Kazakhstan and the EEU: the rise of Eurasian scepticism

As in Europe, scepticism towards regional integration is on the rise in Kazakhstan. And just like the Old Continent, Astana is learning to play this to its advantage...







Troubles brewing for the EEU


These are tough times for regional integration. The European Union is facing the prospect of electing a volatile Parliament, with Euro-sceptic parties and movements leading the polls in many parts of the continent. The gulf between EU institutions and the European public appears to be as wide as it has ever been. Surprisingly (or perhaps not), a similar scenario is rapidly consolidating in 'post-Soviet' Eurasia.


The annexation of Crimea and the ongoing Ukrainian crisis is complicating the progress of integration within the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) – the geopolitical project that emerged as the cornerstone of the second Putin presidency. May 2014 was expected to be the key month for the signing of the landmark EEU treaty. The Union's founding fathers – Alyaksandr Lukashenka of Belarus, Nursultan Nazarbaev of Kazakhstan, and Vladimir Putin – met in Minsk on 29 April to lay down a blueprint document for integration. The summit, however, proved inconclusive, with the junior partners of Belarus and Kazakhstan expressing diplomatic diffidence vis-à-vis the post-Crimea geopolitical implications of the treaty, as well as noting the disadvantageous economic circumstances arising from deeper integration with the Russian Federation. With the decision on the official signing postponed until the not-so-distant future, the EEU project seems to have entered a cul-de-sac.


The Minsk summit, in this sense, has come to represent a watershed for Eurasian integration, but for all the wrong reasons. While Lukashenka has continued to display a characteristically Machiavellian attitude towards Moscow's offers of cooperation, his Kazakhstani counterpart expressed a relatively unprecedented unease towards the acceleration of Eurasian integration.


A change in attitude


Nazarbaev's attitude in Minsk constituted both an instance of continuity and a signal of change in Kazakhstani foreign policymaking. On the one hand, enthusiastically joining a Moscow-led project of integration would have represented a rather paradoxical policy posture for Kazakhstan's president, who has established much of his Eurasian credibility by orienting 'post-Soviet' integration away from Moscow. A profoundly anti-imperial connotation permeated the many initiatives of Eurasian integration that Nazarbaev has periodically sponsored since late March 1994, when a seminal speech he delivered at Moscow State University identified the twin principles of dobrovol'nosti (free will of association, in this case) and ravnopraviya (equality of rights) as the fundamental elements of Eurasian integration.


On the other hand, Astana's post-Crimea external policies have taken a decidedly pro-Russian turn. Kazakhstan's abstention at the UN vote on Crimea represented the culmination of this policy trend, which was ultimately sanctioned by the speech delivered by Nazarbaev at Moscow State University in the lead-up to the Minsk summit. In his speech, Nazarbaev ostensibly re-evaluated 20 years of Eurasian integration by highlighting the continuity that the EEU supposedly shares with prior initiatives of Eurasian integration, including the Eurasian Union and the EvrAzEs (Eurasian Economic Community). In this context, however, Nazarbaev had to dilute his characteristically anti-imperial rhetoric: while listing the fundamental values of Eurasian integration, the 2014 Moscow speech offered only one brief mention of suvernitet (sovereignty).


So how does one reconcile the fundamental tension in the Kazakstani position, between this markedly pro-Russian outlook and an increasingly visible Eurasian scepticism? The pro-Russian trend is a specific power calculation advanced by the Kazakhstani elite, who have opted to get closer to an ever-more isolated Kremlin. Nazarbaev's EEU-scepticism, on the other hand, is also responding to a particular power play, insofar as it addresses the regime's needs to maintain healthily distant relations with Moscow.


The Anti-Eurasian Forum


It is precisely at this juncture that the elite's power considerations surprisingly intersect with the profoundly anti-Eurasian agenda advanced by Kazakhstan's emerging opposition. Despite introducing new laws that strictly regulate criticism of government policies, the leadership has allowed a rather lively debate on the pros and cons of the EEU partnership. It is in this environment that the Anti-Eurasian Forum was organised in Almaty, Kazakhstan's 'southern capital'.


On 12 April 2014, around 250 people gathered in the tiny conference room of a central Almaty hotel to voice their opposition to Kazakhstan's deeper union with Russia and Belarus. Their argument is somewhat linear: by joining the EEU, which is often referred to throughout Kazakhstan as the 'unbalanced marriage' (nerovnyi brak), Astana will accrue costs more than reap benefits. Kazakhstan, on the basis of its fragile domestic industrial sector, is generally considered the weakest link amongst the three EEU partners. In this context, political expert Dastan Kadyrzhanov described the choice to sign as 'Kazakhstan's Rubicon.' Berlibek Alimov, editor of the opposition newspaper Tribuna, explained: 'People demand a popular consultation, a referendum. Why are we signing up to something we don't know?'.


In the lead-up to the forum, we spoke with Serikzhan Mambetalin – a particularly vocal opponent of the EEU, who has articulated his views by way of a massive presence on social media networks including Twitter and Facebook. 'The day the treaty will be signed will be the darkest day for our country', said Mambetalin, who headed the Rukhanyat party until only a few weeks before the 2012 elections, when it was banned and literally crossed off the ballot papers. 'With the new union between Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan we are witnessing an "axis of dictators." This brings us back to the USSR: Eurasianism is a new form of colonisation by Russia.'


