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Kazakhstan wary of shadow of Ukraine crisis

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 blonde 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 in the group. 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, prompting official diplomatic notes from the Kazakh foreign ministry to Moscow.

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 on Jan. 1, 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 that "Kazakhs never had any statehood [historically]", 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 only cooled partially since then. Russian officials suggested on Oct. 30, according to Russian media, that they might block shipments of food from the E.U. via Belarus and Ukraine to Kazakhstan because of alleged diversion into Russia in violation of an import ban.

   Even so, analysts see little chance of the cracks between Astana and Moscow widening much further in the short term.

   "There is no need for Russia to invade Kazakhstan," said Dena Sholk, an associate at Trevian International, a Kazakhstan-focused trade and investment advisory firm in Washington, D.C. "Kazakh foreign policy has been balanced and has not threatened Russian interests. I do not anticipate any threat to Kazakhstan's independence or sovereignty by Russia."

    Similarly, Slavomir Horak, who researches the former Soviet Union at Charles University in Prague, said, "Russia's principal enemy lies in the West, not in the south or the east, and I do not consider the recent exchange of problematic expressions between Russia and Kazakhstan as some signal of threat."

    Indeed, despite the bluster, both houses of the Kazakh parliament voted in October to ratify a treaty of alliance with Russia, and the two countries firmed up plans for Rosatom, Russia's state-run nuclear corporation, to build a nuclear power plant in Kazakhstan, a project valued at up to $5 billion.

Successor problem

However, 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. "The biggest problems will arise when Nazarbayev steps down. As of now, when Nazarbayev steps down, Russia will be able 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 December 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 by Sean Roberts, who tracks Central Asia as director of the International Development Studies Program at George Washington University in the U.S., identified Nurtai Abykayev, chairman of the National Security Committee, as the current frontrunner based on his ties to different elites and interest groups as well as his closeness to the president. Other candidates to succeed Nazarbayev include Prime Minister Karim Massivov and Timur Kulibayev, Nazarbayev's son-in-law.

    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. Indeed, some critics, including Sarym, believe the confirmation of the nuclear 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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