The Great Game on Central Asia's High Plain

As a muscled-up Russia pushes for more leverage over Kazakhstan, a wary Astana strives to make new, powerful friends.

ASTANA — There is an old adage in Kazakhstan: "Happiness is multiple pipelines."

For the oil-and-gas rich Caspian country, keeping up good relations with a handful of customers -- namely, Russia, China, and the West -- at all times, without engaging too deeply with a single player, has been a guiding foreign policy principle since it gained independence in 1991. And until recently, this careful diplomatic balancing act seemed to be paying off: in the decades since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the country's population of 17 million people has grown into the most prosperous in Central Asia. Kazakhstan has built a glittering new capital, Astana, in the middle of the steppe, which will soon be home to the tallest skyscraper in the region. Earlier this year, Kazakhstan's autocratic ruler, Nursultan Nazarbayev, even considered removing the "stan" from the country's name to set it apart from its less fortunate neighbors: Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.

Now, though, being a "stan" looks like the least of Nazarbayev's geopolitical worries. The president just signed an agreement with Russia and Belarus on May 29 to create the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), Vladimir Putin's brainchild and Russia's answer to the European Union. Putin's hope is that the EEU, a tariff-free trade union, will eventually draw in many of the states in Russia's near-abroad, tying the region's political and economic fortunes to the Kremlin. But behind the curtain of this shiny new free-trade zone, all is not well between Astana and Moscow.

Putin's recent Ukrainian adventures have set off alarm bells in this country, which is home to the largest proportion of ethnic Russians among the Central Asian former Soviet republics (they make up nearly a quarter of the population). Now, some worry that Putin may be playing a long game with Kazakhstan: drawing the country closer into Russia's orbit and deepening integration, then waiting for an episode of turmoil -- say, the sort that might unfold if the ailing Nazarbayev, 73, dies -- to assert greater control. Could Kazakhstan's multi-pronged foreign policy -- so lucrative for so long -- finally be faltering?

Russia has long had extensive ties to Kazakhstan, left over from the Soviet period. Oil and gas pipelines, an electricity grid, and railways all link the two nations, which share a 4,000-mile border. Russia is the country's biggest trading partner, with over $26 billion in bilateral trade last year; it is the main consumer of Kazakhstan's non-oil exports, which include mining products and chemicals; Kazakhstan still plays host to the Russia-managed Baikonur Cosmodrome, the world's largest operational spaceport. But the ties go deeper than just trade and physical capital: In addition to the ethnic Russians who, in northern Kazakhstan, make up as much as 50 percent of the population, most Kazakhs still speak Russian. (In fact, more speak Russian than Kazakh: about 85 percent can read and write in Russian, compared to just 62 percent for the country's native tongue).

Putin, not content to rest on the vestiges of a past era, has also embarked on a renewed push to exercise soft power. The Kremlin still exercises heavy influence on the Russian-speaking mass media organizations in Kazakhstan, and -- behind the scenes -- the Kremlin  is also believed to be funding pro-Russian institutions and cultural and language programming.

But even before Putin trained his eye on Ukraine, Nazarbayev showed signs of chafing under Russia's increasingly tight embrace. In recent years, for instance, Kazakh authorities, albeit cautiously, have begun urging state-owned television stations to begin broadcasting in Kazakh, and pushing for more Kazakh-language Internet content. In 2012, Nazarbayev announced that written Kazakh will switch from using Cyrillic letters to the Roman alphabet by 2025 -- a move that many observers read as a sign of trying to move away from the Russian sphere. Kazakhstan has also moved to restrict the number of commercial satellites Russia can launch from the Cosmodrome, and pushed for greater say in its operations.

Russia's intervention in Ukraine, however, has elevated these long-standing concerns. One need only look at how the local media has covered events in recent weeks for an indication of just how hot the relationship has become. In the wake of Russia's Crimea annexation, the Kazakh press -- which is under tight government control -- has grown increasingly wary of Moscow. Featuring a menacing-looking Putin with the Soviet hammer and sickle flag in the background, the Kazakh edition of Forbes magazine asked "Back to the USSR?" Adam Bol magazine went with the headline "Is Kazakhstan Being Dragged Into Someone Else's War?" while the Assandi Times asked its readers directly: "Is Kazakhstan Threatened With Occupation Tomorrow?" (As it turns out, that would be one of Assandi Times's last headlines. On April 2, its offices were raided by officials under a court order to close it down.)  

