the meddling Soviets. While the creation of a Turkic Union may not be in the works just yet, it seems that Eurasian integration could be a stepping stone to it if relations between the Turkic world and Russia grow more permanent, particularly in the case of Turkey. While this is entering the realm of speculation, Nazarbayev has shown a tendency to follow through on his rhetoric and being the sole regional power in Central Asia would certainly lend a hand in any such efforts.
Whatever the future may hold for Kazakhstan, the actions and policies taken by the government have been incredibly successful in forging a modern nation-state where none had existed before. Placing geopolitics at the heart of that process truly puts the country in a unique position. What this will mean for Kazakhstan in the near term seems clear: a successful development path which engages the Western, Russian, and Chinese spheres alike but refuses absorption by any one of them. What this will mean for the Eurasian world-island more broadly, only time will tell.