In Astana, and amongst the wider Kazakh population, there is emerging a clear trend of anti-Russian defiance. Although Kazakhstan is one of Russia’s closest allies, this age-old relationship has been eroding – in part a result of economic pressures suffered by falling bilateral trade, but also by growing distrust of Russia’s foreign policy objectives on the back of the annexation of Crimea.

The future of Kazakhstan’s foreign policy is already being (re) shaped by the country’s emerging political elite – with glimpses of a new trajectory evident in reshuffles and the targets of anti-corruption drives. It are these subtle alterations in the landscape of Kazakhstan’s leadership that will need to be closely monitored to fully appreciate the nuanced changes emerging in what will, inevitably, be a post-Nazarbayev era.


  • Despite Moscow’s desire to maintain some degree of influence over Astana, largely driven by its desire to become an energy superpower, there are strong indications that Kazakhstan is repositioning its foreign policy focus.
  • President Nazarbayev has, in the past, done well to balance relations between East and West, however, a marked turn towards Beijing signals a clear shift towards anti-Russian defiance.
  • Internally, government reshuffles and anti-corruption crusades appear to have targeted pro-Russian personalities; feeding perceptions of an emerging wider plan to establish alternative foreign ties.

The Russian Umbilical Cord
Since the middle of the sixteenth century, Russia has sought to dominate Kazakhstan as a way of projecting itself as a Eurasian power. In the eyes of many Kazakh nationalists, the creation of the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) two years ago was just the latest ruse by Moscow to accomplish this longstanding geopolitical objective.

Yet Kazakhstan is one of Russia’s closest allies. Unlike other former Soviet states, it has stuck firmly by Russia’s side in the Commonwealth of Independent States free-trade bloc, and in the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) military bloc, often portraying itself as Russia’s bridge to Central Asia. In 2015, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev was one of the first heads of state (along with Alexander Lukashenko, his counterpart in Belarus) to sign up to Putin’s EEU, the so-called ‘axis of dictators’.

Russia presents the EEU as a guarantor of stability in the region, but Kazakhstan has suffered economically as a result of its new interconnectedness with Russia, a country sanctioned by the United States and the European Union following the annexation of Crimea.

Integration With Russia: A Failing Equation
Over the past year Kazakhstan’s trade with the EU has fallen in value by nearly a half, while Nazarbayev himself has criticized the EEU’s benefits, even discussing temporarily closing borders with Russia in November 2016 to prevent cheap Russian goods from flooding the Kazakh market, a move that would have breached the EEU charter.

As the backlash against Russian-Kazakh integration grows, and the Kazakh leader struggles to maintain a political and commercial equilibrium in his country’s relations with Moscow and the West, many ethnic Kazakhs have begun to fear that Putin’s ‘Eurasianism’ is merely a new form of colonisation by Russia.

Russia’s desire to maintain a positive relationship with Kazakhstan comes from its wish to become an energy superpower.

The two countries have long-standing and close energy relations. The two countries have long-standing and close energy relations. The bulk of Kazakh oil exports are transported through the Russian pipeline infrastructure operated by state-owned Transneft. Kazakhstan is also a transit state for Russian gas imports from Turkmenistan via the Central Asia-Center gas pipeline system, which is controlled by Gazprom. Russian energy companies are also involved in the exploration of several of Kazakhstan’s oil and gas fields.

...Furthered Scuppered by the China Factor
However, one of the complications of Kazakhstan’s EEU membership is a parallel relationship with China, which is now the country’s major investment and trade partner in Kazakhstan. China is pushing its One Belt One Road (OBOR), a massive trade project that foresees oil pipelines from Kazakhstan to China, and gas pipelines from Turkmenistan through Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan to China, as a way of reducing Kazakhstan’s dependence on Russian gas export routes.

Russia is wary of Astana’s links and debts to China, whose advance into Kazakhstan threatens to tip the balance of power in Central Asia. Until recently, Nazarbayev tried to strike a difficult balance, a multi-vector policy of triangulating between Russia, China and the United States. But, paradoxically, since accession to the EEU, with the country’s long-term political future so unclear, Kazakh elites have used increasingly anti-Russian defiance as a mechanism to rally the Kazakh public around the regime.