The resolution endorsed at the forum called for the publication of the entire documentation to be included in the agreement, while resisting further integration with Russia, 'a country that is defying international law with its intervention in Ukraine,' and ultimately inviting the 'authoritarian regime to finally listen to the opinion of the people.'


An anti-Russian direction


The Anti-Eurasian Forum merely represents the tip of the iceberg that is Kazakhstan's anti-Eurasian movement. Since the earliest Maidan events in Ukraine in the autumn of 2013, Mukhtar Taizhan, one of Kazakhstan's most prominent social media activists, has been involved in frantic Facebook activity. The precipitation of the events in Kyiv saw Taizhan's agenda evolving into a more overtly anti-Russian direction. His campaigns against Russia's presence in the Baikonur cosmodrome, and in support of a more widespread use of the Kazakh language in Kazakhstan became more outspoken as the confrontation in Kyiv's squares became ever more violent. Interestingly, Taizhan went as far as offering more visibility to the agenda of 'anti-geptil' activists [heptyl, a by-product of rocket launches, is a highly pollutant chemical compound] especially as this movement added to the anti-Eurasian and anti-Russian climate brewing in Astana. As signs that read 'today anti-heptil, tomorrow Maidan' started to appear in the capital, the leadership, cautious of this potentially destabilising association, began tightening the screws on the anti-geptil movement.


As the initial date of the EEU treaty signing approached, Taizhan came to equate Russia's behaviour in Ukraine with the revival of Moscow's imperialist desires. It was not uncommon to see on the profile pages of National Patriots (NatsPatrioty) multiple references to the similarities between Kazakhstan's Zheltoksan (the 1986 protest against the appointment of a Russian national, Gennadi Kolbin, to head the Kazakh SSR) and Ukraine's Maidan in 2014. These two historical moments are seen by the NatsPatrioty as reactions by Almaty and Kyiv to Moscow's attempts to limit their sovereignty.


Taizhan's political career, however, did not witness the materialisation of a 'Kazakh Maidan.' On 18 March 2014, he unexpectedly – and prematurely, given his relatively young age – announced his decision to quit politics: Taizhan's frantic social media activity has slowed down dramatically, and it focuses now almost exclusively on cultural events.


Two oppositions


Rampant anti-Eurasianism represents a key factor in understanding the cleavage between the two main political alternatives to Kazakhstan's current establishment. The first constituent of the Kazakhstani opposition appears to be favouring western models of political participation, seeing as it incarnates values and visions strongly influenced by US and European traditions. Close monitoring of its activities – as well as brutal repression – have ensured that the forces of this opposition have never become strong enough to have a sizeable impact on Kazakhstan's political landscape. Pro-government media and political organisations have systematically discredited these actors and portrayed them as 'foreign agents,' working to facilitate the capitalist exploitation of Kazakhstan.


The other main opposition grouping – which can be roughly presented under the umbrella of the NatsPatrioty – is fuelled by nationalist sentiments, sits at the right of Kazakhstan's political spectrum, and tends to manifest its views by advocating the promotion of the Kazakh language and the preservation of Kazakh culture. This group is important to the leadership in Astana, as it includes a sector of its supporters that have become increasingly uneasy with some of the government's policies. For this reason, Nazarbaev and his associates have largely tolerated the agenda of the NatsPatrioty. The leadership has seemed unwilling to challenge their points of view and has even been known to espouse some of the NatsPatrioty's arguments, in order to shape legislation introduced to the detriment of Kazakhstan's main domestic minorities (Russians, Koreans, Germans, and others) or its key international partners (Russia, China, the US). Rumours that the regime has artfully fomented this strand of opposition may remain unfounded but it is undoubtedly true that some of the NatsPatrioty arguments have promoted a divisive nationalism, which is widening the gap between the different components of Kazakhstan's multi-national fabric and, interestingly, is being used to put more distance between Astana and its neighbours.


A depiction of the 1986 Zheltoksan events in Republic Square, Almaty. Photo cc: Otebig


In this context, the NatsPatrioty anti-EEU discourse encapsulates their duplicity vis-à-vis the establishment: the same opponents of the new framework, in fact, are defending the original idea that Nazarbaev presented 20 years ago in Moscow. Their criticism is targeted at Russia, as the NatsPatrioty see Kazakhstan as just a partner being deceitfully driven into the arms of the greedy bear. This discourse facilitates the airing of various opposition grievances, and it ultimately causes the juxtaposition of domestic issues – the country's economic situation, a suffering job market and industries, its many environmental disasters – with international and geopolitical questions of sovereignty, respect for international law, and prestige in the global arena; a set of foreign policy concerns very dear to the leadership in Astana.


Kazakhstan's emerging Eurasian-scepticism does perhaps hold the potential to reconcile the elite's post-Crimea outlook with the views of a segment of the population. For an establishment that is experiencing a slow yet inexorable decline, this appears like rather good news. Yet again – as has often been the case in the European Union – state attitudes towards developing regionalism have become a political card to be played domestically; in this respect, the new Eurasia has been quick to catch up with Old Europe.


Open Democracy - oD Russia


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