Nowadays one should admit that the story became not so straightforward. In what for some time was called ‘the post-Soviet space’ two distinctive regions emerged, containing two ‘regional champions’ epitomizing diverging trends, both economic and socio-political ones. These ‘local superpowers’, namely Ukraine and Kazakhstan, where located on the frontiers between Europe and Russia and between the former Russian Empire and China and therefore were potentially almost equally vulnerable, but now one can easily see how different their journeys appeared.
In the east, Kazakhstan’s first president Nursultan Nazarbayev, almost immediately voiced his support for a kind of post-Soviet reintegration and later cautiously turned to remote past for constructing the new Kazakh identity on the memories of an independent Khanate that existed five hundred years ago. But at the same time Mr. Nazarbayev started to modernize his country’s economy mobilizing foreign investors, founding a brand-new capital city and finally substituting the local Cyrillic alphabet, created by the Russians, by the Latin one. In Kyiv politicians took a different course, capitalizing on a notion that ‘Ukraine isn’t Russia’ and celebrating not so much the glorious times of Kievan Rus being the principal source of the East Slavonic civilization but rather focusing on the prominent actors of anti-Russian resistance which fueled uneasy memories not only with the Muscovites but with some of Ukraine’s neighbors – like for example the Poles – as well.
In Kazakhstan, the authorities immediately realized how dangerous the combination of political and economic dependence on neighbors is: despite the proximity of China and Russia, more than 50 percent of Kazakhstan’s exports go to the EU countries and the UK, while both the EU and the United States are the largest foreign investors with their share totaling 84 percent of accumulated FDIs. In Ukraine, to the contrary, the emphasis was placed on economic cooperation with Russia and Europe (one may see that the ageing gas transit system is still considered as a pillar of the national economy). Political and economic multilateralism yielded perfect results in Kazakhstan, while Ukraine became so ‘torn apart’ between the ‘West’ and the ‘Horde’ that even American political scientists started to label it and neighboring countries as nothing else than ‘in-betweens’ (see: Charap, Samuel and Colton, Timothy. Everyone Loses: The Ukraine Crisis and the Ruinous Contest for Post-Soviet Eurasia, London and New York: Routledge, 2017, pp. 51–52).
In Kazakhstan, economic modernization has become the most important task of the government. The growth has been concentrated in primary sector but while Russia increased oil and natural gas production by 1.7 and 6.5 percent since 1990, Kazakhstan’s figures exploded by 3.3 and 6.4 times. In 1990, the GDP of Ukrainian Soviet republic was 64 percent larger than that for the entire Central Asian region, and the gap in industrial output reached 2.6 times (calculated according to: USSR’s National Economy in 1989, Moscow: Finance and Statistics, 1990, p. 336); in 2020 according to the World Bank, Kazakhstan alone bypasses Ukraine by almost 10 percent in nominal and by 2.4 times in per capita GDP (by the way, compared to the Soviet 1989 census, Ukraine’s population decreased by 19.2 percent, and Kazakhstan’s went up by almost 17 percent). If in Ukraine only one large enterprise – Kryvorizhstal’ – was auctioned to a foreign investor after a dramatic fight, in Kazakhstan more than 2/3 of oil production is controlled by at least partially foreign-owned companies, and 11 out of 13 large uranium mining projects are managed with the participation of foreign investors. All these results were caused by an ‘Nazarbayev-style’ modernization, adopting the main elements of the successful Asian experience.
The Kazakh search for a new identity as well as its pursues of multilateralism and economic growth made it natural for the country’s leadership to revive the ideas of a new economic integration later supported by Russia through the creation of the Customs Union, and then the EAEU. Ukraine, to the contrary, acted in the ‘either–or’ paradigm, which brought it closer and closer to a conflict that made the country a victim of Russian expansionism. In Kazakhstan, where the ethnic Russian population was larger than in Ukraine (37.8 percent versus 22, according to the 1989 census) and territories predominantly inhabited by the Russians reached almost a third of the country’s area, Moscow didn’t dare to take any unfriendly actions, taking into consideration the nationally oriented leadership of the republic, its multi-vector policy, and its conspicuously correct attitude towards Russia.
It would take too long to address other differences between these two regions – from migration trends to the development of financial markets, shifts in education, creation of a modern managerial elite and construction of effective transit corridors - but without exaggeration, it can be said Kazakhstan is gradually becoming a natural economic leader in Central Asia, while Ukraine is itself seeking for assistance and protection. The constant concerns about Russian assault (which looks like a Moscow’s hybrid war tactics aimed on forcing the US to talk with the Kremlin on the topics of its choice) will make the West increasingly tired of Ukraine while the confrontation between the US and China as well as the need of a stability in the region close to the centers of radical Islamism, will rise the significance of Russia’s ‘southern’ periphery well above that of its ‘western’ one.
The main trends in recent development of Central Asia and Eastern Europe result from two different policies that I call ‘Nazarbayev’s strategy’ and ‘Yushchenko’s strategy, oriented respectively towards multilateral cooperation and a clash of powerful rivals; state-led modernization and the creation of ‘oligarchic capitalism’; formation of a new identity practically ‘from scratch’ and speculation on unhealed historical wounds. These two strategies produced very different realities that made impossible to talk any longer about the ‘post-Soviet space’ and even about ‘Russia and Eurasia’ as some single realm. Russia today coexists with a new regional geopolitical center in the south and with a distinct European Union periphery in the west. Central Asia hosts successful economic practices which now start to spillover from Kazakhstan to its neighbors while the Eastern Europe has not yet become entirely Europeanized, even despite the regular democratic elections and visa-free regime at the borders. Modernizing autocracy outpaces the unstable democratic order and tries now to initiate a managed change in its ruling cohorts.
Nowadays the fragments of both the Russian and the Soviet empires live their own life, but, of course, act in the framework enshrined by global superpowers, the rivalry between which has noticeably intensified. Having recently visited Kazakhstan once again for a session of the Astana Club, a venue where dozens of experts from Europe, America and China discussed Eurasian challenges with Kazakhstani leaders, I became once again fascinated by Parag Khanna’s concept of the ‘Second world’ (see: Khanna, Parag. The Second World: Empires and Influence in the New Global Order, London: Allen Lane, 2008). In his 2008 book the US political scholar suggested with history ‘returning’ economically successful countries positioned at crossroads of superpowers’ zones of influence get a special role in global politics, so today I would strongly suggest the Western powers to consider rather getting Kazakhstan on their side than to accept additional responsibility for Ukraine.
Thirty years after the red banner was lowered over the Kremlin, the post-Soviet realm exists no more. Russia possesses no right to command its neighbors but it seems that the West has little sense about how to project its power and influence on the former imperial peripheries. Without elaborating new – and different – approach to new Eurasian states one cannot hope that the next thirty years in this part of the world would be more peaceful and prosperous than the previous ones.
Author: Vladislav Inozemtsev