Kazakhstan has long been a model of post-Soviet cooperation with Moscow and a cornerstone of the Kremlin's plan for a Eurasian economic block drawing on the allegiance former Soviet states have to their onetime motherland, or the Russian Federation. President Nursultan Nazarbayev is the only leader the littoral Caspian state has ever had. Nazarbayev gained power for good in 1990 as the Soviet Union collapsed, and he stayed firmly ensconced at the top through suppression of the political opposition. Today the Russian-Kazakh relationship is one of Moscow's closest in terms of post-Soviet leadership.
However, there are troubles ahead for this cozy alliance. Nazarbayev is aging, and his health is failing. There is no clarity on who will succeed him, says Alexandre Mansourov, adjunct professor at the John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and at the Security Studies program at Georgetown University. Nazarbayev's daughter, as well as the current prime minister, Karim Massimov, have been floated as possible successors, but neither is seen as reliable to the Kremlin. The next leader of Kazakhstan will most likely be less pro-Russian and more open to better relations with China or engagement with Europe, an outcome that is Moscow's worst nightmare.
Russia has invested a great deal of diplomacy into the development of the Eurasian Economic Union,or EEU. President Vladimir Putin has seen this economic alliance as a way to further his efforts to bring back the economic and political power of the Soviet Union -- without the communism, and controlled of course by Russia. The EEU also has the benefit of preventing prior Soviet satellites from migrating their allegiances to the West. Nazarbayev himself suggested the creation of the entity in 1994 while giving a speech in Moscow, but has refrained from allowing further political integration out of concern for Kazakh sovereignty.
The Kremlin really can't afford for a successor in Kazakhstan to be less friendly to Russia or more oriented to other places economically, as the rationale for the union would fall apart. Hence the Kremlin's dilemma in Kazakhstan, and Moscow's efforts to lock in as much Eurasian economic integration as possible before Nazarbayev's passing. The relationship with Belarus -- the only other major state in the EEU -- is tenuous as well for Moscow. Belarus also has more political integration with Moscow in the Union State arrangement. Armenia and Kyrgyzstan are minor players in the economic block.
Additionally, with all of Putin's talk about defending Russian-speaking minorities around the globe, which was his primary justification for annexing the Crimean Peninsula in 2014, the plight of Russian-speaking people in the north of Kazakhstan has gone unheeded.
"The Kremlin doesn't want to hear about the problems in the north," says Dr. Mansourov. "Even when [Vladimir] Zhirinovsky has brought up the issue, highlighting that Nazarbayev has repressed the Russian-speaking people of Kazakhstan, where Zhirinovsky was born, the Kremlin turns a deaf ear. Moscow has given marching orders to ignore the Russian minority and to deal with the government in Astana."
Interestingly enough, this was the same tack the Kremlin took with Crimea, saying it would deal with the government in Kyiv while ignoring the pro-Russian population in Crimea for decades; that is, until it became advantageous for Moscow to do alter course when the Maidan Revolution removed pro-Russian leader Viktor Yanukovych from power.
When Nazarbayev is gone, there will be great uncertainty regarding the Kazakh relationship with Moscow. The entire construct of Eurasian economic integration will be called into question. If the EEU cannot outlive the current government in Astana, this outcome will deal a severe blow to Putin's efforts to control the old Soviet periphery.