Whether President Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine in February 2022 yields a Ukrainian defeat or a Russian defeat, it is clear that not just the global order but also the regional order has been dramatically changed. Through the auspices of the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), and other formal and informal relationships, Moscow has had an outsized role in influencing economic, foreign, and domestic policies in many of the states of the former Soviet Union. Notable among them is Kazakhstan, with which Russia shares its longest border, and which, after Russia, is the second largest economy in the EAEU.
While embedded in a longer process of establishing an identity decoupled from Russian-centric Soviet and post-Soviet framing, official and popular reactions to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine challenge the notion that Kazakhstan is simply a client state of Russia, and suggest there will be no return to “business as usual,” in terms of maintaining a similarly close relationship with Moscow in the future.
Commentators observed a crisis of legitimacy emerging in Kazakhstan after President Nursultan Nazarbayev stepped down in 2019 in favor of his hand-picked successor, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, a crisis that was only exacerbated by the heavy-handed crackdown on protesters throughout the country in January 2022, which led to the deaths of at least 227 people. Order was restored only after Tokayev requested CSTO peacekeepers be deployed, resulting in the first ever deployment of CSTO peacekeepers to a member state. In the aftermath of the protests and in the wake of the departure of CSTO forces, some observers remarked how the government’s response to the protests reinforced the regime’s dependency on Moscow for security.
Tokayev’s earlier pro-Russian stance is well-known. However, it appears the “new Kazakhstan” Tokayev is building in response to the January events is much less in sync with Russia. The rhetoric and actions of Tokayev’s regime, particularly in response to the invasion of Ukraine, illustrate this divergence and show that Russian force is not sufficient for long-term regime survival. Rather, there are clear efforts to build popular legitimacy for the regime among Kazakhstanis in a way that establishes a clear Kazakhstani identity divergent from Russia and Russian interests.
Kazakhstan, unlike Belarus, did not vote against the March 2 U.N. resolution condemning Russian aggression in Ukraine. Instead it abstained, like Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. Ambivalence was also reflected in Tokayev’s March 1 statement on Twitter regarding Ukraine and Russia: “We call on both states to make utmost efforts to pursue a dialogue and work on a peaceful settlement,” which supports the position of neither side. This noncommittal position continued in official reports of phone calls between Tokayev and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on March 2 and between Tokayev and Putin on March 4.
Moreover, Minster of Foreign Affairs Mukhtar Tleuberdi stated that there was “no question of recognizing the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics by Kazakhstan,” a position explicitly counter to Moscow’s intentions for these territories. Notably, this contrasts with the position articulated by Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov, who defended the “sovereign right of any country to recognize a state.”
Reporting on the war in Ukraine by Kazakhstan’s state-run media provides some insight into government positions. For example, a March 6 article published by Egemen Qazaqstan presented a narrative largely sympathetic to Ukraine. It describes Russian attacks on Ukrainian cities, noting that attacks have occurred in “peaceful areas,” presumably referencing attacks on civilians that have been reported in Western media. While the headline describes the situation as a “crisis,” the conflict is referred to as a “war” six times throughout the article. The framing of a “special military operation” is only used once, in reference to the terminology Russia is forcing media outlets to use. Kazakh-language reporting by Russian-state-owned Sputnik Kazakhstan, in contrast, organizes all of its stories concerning the invasion under the category “Russia’s special military operation in Ukraine.” This is consistent with how the invasion is reported by 24.kg in Kyrgyzstan: as a “conflict” and a “special military operation,” supported primarily with pro-Russian sources. However, Kyrgyzstan’s independent Kloop News does refer to the invasion as a war.
While the way the invasion is reported in Kazakhstan suggests a changing relationship between Russia and Kazakhstan, the pivot toward trying to create conditions to build popular legitimacy for the regime in Kazakhstan is more clearly illustrated by the recent and ongoing massive demonstrations by Kazakhstanis against the war in Ukraine. On March 6 at least 1,500 demonstrators marched in support of Ukraine in Almaty in a government-approved rally. While formal approval for the rally to occur does not mean it is a government-sanctioned rally, the mere fact it was approved is a tacit recognition of the need for the regime, as a way of building legitimacy domestically, to allow people to voice their concerns. Among the demands of the protestors were that Kazakhstan withdraw from both the CSTO and EAEU.