The Kazakh authorities themselves have walked a delicate diplomatic tightrope throughout the Ukrainian crisis. The Foreign Ministry remained silent in February, as Russian forces began taking control of the Crimean peninsula, eventually issuing a carefully worded statement on March 3, urging "all parties to maintain a balanced, objective and responsible approach." Two weeks later, the authorities changed tack, becoming one of the first countries to recognize Crimean independence. The U-turn was made complete on March 25, when Nazarbayev described the overthrow of Ukraine's former president Viktor Yanukovych as an "unconstitutional coup d'etat" and accused Ukraine of infringing the rights of ethnic minorities.

Yet, trying to allay fears of further Russian intervention, Nazarbayev that same day declared that "as far as our political independence is concerned, this is sacrosanct, and Kazakhstan will not cede its sovereignty to anyone." But his statement did not seem to do the trick. Two weeks after his statement, an anti-EEU forum was held in Almaty. A rare display of popular dissent in a tightly controlled country, the event was attended by 500 people; the organizers asked for a guarantee that "the Kazakh government, known for ignoring the will of its own people, will not allow the country to lose its independence."

Despite the calls for independence, Kazakh authorities feel the need to tread carefully with their powerful neighbor. "Astana ... clearly does not wish to become the target of a destabilization," said Alexander Cooley, professor of political science at Columbia University and author of Great Games, Local Rules: The New Great Power Contest in Central Asia.

Meanwhile, Kazakhstan has sought to dial back the ambitions of Putin's EEU, which once aspired to move its member countries toward greater political, military, and economic unity. The country has rejected Kremlin proposals for a common passport, common currency, and a collective Parliament, among others. Though Kazakhstan's membership in the Eurasian Union likely means that, for the time being, Putin won't force further integration, authorities in Astana are taking steps to guard against potential aggression nonetheless. The Kazakh Parliament is considering amendments to its criminal code aiming to increase prison sentences for separatist activities. There have yet to be any reports of such activity, but the move is seen as a preemptive action, observers say. There are also reports in Kazakh media that, following the Crimea annexation, the government devised a plan to shift hundreds of thousands ethnic Kazakhs to the north, in order to bulk up their presence in the ethnically Russian-dominated northern regions. Maria Chichtchenkova, a protection coordinator for Central Asia at the human-rights organization Front Line Defenders, said she expects to see efforts to continue to downgrade the importance of Russian (the language still has the status of an official administrative language in Kazakhstan).

Behind the scenes, Kazakh authorities remain concerned by the number of citizens in the north who have obtained Russian passports, as well as the potential influence of Moscow-controlled media in the region, said Cooley, the Columbia professor. "The recent changes to the criminal code outlawing the spreading of separatist ideas and rumors is an indication that officials in Astana take the Crimean threat very seriously," he said.

But while Astana is looking warily to the west at Crimea, and to north to divine Moscow's intentions, it's also hedging bets by building relationships in the East. Kazakhstan has been an important battleground in the so-called New Great Game between Russia and China for influence in energy-rich Central Asia, and some in Astana are hoping that the growing relationship with China can help provide leverage against Russian influence. China has been Kazakhstan's largest investor since 2010, Cooley said, building new pipelines, helping to pay for energy infrastructure for Kazakh cities, and providing emergency loans to Kazakh state-run businesses.

During a visit in September 2013 by Chinese President Xi Jinping, Nazarbayev inked further investment deals worth $30 billion, the most prominent of which was a $5 billion agreement with China's state oil firm CNPC to purchase a stake in the Kashagan offshore oil project. China already is connected to Kazakh oil via a 1,400 mile-long pipeline, which was opened in 2005, and by some estimates, has bought up rights to as much as 40 percent of Kazakhstan's hydrocarbon assets through joint-ventures and investments.

Astana is counting on its ties with Beijing to give Moscow pause should it get any ideas, said Jonathan Aitken, a former British MP and author of a biography of Nazarbayev. "The first hint of Russian aggression towards Kazakhstan would mean real worsening of the China-Russia relations," Aitken said. "In that sense, China represents a very protective force for the future of Kazakhstan."

But how Kazakhstan can reconcile a new dependence on China and deeper integration with Russia with its traditional multi-pronged foreign policy remains an open question. "Triangulating between the two large neighbors may no longer be possible for Kazakhstan," said one banking analyst who asked to remain anonymous for fear of repercussions. "And its balancing act will need to be reassessed."

Last month, at a meeting of the Assembly of People of Kazakhstan, an advisory body, Nazarbayev put his country's conundrum more plainly: "Russia and China are our neighbors," he said. "And one cannot choose neighbors."



The Fascists Are Coming, the Fascists Are Coming!

Putin says Ukraine's nationalist political party Right Sector is the devil incarnate. But they say they're just misunderstood.

