A Kipchak Conflict and the Russian Sphere

Frédérick Maranda-Bouchard Analysis, Conflict & Security, Economics, Russia & FSU Leave a Comment

The nations of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan have had a relationship that can easily be described as brotherly since independence. They share common origin, close linguistic ties, and are members of several international organizations together. However, in the past year the relationship between these two Kipchaks brothers (a language group that includes Kyrgyz and Kazakh) have been degrading ever more. This conflict not only affects the relationship between these two countries, but also furthers the development of the ‘New Great Game’, the competition between powerful states for influence in the strategic region that is Central Asia by compelling Russia to make a choice between two regional allies.

However, during the last Kyrgyz presidential elections that took place October 2017, Kazakhstan was accused by the Kyrgyz government of meddling in their elections in favour of the opposition candidate Ömürbek Babanov. This sparked a clash between the two countries that led to a quick deterioration of the relation between them including an address by the Kyrgyz President, Almazbek Atambayev, at the General Assembly of the United Nations criticizing their previous ally and the tightening of the border between the two nations. Babanov went off to lose the election to the ruling party candidate Sooronbay Jeenbekov, however, the international community was not optimistic concerning a possible warming of the relations between the countries.

Nevertheless, following the transition of power, the tension somewhat eased. Jeenbekov, the new president was more inclined than his predecessor to hold talks with Kazakh’s Nursultan Nazarbayev regime. He held talks in Minsk, Belarus concerning the border between the two countries, borders that were still disputed. During the month of December of last year, both countries agreed to resolve their broader disputes at the World Trade Organization and at the Eurasian Economic Union.

However, those improvements were impeded last February when a member of the Kyrgyz Parliament, Damirbek Asylbek uulu, was arrested in Almaty by the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Kazakhstan. The conflict was somewhat resolved when it was learned that Asylbek uulu, member of the Kyrgyzstan Party which is a member of the ruling coalition, also possessed Kazakh citizenship, which prevents him from holding elected office in Kyrgyzstan and, therefore, stripped him from his seat in parliament.

The recent conflict between the countries has led to collateral damages in one of the giants of the region: Russia. Russia has been allied with both countries since independence and has been one of the frontrunners in the ‘New Great Game’, however, with the degradation of the relation, Russia had to make a choice. This choice, while not being overtly announced by the Kremlin, can be observed by the way the question of the alphabets in Central Asia was addressed. In April 2017, Kazakhstan announced that it is going to change its Cyrillic alphabet to a Latin one. Kyrgyzstan, now the last Turkic country in the world to use the Cyrillic alphabet, was also considering switching to Latin in order to be able to communicate with neighbouring countries. Russia decided to keep their influence under the less rich and less populated of the two countries: Kyrgyzstan. According to some, they practically “[bribed them] from Changing to Latin Alphabet”. Meanwhile, Kazakhstan doubled down on their intention to switch to the Latin alphabet and therefore splitting away definitively from the ‘Russian World’.

The decision to choose Kyrgyzstan instead of their substantially more powerful neighbour might lift some eyebrows, especially considering how much richer Kazakhstan is, especially in terms of resources needed by Russia for its survival. However, this decision makes a lot more sense if we look at the general trends taken by the countries in the last decade. Kazakhstan, while being considered as really close to Russia, has been searching for a way to get out of their sphere of influence. The economic development of the country has been quite significant and the Russians living in Northern Kazakhstan now have a better standard of living than those living in Russia. Meanwhile, Kyrgyzstan is still struggling to have a sustainable economy, have had two revolutions in the last 15 years and are still highly dependent on Russian subsidies for national defence.

Considering that Russia has been consistently struggling to keep their advantage influence-wise over China in the region and has already spent a lot keeping Kyrgyzstan out of the American sphere of influence in the bidding war they had with them over the presence of military Air Base in the country, it is understandable that Russia is bidding on the country they have the more chance to keep on the long term, instead of leaving it to China, which needs it for the development of their new Silk Road. Meanwhile, Kyrgyzstan is repaying Russia for their choice by keeping open the idea of a second Russian Air Base in the region. Furthermore, investing in Kyrgyzstan instead of Kazakhstan might show a new path for Russia. Since the annexation of Crimea by Russia, the Kazakh government has been growing increasingly concerned about potential security threats in the northern part of the country which is in majority ethnic Russian. There is no sign that Kazakhstan will face that fate in a near future and Russia has shown none or low interest in repeating its Crimean scenario in Central Asia. However, the almost official breakup they had with Russia cannot do anything but bring flashbacks of the outcomes of the Maidan Revolution. Furthermore, the leader of the country since independence Nursultan Nazarbayev is not getting any younger as the last surviving original leader of Central Asia.

Therefore, Russia, with its approach to safeguard its relations with the country they will probably be able to hold on the longest, is making a strategic move. Furthermore, with the insecurity that Kazakhstan might face in the future at the death of their leader, Russia might be considering to get the country back. This would most probably be done by threatening a more unstable still unknown successor to Nazarbayev to integrate a part of the country in the Russian Federation in order to make the republic come back into the Russian sphere.

About the Author

Frédérick Maranda-Bouchard

Frédérick Maranda-Bouchard is a Political Analyst for Central Asia and Regime stability at the Canadian Centre for Strategic Studies. He graduated from Concordia University in 2019 with a Bachelor in Arts, Honours in Political Sciences. He currently is doing his Master in European and Russian Affairs at the University of Toronto.

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