President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev of Kazakhstan and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan signed a joint declaration on May 10, 2022 which aims to stipulate strengthening both military and geopolitical partnerships between the two countries.
The agreement has another implication that in the emerging multipolar world system, even medium-sized and presumably regional powers could stand against "grand states." In this particular case, Turkiye could counterbalance Russia and change Kazakhstan's geopolitical trajectory, increasing Kazakhstan's drift from Russo-centric "Eurasianism."
Kazakhstan: A drift from Eurasianism to Kazakh nationalism
Kazakhstan was the last republic to gain its independence from the USSR because comparatively, it had a strong connection with Russia. A significant ethnic Russian/Russian-speaking population, mostly living in northern Kazakhstan, was an essential reason for such a strong connection. The majority of Russians in Kazakhstan were not pleased to be reduced to a minority.
Nursultan Nazarbayev, the founder of the new state, tried to solve this problem by appealing to "Eurasianism," a doctrine that had been forged by the groups of Russian immigrants in the 1920s. They were defending the idea that the USSR belonged neither to the civilization of Eastern Slavs nor to the West. From an ethnic standpoint, Eurasianists argued that Russia constituted a unique civilization built on the "symbiosis" of Orthodox Slavs and Muslims, particularly Turkic people.
Eurasianism was unknown in the USSR but had become quite popular by the end of the Soviet era. Nazarbayev appealed to it as a convenient ideological tool. On the one hand, Eurasianism provided him with an argument for a continued relationship with Russia. In 1994, Nazarbayev even proposed the creation of a “Eurasian Union”, a loose confederation that would include Russia, Kazakhstan, and some other states. On the other hand, he employed Eurasianism in dealing with internal problems. Kazakhstan was portrayed as a peculiar "Eurasian" nation built on the "symbiosis" of Turkic Kazakhs and minorities, primarily ethnic Russian/Russian-speaking people. However, this paradigm failed, and the ideology of Eurasianism, a legacy of the multiethnic USSR, began to crumble in both Russia and Kazakhstan.
From Eurasianism to Russian nationalism
Eurasianism was hardly the only ideology popular in the early post-Soviet Russia period. Russian nationalism, in its various manifestations, became an increasingly popular, complicated, and contradictory phenomenon at the time. It often combined two opposite drives. On the one hand, supporters claimed that Russia and Russians had taken advantage of the USSR's numerous "brothers," meaning the other republics. Those brothers despised Russians while demanding Russia's resources.
On the other hand, the proponents of the creed were not against Russia's imperial aggrandizement only if Russians would benefit from the conquest. Furthermore, they claimed that, like Nazi Germany, Russia should conquer the Sudetenland by seizing territories occupied by ethnic Russians. These are fair enough to define how Moscow's approach to Kazakhstan was.
Increasing Russian threat
There have been an increasing number of claims that Kazakhstan was an artificial state created by the Soviet regime. Russian President Vladimir Putin proclaimed that Kazakhstan had emerged only after the collapse of the USSR. There were also continuous claims that northern Kazakhstan should be given back to Russia. Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the famous Russian writer, public figure and Nobel laureate, made such statements even before the collapse of the USSR. The most recent of these statements is attributed to Viacheslav Nikonov, a Duma deputy. All of these gave Kazakhstan's leaders pause.
Eurasianism as a trend has subsided or at least has become more Kazakhstan-centered, paralleling a similar process in Russia. Astana's apprehension increased in 2014 when Russia annexed the predominantly Russian-speaking Crimea and supported Lugansk and Donetsk republics. The direct invasion of Ukraine started in February 2022 and led to even more concern. While engaged in "multivectorism" a long time ago, Astana has become especially eager to find an additional geopolitical backup in case of a Russian threat. Eurasianism, in its original interpretation, has started to lose its popularity and has been increasingly replaced by pan-Turkism. Consequently, Turkiye has arisen as a geopolitical alternative. The question is why Kazakhstan is becoming closer to Turkiye?
Turkiye: role of a regional power in multipolar universe
One might assume that Turkiye and Kazakhstan would make a good match due to their ethnic similarities. Both countries are Turkish, and Kazakh and Turkish leaders have pointed out common ancestral roots. Still, ethnic and cultural similarities often have little implication for actual geopolitical posture. Indeed, while Russians and Ukrainians are pretty close to each other ethnically and linguistically, this does not preclude brutal conflict. Kazakhstan may be turning its back on Turkiye for a variety of reasons. One of them is the role of the nature of emerging multipolarity.
It is usually assumed that only the great powers, such as China and Russia, could challenge the USA's vanishing "unipolarity." Even medium-sized countries can threaten a hegemon, and Turkiye, with its counterweight function exhibited in a variety of ways, could be one of them. To start with, Turkiye’s ability to become a global center is demonstrated by its successful relations with great nations, one of which is Russia. Secondly, during the Azerbaijan-Armenian war, Turkiye supported Azerbaijan against Russian support for Armenia regarding the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute. Finally, Turkiye's defense technological investments debunk the popular belief that only great powers can develop complex weapons.
By producing Bayraktar, an autonomous combat aerial vehicle, on par with similar devices created by any great power, including Russia, Turkiye has shown that this is not the case. Bayraktar played a decisive role in Azerbaijan's victory in the war with Armenia. As a result, Turkish military, technological, and geopolitical power has become the fundamental reason why Kazakhstan has sought closer ties with Turkiye and replaced Russia-oriented Eurasianism with pan-Turkism.
Kazakhstan's growing interest in Turkiye could not be explained solely by cultural, linguistic, or ethnic similarities between the two countries, but also by other, more significant factors. This alliance shows that a medium-sized and, presumably, regional power may act as a geopolitical center in its own right, protecting other states from global powers.
AA/Dmitry V. Shlapentokh