KIEV, Ukraine — To hear Russian President Vladimir Putin tell it, the Ukrainian nationalist group Right Sector is made up of racist, anti-Semitic, violent thugs hellbent on dragging their country into civil war. What's more, according to the Kremlin, the group is the puppet-master pulling the strings of the Kiev government. "There's no state control over public order, and the so-called Right Sector calls the tune, the group that has resorted to terror and intimidation," Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said during a news conference on March 8.

Even after the group's spectacular failure in the May 25 presidential election, the Russian authorities continue using Right Sector as a scaremongering tool. On May 30, Russian security services said they arrested four members of Right Sector who were planning terrorist attacks in Crimea, the formerly Ukrainian peninsula annexed by Russia in March. (According to Kyiv Post, the four men had never been members of the group.)

And the scare tactics have proved effective, with a widespread belief in Ukraine's east that "fascists" were controlling the Kiev government, said Alina Polyakova, a Swiss-based expert on far-right movements in Ukraine.

But sipping on Ukrainian cognac and apple juice at a restaurant in Kiev's hip Podil neighborhood, Artem Skoropadsky, the far-right group's boyish press secretary, clad in a hipster uniform of a plaid button-up shirt, shorts, a baseball cap, and Converse sneakers, said the group has been misunderstood. Sure, he said, Right Sector had a few bad apples. The group, though, was open to all nationalities, races, and religions. "When we say, 'Glory to the Nation,' we mean the political nation, not the ethnic one," Skoropadsky said. "If you move to Ukraine," he continued, gesturing toward me, "and express love and support for the Ukrainian nation, you can be part of it," he said, adding that the group's members include ethnic Jews, Poles, Russians, Greeks, and Armenians. Skoropadsky himself is a 33-year-old Russian expat, who prefers to speak in his mother tongue rather than in Ukrainian.

Right Sector was founded as an alliance of far-right groups during the anti-government protests that started on Kiev's Maidan Nezalezhnosti square in November and eventually led to the ouster of then-President Viktor Yanukovych. The organizations that joined Right Sector included the ultranationalist and paramilitary Trident, as well as White Hammer, a vocally racist and anti-immigration group, which has since been ousted from the alliance for propagating racist slogans. They were key players in the defense of the Maidan during brutal clashes with the police, leading the fighting in the bloody Hrushevskoho Street riots on Jan. 19. Right Sector has branded itself as the "defenders of the Maidan," though other activists have questioned the extent of the group's involvement in protecting the site throughout the revolution's entire duration.

Today, the group is trying to improve its public image as it tries to enter Ukraine's chaotic new political scene. On May 22, just three days before Ukraine held its presidential election, the group was formally registered as a political party with the Ukrainian Justice Ministry. It didn't do very well. While far-right parties across Europe won a series of victories in the May 22 to 25 European Parliament elections, Dmytro Yarosh, the Right Sector's presidential candidate, won a mere 1 percent of the vote in Ukraine's presidential election, held at the same time on May 25. Petro Poroshenko, a moderate billionaire chocolate magnet, won in a landslide.

"The role of the Right Sector has been extremely exaggerated, on purpose, by Ukrainian security forces that were associated with Yanukovych," said Olexiy Haran, professor of political science at the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy. Experts agree that the group owes its popularity to Russian propaganda, which tried to build a public case for the Russian annexation of Crimea and the demonization of Kiev by painting the Right Sector as a powerful neo-Nazi force determined to take over Ukraine. According to a survey by an online database of Russian media sources, Right Sector was the second-most mentioned political group in Russian mass media in 2014, surpassed only by United Russia, the party of Putin.

During the May 25 Ukrainian presidential election, Russian state TV took the disinformation campaign so far that an anchor was visibly perplexed when she had to announce that Right Sector's Yarosh was on track to win the election, with 37 percent of the vote. The channel displayed a screen shot of what appeared to be the Ukrainian Central Election Commission's website, RFE/RL reported. The anchor admitted that the results were "strange."

"Kremlin propaganda spreads a lot of lies about us. They are telling everyone that we are anti-Semites, neo-fascists, and this is not true," said Skoropadsky, emphasizing that it is Russia that is the "classic imperial fascist regime."

Skoropadsky, a Moscow native, left Russia in 2005 because he believed that Putin was building an authoritarian state, while Ukraine, which had just undergone the 2004 democratic Orange Revolution, had a "European future." Before becoming an activist and a spokesperson for Right Sector, Skoropadsky was a journalist for Kommersant, a Russian-owned daily, where he covered politics in the broad sense of the word, "not the parliament, but the meetings outside the parliament."

