Kazakhstan's Nuclear Naivety

At The Diplomat, Kazakhstan's foreign minister -- Erlan Idrissov -- has authored a piece discussing how his country has been nuclear weapons free for 20 years and that "Kazakhstan's recent history shows you don’t need a nuclear arsenal to feel safe."

In fact, recent history in the region, coupled to statements from Kazakhstan's own leaders in the past few months, show the exact opposite.

It is easy to understand why Idrissov and his fellow citizens dislike nuclear weapons. During the Cold War, Kazakhstan was used for Soviet above-ground weapons testing -- leaving a disastrous environmental and health legacy.

But only a few months ago, Nursultan Nazarbayev -- Kazakhstan's leader since 1989 -- was not feeling safe without nuclear weapons. As reported by The Guardian last September:

In little-noticed remarks last week, [Vladimir Putin] called into question the legitimacy of the post-Soviet state of Kazakhstan while ordering the Kazakhs to be on their best behaviour when it came to serving Russian interests.

The remarks, to an audience of young people in Russia on Friday, sent shocke [sic] waves through the central Asian republic, which also hosts a large ethnic Russian minority centred in the north on the Russian border.

Putin said there had never been a country called Kazakhstan, that the republic was purely the product of the current president, Nursultan Nazarbayev.

"I am confident that a majority of its population supports development of close ties with Russia," said Putin. "Nazarbayev is a prudent leader, even the most prudent in the post-Soviet space. He would never act against the will of his country's people." ...

Nazarbayev was unimpressed by Putin's views on Kazakh statehood and threatened to loosen ties with Russia, which could provoke a forceful Kremlin reaction.

Much like Ukraine, regions of Kazakhstan contain a majority of ethnic Russians. And like Ukraine, the ethnic Russians in Kazakhstan have a long history of loyalty towards Russia that manifests itself in separatist movements. Separatist efforts in the industrial northeast were strong during the 1990s, leading to jailings of pro-Russian conspirators taking part in separatist plots. In the city of Oskemen, two-thirds of residents are Russian. In the rest of Kazakhstan, the ethnic Russian make-up is closer to 20 percent.

Along Kazakhstan's 7,000 km border with Russia, there are enough ethnic Russians that a repeat of what happened in the Crimea, and what is ongoing in eastern Ukraine, is a real threat. In April 2014, some Russia nationalists made territorial claims about northern Kazakhstan that attracted Kazakhstan's stern diplomatic rebuff, but Moscow only "dissociated itself" from the statement and failed to entirely dismiss potential interest in the annexation of at least part of Kazakhstan. Other than Ukraine, "Kazakhstan has the largest number of ethnic Russians outside Russia, about 4 million."

In February 2014, Vladimir Zhirinovsky -- a Kazakhstan-born Russian politician -- called for Kazakhstan to join Russia as a "Central Asian Federal Region." Even Valery Tishkov -- the director of a Moscow think tank and a former Russian nationalities minister -- acknowledged that "Northern Kazakhstan, which is primarily populated by Russians, could suffer the same fate of [sic] the southeast of Ukraine." In 1996, well-known Soviet dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn also said that northern Kazakhstan should "revert to" Russia.

Demographics in Kazakhstan are changing, but they cannot erase history. When the Cold War ended, ethnic Russians comprised 40 percent of the population, which has since declined to 21 percent. However, the Kazakhs "were in more or less continuous rebellion against Russia from the 18th century through the 20th ... The Kazakhs were ultimately too weak to withstand the Russian advance, however, and were forced to accommodate Russia's demands that they submit politically." This history parallels that of Ukraine's long and unhappy relationship with Russia. If Russia's influence in Kazakhstan wanes due to a dilution of ethnic Russians in the country, other means -- possibly involving force -- of retaining a strong Russian influence may be pursued.

In May 2014, Russia created the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) that initially included Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan (Armenia and Kyrgyzstan are now members as well). Nationalists in Kazakhstan viewed the EEU with deep suspicion, calling its timing problematic after the Russian invasion of Ukraine and that the EEU cedes effective sovereignty of Kazakhstan to Russia. Nazarbayev has recently mentioned leaving the EEU "if it threatens independence," but one suspects that any attempt by Kazakhstan to leave the EEU will result in the same reaction from Russia as Ukraine received when it tried to distance itself.

Kazakhstan only has limited options in its strategizing. Russia controls much of Kazakhstan's oil and gas export routes. Just last month, Russia called for a currency union with Belarus and Kazakhstan. The leaders of the non-Russian nations did not respond publicly, and their feelings on the matter are believed to be "lukewarm." For a Russian leader to propose a currency union without the prior, unequivocal support of Kazakhstan is best interpreted through a threatening lens.

If Kazakhstan feels safe at this point in history next to Russia, it shouldn't. Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons under the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances, and when it started to separate itself from Russian influence, Putin invaded. A rational mind would conclude that as long as Kazakhstan submits to Russian desires, it will not be attacked. But the moment Kazakhstan tries to set a national course that Putin sees as being at odds with Russian interests, one can expect the hammer to drop. If Kazakhstan would have retained nuclear weapons, it would not need to worry about such questions -- a lesson Ukraine should have also learned.

Regardless, Kazakhstan is not a free nation. In fact, its current democracy index is lower than Russia's (both are clearly authoritarian regimes). It is ranked as one of the most corrupt nations -- effectively as corrupt as Russia -- and has one of the lowest press freedom indices (worse off than Russia). Thus, Russia and Kazakhstan are six of one, half a dozen of the other. Consequently, having members of a corrupt, authoritarian leadership team advocate the essential principles of the Global Zero cult adds further evidence to the argument that Kazakhstan's nuclear weapons free policies are not a model for those states who actually value the freedoms of their citizenry.