During the fading days of the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan gained its independence on December 16, 1991. Faced with political and economic uncertainty, it attempted to maintain a close relationship with Russia all the while embarking on a new path forward. Following independence, Kazakhstan remained relatively unknown to outsiders despite being the 9th largest country in terms of land size in the world. Kazakhstan has in fact long served as a crossroads for major trade routes bound for China, the Middle East, and Russia. Moreover, as the world’s largest landlocked country Kazakhstan has also had to delicately manage relations with its much larger and powerful neighbors, Russia and China. Thus far, it has proven remarkably adept in playing the major actors against one another for influence. Rich deposits of oil and gas have allowed Kazakhstan to reap large sums from energy exports. Such wealth has gradually trickled down and allowed a middle class to form that is increasingly cosmopolitan and eager to obtain the latest consumer products. In addition, Kazakhstan has a relatively young and growing population that can power future economic development. President Nursultan Nazarbayev has used this increased affluence to position Kazakhstan as a leader in Central Asia as well as attempted to elevate Kazakhstan’s global profile by hosting conferences and large events, including the recent World Expo. With such developments, the future would appear bright for Kazakhstan on the world stage. However, it faces sizeable political, economic, and geopolitical pressures that challenge the progress that has been made over the last few decades.
Politically, Kazakhstan remains relatively unchanged since the days of the Soviet Union. After years of bureaucratic obscurity, Nazarbayev was appointed as the Prime Minister of Kazakhstan in 1984 and eventually selected as the President of Kazakhstan in 1990 by Soviet authorities. During Kazakhstan’s first presidential election in 1991, he won the vote by a large margin and has since been the victor of every successive election. Political freedoms remain limited with heavy censorship of the press and elections that have been criticized by outside observers. Remarking on the 2016 parliamentary elections, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) noted that “the ruling party had a clear advantage over the others in these elections, and while the parties were generally able to campaign freely, genuine political choice remains insufficient”. Since Kazakhstan’s independence, Nazarbayev has exerted tight control over the country’s political affairs, leaving the operations of government agencies under the helm of allied families and friends. This has at times set up a chaotic system of competing rivalries among groups of families eager to obtain greater power and control. Nazarbayev has proven remarkably resilient, but he is not immortal. After years of political repression, there is no clear front runner that is in a strong position to govern the country. Speculation has abounded that his daughter is in line to gain power, but it remains unclear whether Nazarbayev is grooming her for the position. Another closely followed frontrunner, the Defense Minister Imangali Tasmagambetov, was suddenly demoted by Nazarbayev when he was appointed as the Ambassador to Russia. Such a leadership vacuum is of serious concern since Nazarbayev is 77 years old and there is no underlying slate of leaders that would be able to quickly occupy his role. Thus far, Nazarbayev has been skilled in bridging the diverse number of ethnic groups that reside within Kazakhstan’s borders. However, it is unclear whether this stability would hold in the event of his death or incapacitation.
In fact, Kazakhstan faces considerable geopolitical uncertainty. After all, Kazakhstan’s borders are relatively new, with substantial cultural differences between the north and south. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, many Russians found themselves overnight in a new country. Since that time, the sparsely populated northern part of Kazakhstan has retained its close linguistic and cultural ties with Russia. Meanwhile, most of Kazakhstan’s population resides in the south, with more distinct ties to countries such as Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. Moreover, there is a stark religious divide with Russian Orthodox churches dominating in the north and Islam more prevalent in the south. Some observers have even speculated that in the event of Nazarbayev’s death, Russia may try to break away some of the northern provinces in the interests of safeguarding ethnic Russian populations in a redux of the Crimean invasion. Indeed, Putin has voiced skepticism of the origins of the Kazakh state noting that Nazarbayev “created a state on territory where no state had ever existed”.
Nazarbayev has tried to bridge this north south gap with somewhat limited success. In 1997, Nazarbayev declared that the capital would be moved from Almaty in the south to a tiny fishing village located over 1,200 kilometers to the north. Geographically, the site for the new capital Astana was centrally located and provided the opportunity to build a city from scratch. Nazarbayev hired several prominent architects to design buildings for the futuristic new capital. Moreover, Nazarbayev has sought to encourage the use of the Kazakh language amongst the public and in government documents. As a result of the legacy of the Soviet Union, most Kazakhs speak Russian. However, Kazakhstan recently implemented a policy of prioritizing the use of Kazakh in public schools and in textbooks. In addition, Kazakhstan is also in the process of transitioning from use of the Cyrillic alphabet for Kazakh to the Latin alphabet. Nevertheless, the stark linguistic divisions between north and south will prevent Kazakh from being the lingua franca anytime soon.
Economically, Kazakhstan has made significant strides since independence. In exchange for assistance in developing the country’s oil and gas resources, Kazakhstan signed contracts with large American energy companies such as Chevron and Exxon Mobil. Since that time, the US has joined both China and Russia in viewing Kazakhstan as a strategic partner. While profits from oil and gas exports have raised the standard of living for many Kazakhs, it is not enough to power the country in the future. Low energy prices pose a long-term threat to this traditional source of prosperity. Outside of the energy industry, Kazakhstan’s economy remains relatively stunted. Wary of the “resource curse”, Nazarbayev has more recently begun a campaign to try to diversify the country’s economy away from an overreliance on oil and gas exports. Amongst his priorities is to position Astana as a financial center for Central Asia following Dubai’s example in the Middle East. Kazakhstan intends to use the facilities and buildings left over from the World Expo to serve as a site for this financial center. However, bureaucratic red tape and an arcane regulatory framework make it difficult to generate the entrepreneurs and small businesses that could aid Kazakhstan in transitioning its economy. To improve its business climate, Kazakhstan is presently partnering with the former Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales to revise the legal framework regarding investment so that it better matches English common law. However, it remains to be seen whether this will significantly change the status quo. Corruption is also rampant, making Kazakhstan a challenging business climate to attract foreign investment. Moreover, Nazarbayev has tried to slow the “brain drain” of young people leaving Kazakhstan in search of higher education and economic opportunity by directing increased funding to universities and research institutions. Nevertheless, access to higher education among young people is still limited due to the varying and overall inequality of educational standards and institutions.
It remains unclear whether Kazakhstan will be able to bridge these challenges. Economically, Kazakhstan remains attached to its energy wealth and has thus far reform needed to attract foreign investment, spur small businesses, and expand educational opportunities for its youthful and growing population has been slow. Additionally, Kazakhstan faces an underlying threat from an increasingly assertive Russia that could take advantage of any power vacuum in Nazarbayev’s absence. While Nazarbayev has taken steps to bridge the north-south divide, it is uncertain whether it is enough to hold the country together in the future. Politically and figuratively, Nazarbayev has occupied a quintessential role in the operation of the Kazakh state over the past 3 decades. However, considerable uncertainty over political succession remains. A more open and democratic process would be beneficial to Kazakhstan’s long-term political stability, but seems unlikely in the short term.