The articulation of Kazakhstan’s independent foreign policy identity has become more pronounced since the annexation of Crimea, due to fears that Russia could use a Ukraine or Georgia-style pretext to intervene militarily in order to ‘protect’ ethnic Russians in northern Kazakhstan.

A New Road Spearheaded by a Post-Nazarbayev Generation
Few analysts expect Nazarbayev, now aged 77, to remain in power after the end of his current presidential term in 2020. The next leader of Kazakhstan will most likely be less pro-Russian and more open to better relations with China. He or she may even seek deeper engagement with Europe, an outcome that is Moscow’s worst nightmare.

However, policy differences are known to exist even within the Nazarbayev clan. For instance, Nazarbayev’s son-in-law Timur Kulibayev is close to Russia, and a director of Gazprom, whose priority in Kazakhstan in recent years has been to ensure that the country does not supply gas to pipelines that would compete in its core European markets.

Others have radically different ideas for the economic development of Kazakhstan relative to Russian, China and the West, and neither Nazarbayev’s daughter Dariga nor Karim Massimov, a former prime minister now the head of the security services and architect of Kazakhstan’s closer relationship with China, is seen as reliable to the Kremlin, for instance.

Since he replaced Massimov as Prime Minister a year ago, Bakytzhan Sagintayev has taken steps to establish alternative foreign ties, while being careful not to alienate Moscow, or unleash a battle between two rival clans: the so-called Old Guard made up of conservative, largely pro-Russian loyalists close to Kulibayev, on the one hand, and several oligarchs close to the President, including Dariga Nazarbayeva and the wealthy businessman Bulat Utemuratov, on the other. (A third group loosely called the Southerners has emerged in recent months as a counterweight to both factions, complicating Nazarbayev’s efforts to balance rival interests within his inner circle.)

last year’s cabinet reshuffle facilitated a shift within the elite to diminish the influence of figures with close ties to Russia, according to an informed Shadow Governance source. He points to a wave of high-profile arrests in recent months.

In January 2017, for instance, the former economic minister Kuandyk Bishimbayev, who had worked closely with Kulibayev on plans for the Samruk-Kazyna privatisation, was arrested on corruption charges and accused of spying for Russia. In August, a military court in Akmola sentenced former KNB chief Nartay Dutbayev to eight years in prison for leaking state secrets to Moscow. In June, the former Deputy Chief of the Presidential Administration, Baghlan Mailybayev, was detained on a similar charge.

Meanwhile, former Deputy Prime Minister Imangali Tasmagambetov, whom many saw as the Old Guard’s preferred candidate to succeed Nazarbayev, has been effectively sent into exile as Kazakhstan ambassador to Moscow, replacing the anti-Russian hawk Marat Tazhin who has returned to Astana to take up a powerful new role as Head of the Presidential Administration.
The Waning of Russia’s Near Abroad Influence
In some ways, the current tension between Astana and Moscow is reminiscent of the final years of the Soviet era in Kazakhstan, which were marred by ethnic conflicts and nationalism, discriminatory laws, unequal representation in governing bodies, and Kazakh-based favouritism reversing Stalin’s Russification. On that occasion, the nationalists policy was focused on securing Kazakhstan’s independence, the return of Kazakh lands to the Kazakh people, and the establishment of Kazakh religious and language rights.

Three decades on, the Russian language remains dominant in Kazakhstan, with Nazarbayev and others of his generation more comfortable speaking it than Kazakh. At the same time, in order to diminish Russia’s cultural and social influence, the government has announced it will be introducing a new alphabet by the end of the year, switching from the Cyrillic-based script to Latin. Nazarbayev has decreed that all publications, documents, and street signs will switch from Cyrillic to Latin by 2025.

Speaking in July, he championed the initiative as a long overdue effort to assert Kazakh culture and identity, but in reality, it is being seen as a political move to further distance the country from Russia.