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Kazakhstan will continue to 'tiptoe' around China

Nicole Ng Interview
March 21, 2019

Nursultan Nazarbayev shocked Kazakhstan on Tuesday with his resignation after nearly three decades in power. Central Asia expert Andrea Schmitz explains what the move could mean for Kazakh-China ties.

Former President Nursultan Nazarbayev attends Kassym-Jomart Tokayev's swearing-in ceremony
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/Sputnik/V. Vodnev

Nazarbayev, 78, ruled Kazakhstan since before it gained independence with the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. He steered the country through a major transformation, developing huge energy reserves and boosting its international influence, but was accused of cracking down on dissent and tolerating little opposition. 

Despite stepping down as president, Nazarbayev will continue to enjoy significant powers thanks to his constitutional status as "Leader of the Nation," his lifetime position as chief of the security council and his position as head of the ruling Nur Otan party. He passed the presidency to the speaker of the Senate, loyalist Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, 65, a former prime minister and career diplomat, who was sworn in on Wednesday.

Read more: Nursultan, not Astana — Kazakhstan renames capital to honor Nazarbayev

China on Wednesday welcomed the new president of Kazakhstan as an "old friend." Kazakhstan, which shares a border with China's restive Xinjiang region, has been on diplomatic tiptoes since its major trading partner began to send ethnic Kazakhs to internment camps under its anti-extremism policy.

In a DW interview, Andrea Schmitz, an expert on Central Asia at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), said that it will be interesting to see how Nazarbayev's successor manages the delicate balancing act when it comes to Kazakhstan's relations with China. 

DW: What does Nursultan Nazarbayev's resignation mean for Kazakhstan?

Andrea Schmitz: It's hotly debated what the move means with regard to the nation's future. There's a lot of speculation right now. But it's unclear whether the next presidential elections will take place as scheduled next year and who the candidates will be. For the time being, however, I don't see any immediate major changes to the overall political structure and hierarchy in the country.

Does interim President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev offer much in the way of change?

Tokayev has held various positions within the Kazakh government. He's one of the representatives of the younger generation but still belongs to the old guard. He is loyal to Nazarbayev and has a good understanding of his political style.

Appointing Tokayev as interim president certainly seems to be a good choice when it comes to predictability and stability. He does not represent a radical change in politics. He never would. But I don't think that's what is expected of an interim president.

Kazakhstan has been a major destination for Chinese investment, particularly as part of Beijing's Belt and Road Initiative. How could Nazarbayev's decision to step down as president impact this investment?

I believe, in the short run, nothing will change. Even in the medium term, BRI investment and the overall economic relationship between the two nations will remain untouched.

Read more: Kazakhstan to change from Cyrillic to Latin alphabet

Do you think it will change in the long run?

It will depend on what kind of impact Chinese policies will have on Kazakhstan. There are an array of projects and strategic plans at various stages of implementation. We've seen in the past that not everyone was happy with how projects were implemented. So it may become an issue in the long run, particularly depending on whether the next president is able to govern the country unchallenged. In a volatile political situation, issues that can mobilize action from the masses will have a bigger impact.

Uighur security personnel on patrol in front of the Id Kah Mosque in Kashgar, in western China's Xinjiang region
Schmitz: 'The Xinjiang problem has drawn public attention in Kazakhstan and I imagine it will continue to be an issue there'Image: picture-alliance/AP/Ng Han Guan

Could you run me through some of the issues younger Kazakhs are concerned about?

There's the issue of jobs and economic development. Young people are concerned about their income prospects and whether economic growth is creating enough jobs for them.

Another issue that's becoming increasingly important is the question of Xinjiang and Beijing's policies toward the Muslim population there; many Kazakhs are among them. So this problem has drawn public attention in Kazakhstan and I imagine it will continue to be an issue there.

But the Kazakh government has so far been quite quiet about this issue. Why?

I think this is indicative of the strong economic relationship and political partnership between the two sides. The close ties mean that Kazakh politicians have had to react to the developments in Xinjiang in a rather diplomatic fashion. Still, it's not excluded that events in the future might put pressure on the Kazakh government to take a more explicit and public stance on the issue.

This could prove a challenge to the new leadership. Part of the art of governing of Nazarbayev is to tiptoe and successfully balance conflicting and very competing expectations. It will, however, be interesting to see how his successor will manage this delicate balancing act.

Andrea Schmitz is a specialist on Central Asian affairs at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP). She's also a senior associate for Eastern Europe and Eurasia at SWP.

The interview was conducted by Nicole Ng. It has been edited and condensed for clarity.