While most of the world focuses on Russia and the Ukraine a far more consequential situation is evolving in resource rich Central Asia. In January 2022, Vladimir Putin’s troops helped crush protestors in Kazakhstan. His efforts to rebuild the former Soviet Empire may appear unstoppable. But profound changes in the region mean time and tide are moving against Russia’s regional ambition to rebuild the Soviet era buffer states. It is more likely that these countries will ally with their Muslim kin countries to their south.
Kazakhstan is a wealthy country in terms of natural resources. It boasts healthy reserves of oil, gas, copper and has forty percent of the world’s uranium deposits. Its largest customer is China. The country’s exports have created a lot of wealth but not a lot of jobs. The economy is dominated by a handful of oligarchic families with links to the former President, Nursultan Nazarbayev.
The wealth generated by the export of these natural resources has been consumed by these top families while income for the rest of the country has stagnated. In a country of eighteen million, less than two hundred people control more than 55% of the wealth according to the accounting firm KPMG.
Instability and inequality have been the rule in Kazakhstan’s as the country’s unpopular leadership has been challenged by her citizens. The Russian’s have propped up the country’s oligarchs, while waging war repeatedly in the Muslim world.
Much of Kazakhstan’s wealth has been moved abroad, but a sizable share has been used to build a cult of personality around the former president. The nation’s capital city was named in his honor and his face is on the national currency. The country, which had two statues of Nazarbayev when he formally resigned in 2019, has added three more in recent years.
When peaceful protests broke out this January to oppose this state of affairs, they were co-opted by aggrieved oligarchs seeking to overthrow Nazarbayev’s successor. This, now violent opposition, threatened to overthrow the current President. In desperation, President Tokayev called in the Russians who helped to crush the legitimate protestors.
Hundred were killed and thousands were jailed. The Kazakh government has desperately and pathetically tried to make this look like a terrorist attack that originated outside the country. A jazz singer from Kyrgyzstan was beaten into a confession that he was part of a plot. After his release he explained the confession was offered because, “I heard that they send you home once you do that.”
This lack of stability or economic progress has made the country ripe for a political transition. As the economic growth of China and the demographic expansion of Muslim world has increased Kazakhstan, as a whole, has become less connected to, or dependent on, Russia.
Russia is the bully from the North that had divided the countries of Central Asia in a cynical fashion reminiscent of the Sykes-Picot map which divided the Arab populations in the Middle East. The people of the Fergana Valley were split so they would be dependent on Russia to resolve their internecine conflicts. But Kazakhstan is increasingly a county that can stand on its own economically with a population increasingly fatigued by a kleptocratic oligarchy propped up by Russia.
Russia has engaged in a number of conflicts against Muslim countries and regions in the past forty years. Directly or through proxies it has battled Muslims in Afghanistan, Georgia, Bosnia, Azerbaijan, Chechnya, Syria and Libya.
In the 1970s, ethnic Russians were more than forty percent of the population in Kazakhstan but are now less than twenty percent and shrinking. Ethnic Kazakhs, who were thirty percent of the population in the 1970s, are now seventy percent and growing.
Since the former President, Nursultan Nazarbayev officially left office Russians have felt less welcome. One Russian commentator, who lives in Kazakhstan, explained that the new President seems committed to a “Kazakh First” approach. Russians have continued to leave for decades and if this trend continues ethnic Russians will make up less than ten percent of the population in the coming decades.
While a “Kazakh First” approach may be pushing Russians back to the motherland, the Russian “compatriot” policy has been pulling them. The compatriot policy is an attempt to rebuild the country’s population with Eastern Orthodox practicing Russian-speaking citizens. Those living outside the country receive social services, cash and an expedited citizenship process for their return to Russia. A spokesman explained the program was focused on, “Russian-speakers with dual citizenship or people who are planning to apply for Russian citizenship,” along with those that hold Russian passports.
Many of the ethnic Russians in Kazakhstan speak only Russian, while most Kazakhs speak the Turkic language, Kazakh. The country is officially switching from the Cyrillic alphabet, used in Russian, to the Latin alphabet. This follows similar changes in Turkey, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan.
This is emblematic of the demographic and cultural shift throughout Central Asia.
There are 2,300 mosques in the country and fewer than 260 Orthodox churches. While Russia is the torch bearer for the Eastern Orthodox Christianity its population has stagnated for the last forty years around 145 million. During this same time the population in the Muslim countries of Central Asia and their fellow Islamic countries in the region has doubled to more than 480 million. Islamic influence in Central Asia is growing through multiple channels. Commercial, financial, educational, religious, political and diplomatic ties are growing between Central Asia and the Muslim world.
As Kazakhstan becomes commercially independent and more culturally drawn to the Muslim civilization, it will evolve away from the Russian sphere of influence. If current economic and demographic growth trends continue this transition should occur in the next two decades. The same could be true for the other Central Asian countries as well. While geopolitical events could accelerate or slow this transition, the evolution seems inevitable. As Central Asia is drawn towards its religious peer countries in the Muslim South, Russia’s ability to dominate the region will disappear.