The organization's leaders have repeatedly tried to distance themselves from accusations of racism by, for instance, telling the Israeli ambassador to Ukraine that they reject anti-Semitism. The Israeli Embassy said in a statement that the two had established a hotline to prevent anti-Semitic provocations. "Dmitry Yarosh stressed that Right Sector will oppose all [racist] phenomena, especially anti-Semitism, with all legitimate means," the statement said.

In addition to prominence stemming from Russian propaganda, part of Right Sector's public prominence may come from the group's knack for promoting its own brand. Polyakova said that the group has exaggerated its presence in the east and has been "surprisingly very careful" in avoiding public relations mishaps, contrary to the more established nationalist Svoboda party, whose members have a long track record of promoting anti-Semitism and frequently using anti-Semitic slurs.

Although it may seem to be reinventing its public image, Right Sector remains true to its ultranationalist, far-right roots. Its logos are sleek, as if created by a graphic designer, Polyakova said, but the black-and-red colors, immediately evocative of the Nazi swastika, are "problematic." The group strives to carry the legacy of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists, a nationalist umbrella party from the interwar period, and Stepan Bandera, a complicated Ukrainian hero, celebrated in western Ukraine and condemned in the country's east, Russia, and Poland as a Nazi collaborator. Like the prewar organization, Right Sector maintains a two-pronged structure, with a military and political arm, and champion nationalist slogans of a "Greater" or "United" Ukraine.

While the Right Sector may be pro-European, Skoropadsky said, it stands for a certain kind of Europe. "There are certain things in the European Union that we do not accept," he said, like same-sex marriage, abortion, and assisted suicide, which he said were found in "classic liberal democracies" like France or Denmark. He said that the group's members feel closer to "Europe of the Polish kind" -- conservative, traditional -- than "Europe of the Danish kind."

Skoropadsky said they are not for Ukraine's immediate accession into the European Union or NATO. "We need to clean up the country first," he said, rolling a cigarette. The group wants to erase any traces of the old regime's policies and apparatchiks within governmental structures.

The current government is not living up to its mandate, Skoropadsky said, but because the politicians in power were fighting alongside the Right Sector on the "barricades of the Maidan," the group plans to use parliamentary, not revolutionary, methods as long as it is possible. The group is, however, worried about the return of what was worst about the Yanukovych regime: corruption and rogue law enforcement.

Skoropadsky, with his penchant for grand statements, assured that if Ukraine falls back into old patterns and Ukraine's people rise up once again, the Right Sector will be on the front line, as the "avant-garde of the revolution." With a 1 percent support rate among those same people of Ukraine, standing at their helm might be a more difficult task than the nationalists would like.

For now, however, the organization is preparing for a different front line -- the one in the country's east. "Right Sector is an army first, and a party second," said Skoropadsky, who had just come back from a training base that the organization runs 60 miles from Kiev. The group had announced a mobilization effort when Russian forces entered the Ukrainian region of Crimea in March, and Skoropadsky claims 10,000 people signed up to join Right Sector forces. How many of them have actually participated in the training in the organization's bases around the country remains unclear. Experts have the number of combat-ready Right Sector members at 300 to 500, a tiny fraction of what the group claims, according to a Foreign Affairs article.

Skoropadsky said more experienced Right Sector activists, some with a military background, teach the volunteers how to shoot, take over and occupy buildings, and throw grenades -- lofty and hard-to-believe claims given that, as he admitted, the group does not have weapons of its own and the training is conducted with toy guns.

"These nationalist groups have been doing this for many years," said Polyakova. "They organize these paramilitary summer camps as part of their organizational agenda."

After their training, the volunteers are sent to the areas in turmoil. "Just as we were at the front at the Maidan, we are in the east and in the south," said Skoropadsky. Again, it is difficult to assess how many Right Sector members have ventured to those parts of the country, though some reports of armed volunteers from the organization in those regions have surfaced online.

The Right Sector's funding is donation-based. One of its fundraising locations is its headquarters on Kiev's Maidan, the dilapidated site of the recent protests. The transparent box for donations held very few hryvnia bills, perhaps enough to buy a few toy guns. Right Sector members idly sat around. "We are waiting for the aggressor," said Volodymyr, who did not give his last name. The unit's commander stood by the entrance to the headquarters, located by Kiev's central post office. Leaning on the door in his New England Patriots hat, he sipped coffee out of a large mug. "We are a military organization," he said, "preparing men for war." For the moment, they seem anything but.

Photo by GENYA SAVILOV/AFP/Getty Images