Providing a public venue for these kinds of demands to be made without negative reactions from the regime suggests at least a limited public sphere for debate that did not exist as recently as January. While the January protests were chiefly in response to domestic grievances and the impetus for the March rally was the conflict in Ukraine, the pivot to domestic issues such as Kazakhstan’s CSTO and EAEU membership was surely anticipated by the regime. In fact the regime’s attitude toward discussion of these topics appears to have softened: On February 28 Abai.kz published an article reporting on a public petition for Kazakhstan to withdraw from the CSTO and EAEU, and on March 3 RFE/RL’s Kazakh Service, Azattyq, interviewed Kazakhstani senators about how the war in Ukraine is perceived and whether or not Kazakhstan should remain a member of the Russian-led institutions. While no unequivocal official position toward Russia’s aggression in Ukraine is revealed, neither is there reason to believe that the regime is uncritically beholden to Russian objectives. The fact that these conversations are happening indicates that the regime is willing to acknowledge some demands of the Kazakhstani public. By legitimating the right of the people to protest, the regime also legitimates itself as responsive to the people, even if no further action is taken.
The regime’s reevaluation of Kazakhstan’s relationship with Russia is perhaps accelerated as a result of Tokayev’s efforts to legitimize his rule and in response to Russian aggression toward Ukraine. These more recent developments, however, are part of a longer-term process of establishing a Kazakhstani-centric understanding of sovereignty anchored in nation-building mythmaking. There are clear parallels between the language Putin used in his January 21 speech, describing how Ukraine had no history of statehood, and his 2014 remarks about Kazakhstan. Those 2014 remarks catalyzed more intensive reimagining of Kazakhstan’s national history, including the country’s relationship with the Soviet experience of World War II.
Soviet victory in World War II was a major element of the post-war Soviet identity-building mythmaking project. Through 1991, monuments celebrated the collective Soviet victory, and annual celebrations, such as Victory Day, reinforced the war as an all-Union experience. Since 1991, leaders of the now independent republics have pursued different relationships with this legacy. Kazakhstani leaders, often with the direct cooperation of family members of soldiers that died in World War II and other civil society actors, have reimagined the war as not just a Soviet experience but also as a Kazakhstani experience. This is observed in the ways in which the commemoration of World War II through monuments and other ways has continued in independent Kazakhstan, and how the narratives of Kazakhstan’s history as presented in school textbooks and museum exhibits have incorporated the war experience into a long-durée history of Kazakh statehood.
Russia, on the other hand, is relying ever more on brute force to maintain the regime even in terms of how the past is remembered and commemorated. As Francine Hirsch clearly explains, recent changes and proposed changes to Russia’s memory laws have made it clear that challenges to official narratives of history will not be tolerated. The recent forced closure of Memorial, an organization dedicated, in part, to recording the Soviet Union’s crimes against humanity, further demonstrates unwillingness in the Kremlin to allow debate over questions central to Russian identity. Combined with Putin’s rhetoric justifying the invasion on the basis of the “denazification” of Ukraine, the Russian framing and Kazakhstani framing of World War II cannot be seen as complementary, but rather evidence divergent approaches to shoring up the regime: in Russia a turn to force, while in Kazakhstan a turn toward popular legitimacy.
Kazakhstan’s changing relationship with Russia does not represent a complete rejection of cooperation, and there are many dimensions where Kazakhstan remains reliant on Russia and where Tokayev does advance more pro-Russia positions. It is also unclear the extent to which these changes will be sustained. Nevertheless, there are substantial implications for how Kazakhstani identity, both domestically and as projected abroad, may be remade in the future, and attention to these changes is important for structuring engagement by the West after the situation stabilizes.