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Kazakhstan's view of Ukraine is complicated because it, too, is complicated

Kazakhstan's view of Ukraine is complicated because it, too, is complicated

The county's 'multivector' approach to international affairs has allowed it to maintain independence in a tough region.

Analysis | Middle East

As the war in Ukraine grinds on, officials in Kazakhstan have called for an immediate end to the war, and Deputy Foreign Minister Roman Vassilenko has offered for his country to act as a potential mediator

“For us, it’s not a faraway war. It’s very, very tragic and troubling,” said Vassilenko in a recent interview with Al Jazeera. “And so that’s why Kazakhstan, from the very first days, made itself available as a mediator.”

Like many other countries in the Global South, Kazakhstan has drawn criticism from the West for its approach to the conflict. But the Central Asian country’s decision to largely abstain from United Nations votes condemning Russia makes a lot of sense given both its geography and internal configuration.

As a large landlocked country, Kazakhstan has traditionally employed a multivector foreign policy to maintain peaceful relations with its neighbors. Diplomacy is the main tool on which the country relies to ensure security and stability for itself. 

During the Soviet Union, socialism was meant to act as a binding force between “titular” nations, thereby creating a shared and common identity among Soviet Republics. But, once former Soviet republics gained their independence, they embarked upon a quest to create their post-Soviet national identity, which, in many cases, was built upon foundations of ethnic nationalism and an identity entirely separate from that of Russia, predating both the Soviet Union and the Russian Empire. 

New narratives started to emerge in academic and policy circles in former Soviet states. Analysts began to argue that Russian power during Soviet times had been colonialist and imperialist at the expense of ethnic minorities, ditching the traditional view that the Soviet Union had been a voluntary union between socialist republics. 

A specific example of this is the renewed debate on the Soviet famine. Newer narratives explain these famines as a deliberate genocide against Ukrainians and Kazakhs, who both suffered the brunt of the famine. Older narratives (that continue to hold in academic circles) viewed the famine as a result and product of Stalin’s efforts at collectivization. 

After the fall of the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan was equally split between ethnic Kazakhs and ethnic Russians (who settled in the region under Russian imperial and Soviet rule), both comprising around 38% of the population. Today, due to out-migration by Russians, higher birth rates among Kazakhs, and the repatriation of Kazakhs from Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, and China, Kazakhs form a 70% majority in the country. 

Still, Kazakhstan retains an important ethnic Russian minority of about 16 percent. Other minorities exist as well but do not constitute as large of a proportion of the population. Due to the multi-ethnic nature of the society, the ruling elite under former President Nazarbaev conceptualized the idea of a “Khazakstani” nation — or one that embodies all ethnicities — as opposed to a “Kazakh” nation. This has up until today kept ethnic tension at bay. 

While ethnic minorities or individuals of mixed ethnicity tend to accept this principle, many ethnic Kazakhs believe the country's identity should be shaped around a “Kazakh” nation and that ethnic assimilation should be expected of minorities rather than cohabitation. Such assimilation would require the use of Kazakh in public spaces and as a dominant language. (Due to Kazakhstan’s history, Russian remains the lingua franca.) 

In conversations I had during a recent trip to Kazakhstan, there appeared to be a sharp correlation between conception of self, historical memory, and the way people perceived the war in Ukraine. For those that view Kazakhstan as a “Kazakh” nation in which ethnic minorities should assimilate, the idea that the country should continue to “free” itself from Russian and Soviet influence was more prevalent. These people held rather negative perceptions of Russia and the Soviet past and saw Russian power as oppressive and colonialist. 

To them, Ukraine is fighting a battle of independence for all continuously oppressed ethnic minorities in former Soviet states. I even heard that the war in Ukraine was considered by some to be the last battle between Kyivan Rus and the Mongol Horde, as the Russians are perceived as a “barbaric” Asiatic tribe while Kyivan Rus (part of modern day Ukraine) is viewed as part of a more “civilized” European identity.  

This segment of the population is nervous that Kazakhstan’s northern provinces, where ethnic Russians predominantly reside, will be the next project in what they see as Putin’s quest to restore the Soviet Union’s borders. 

On the other hand, those who supported a more civic conception of nationalism tended to see the war in Ukraine as less about these themes than about great power rivalry and Ukraine’s unwillingness to adopt a multivector foreign policy in order to preserve relations with its much stronger neighbor. The Kazakhstani establishment, for its part, has long been deeply aware that Kazakhstan neighbors two much larger powers — Russia and China — whose interests and views it has to respect.

These Kazakhstanis also criticize what they see as an unnecessary rigidity on the part of Ukrainian nationalists with regard to multiculturalism and identity-shaping. They tended to have less negative perceptions of Russia and the Soviet Union and believed the idea of a “Kazakhstani” nation to be the most sensible approach to the organization of society and identity in the country. 

This part of the population shared far less fears or feelings of anxiety about being “next” in any Russian “imperial quest.” In fact, many did not even view this war as purely imperial. Interview respondents downplayed a potential Russian threat to their country, citing its strong relations with Moscow and the lack of any serious challenges to Russian interests in Kazakhstan.  

In the former British and French colonial territories, the elites speak the colonial languages. This holds true to a certain extent in former territories of the Russian empire, which ties in issues of class and culture with these notions of identity. Also at the root of this issue is the concept of the nation-state, the role of multiculturalism within a nation-state, and how that multiculturalism came to exist. 

Whether multiculturalism came about through imposed colonialism or as a natural process stemming from being part of a united empire, and whether that can be feasibly accepted as part of one’s present national identity, is a divisive issue. People were either willing to accept their more than 500 years of common history with Russia as part of their modern identity, or outright reject it.

Similarly, Ukraine struggled with its post-Soviet identity as it possesses a large percentage of Russian ethnic minorities and Russian speakers along with other minorities. While the country attempted to build civic nationalism under certain presidents, ethnic nationalism gained importance after the Orange Revolution alongside the evolution of Ukrainian-Western relations and the deterioration of Ukrainian-Russian relations. 

The more ethnic nationalism gained importance in Ukrainian politics, the more Ukraine saw itself as completely separate from Russia and the more it wanted to be exclusively part of the West, even though an important percentage of ethnic minorities didn't share that sentiment. Alternatively, a civic form of nationalism would have created more space for a multicultural approach, guaranteeing rights for minorities and with that allowing the space to maintain a multivector foreign policy approach to the West and Russia, thereby creating a balance in the country’s future development trajectory. 

Kazakhstan’s aspirations to be a multicultural Kazakhstani nation with a multivector foreign policy has so far proved to be effective in ensuring stability and development and maintaining peace with its far more powerful neighbors. Interview respondents agreed the country’s multivector foreign policy approach was the best strategy for Kazakhstan due to its geography and history.

However, respondents were divided about the concept of a “Khazakstani” nation as opposed to a “Kazakh” nation. While the former is still the official normative configuration, this may be subject to change down the line. But as long as there are important ethnic minorities in the country, Kazakhstan may want to continue its current approach.

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