Kazakh and Russian History and Its Geopolitical Implications

By Shlapentokh, Dmitry | Insight Turkey, Fall 2016 | Go to article overview

Kazakh and Russian History and Its Geopolitical Implications


Shlapentokh, Dmitry, Insight Turkey


ABSTRACT In 2015, Kazakhstan celebrated 550 years of Kazakh statehood. The extraordinary interest in these events, both among Kazakh officials and some members of the international community, has a clear political message. It underscores Kazakhstan's independence from Russia regardless of Kazakhstan's entering the Eurasian Union in 2015. The celebration also underscores the fact that the borders of present-day Kazakhstan have historical roots and are not just a recent "gift" from Russia. Some Russians living in Kazakhstan, and even some ethnic Kazakhs, protested the 2015 interpretation of Kazakhstan history and the relationship it implies between Kazakhstan and Russia. Ironically, Moscow provided no help for these protestors, and actually helped Astana deal with the Russian Nationalists. The reason was simple: the rise of Russian Nationalism could create problems not just for Astana but also for Moscow.

In the fall of 2015, Kazakhstan officials celebrated the 550th anniversary of what they consider the beginning of their statehood. Not only was this sort of celebration unknown in the past, but the festivities were a major state event. They were broadly celebrated in Kazakhstan and had international implications as well, particularly in the United States. A movie related to the event was shown in Washington, and Kazakhstan officials in the U.S. made a special presentation related to a book on the beginning of Kazakhstan history in front of representatives of American officials and academics; the presentation was done in connection with the 550th anniversary of Kazakh statehood. This extraordinary interest of Kazakhstan officials in what seems to be a purely academic subject had clear political implications. Possibly one of the most important implications of the year-long celebration--definitely noted by the Kremlin--was the message sent to Moscow that Kazakhstan will follow its own policy regardless of Moscow's wishes and will deal harshly with those who challenge them. Several arrests in fall 2015 by Kazakh authorities targeted ethnic Kazakhs, who claimed that Russian and Kazakh history are closely integrated and that therefore Kazakhstan should be geopolitically and economically close to Russia. Kazakhstan police also arrested some ethnic Russians in Kazakhstan just for their belief that Northern Kazakhstan could be attached to Russia. Interestingly enough, Moscow not only ignored these ideological barbs wrapped in historiographic speculation, but actually helped Astana deal harshly with the Russian nationalists and engaged in its own harsh policy toward the Russian nationalists. Moscow's action was clear: catering to Russian nationalism is a dangerous undertaking and could harm not just Astana's, but also Moscow's interests.

Kazakhstan's First Year of Independence and Flirtation with Eurasianism

Like many other Central Asian nations, Kazakhstan was unsure about its fate as a new nation at the beginning of the post-Soviet era. After all, Kazakhstan has a large Russian-speaking population in the north, and the emerging post-Soviet Russia elite, even Yeltsin himself, clearly indicated that this land should belong to Russia. It became clear to Kazakhstan's President, Nursultan Nazarbaev, a pragmatic and sober politician, that irritating Russia would hardly be in the country's interest, and that the opposite geopolitical direction would be much more preferable. Consequently, Nazarbaev wanted to be close to Russia and proposed a loose alliance with Russia in the early 1990s under the ideological umbrella of "Eurasianism."

Eurasianism is a teaching that emerged in the 1920s among Russian emigres, based on the assumption that Russia is, in a way, a descendant of the Mongol Empire, which forged a political-cultural "symbiosis" of Orthodox Russians and minorities, the latter being predominately Muslims of Turkic origin. Eurasianism, with its tinge of "Sovietism," became quite popular in post-Soviet Russia and beyond, as the attraction of Western models declined. …

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