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Kazakhstan casts wary eyes on Putin's appetite for expansion

ALMATY, Kazakhstan/BISHKEK -- The bride and groom posed for a portrait in front of a perpetual flame in an Almaty park that commemorates soldiers who died fighting in the Russian civil war and World War II.

   The two shared the dark complexion, high cheekbones and narrow eyes Kazakhs inherited from the tribes that used to sweep the Central Asian steppe, in contrast with the blond hair and light eyes of the maid of honor and best man, both ethnic Russians.

   Kazakhstan has seldom experienced the ethnic tensions that have plagued other former Soviet republics. It has stood out as one of Russia's most loyal allies. But the Ukraine crisis has strained even this friendship, and attention is turning to the country's northern and eastern provinces, where ethnic Russians predominate.

   Two leading ultranationalist Russian politicians, legislator and Liberal Democratic Party leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky and writer Eduard Limonov, explicitly suggested early this year that Russia should seize Kazakh territory.

Qualms about closer ties

Kazakh politicians then began publicly expressing second thoughts about the official launch of the Eurasian Economic Union with Russia and Belarus in January 2015, with a nervous eye on possible spillover effects from mounting Western sanctions against Russia over its actions in Ukraine.

   Even Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev, long a champion of the union, voiced concerns in August. "Kazakhstan will not be part of organizations that pose a threat to our independence," he said.

   Vladimir Putin, his Russian counterpart, responded a few days later by saying, "Kazakhs never had any statehood [historically]," and adding that Nazarbayev, president since the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, had "created" Kazakhstan. Shortly afterward, the Russian army staged military exercises near the Kazakh border while a Kazakh activist mailed books on the country's history to the Kremlin and his allies launched social media campaigns to "educate" Putin.

   Tensions have cooled only partially since then. According to Russian media, Russian officials suggested on Oct. 30 that they might block shipments of food to Kazakhstan from the EU via Belarus and Ukraine because of alleged diversion into Russia in violation of an import ban.

Successor problem

The tensions have played into worries about Kazakhstan's uncertain future after Nazarbayev, given his predominant role. "Our society stands like a pyramid turned upside down," said Aidos Sarym, a political analyst and opposition activist in Almaty. When Nazarbayev steps down, Sarym said, "Russia will be able to destabilize the situation in Kazakhstan at any given moment."

    Nazarbayev, 74, appears to be in good health, though he reportedly received treatment for prostate cancer in 2011. His current term, his fourth, ends in 2016.

    He has rarely addressed the question of succession publicly. But in an interview last year Nazarbayev said, "There should be a sustainable system put in place that would be stable against the backdrop of a new leader's arrival," making reference to past transitions in Singapore, Malaysia and Russia.

    Observers see three groups competing for power after Nazarbayev: his family, remnants of the old Communist bureaucracy, and the new political elite that has emerged since independence. A survey of analysts last year identified Nurtai Abykayev, chairman of the National Security Committee, as the frontrunner to succeed Nazarbayev.

    Nazarbayev has proved skilled at balancing the country's interest groups and its relations with foreign powers, including the U.S. On Oct. 27, Richard Hoagland, U.S. principal deputy assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian affairs and a former ambassador to Kazakhstan, said in Astana that the U.S. firmly supported Kazakh independence and territorial integrity when asked by a reporter about the Ukraine precedent.

    Yet given developments in Ukraine, the value of such U.S. support is unclear. Some critics, including Sarym, believe the confirmation of a nuclear power deal between Russia and Kazakhstan and the treaty of alliance show Putin's remarks are already having an impact on Kazakh policy. Nazarbayev's successor will need to tread carefully.

Kanat Shaku contributed research to this article.

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