In his study of economic regionalism after the Cold War, Wunderlich (2007, p. 135) observed that leaders’ preferences, personalities and agendas of political survival impact heavily on decisions regarding whom to cooperate with, what form cooperation should take and the extent to which it should be institutionalised. This argument applies fully to Nazarbaev: Kazakhstan’s participation in the EEU owes much to its president’s idiosyncratic beliefs and legitimation strategies.
Nazarbaev’s nation-building project since independence has followed the notion of Eurasianism based on Kazakhstan’s geographic position as a bridge between European and Asian civilisations. This places the country in an advantageous position, where it can adopt the best practices from all directions in its path of development and become an important connector for international markets in Asia, Europe and South Asia (Ambrosio and Lange 2014, p. 546). The original idea of the Eurasian Union floated in 1994 contained references to geopolitics in the mould of Lev Gumilev2 as well as Kazakhstan’s unique cultural identity (Nazarbaev 1997). Two decades after, one can still encounter echoes of this discourse extolling the exceptional virtues of Kazakhstanis who, unlike the calculating and essentially self-serving Russians and Belorussians, are able to weave the ideational fabric of the EEU through the loom of “spiritual unity, where the grounds for political and economic egotism and mercantilism are absent” (Avershin and Aubakirov 2014, p. 243-244). However, Nazarbaev himself has gradually purged the more esoteric content from the Eurasian Union concept in favour of economic substance. His updated vision was summarised in an article published in the Russian daily Izvestiia which appeared 3 weeks after Putin’s programmatic piece in the same newspaper (Putin 2011), and was a polemical response to the latter. Kazakhstan’s leader wrote:
First, without denying the significance of cultural and civilizational factors, I have proposed that integration must be built on the basis of economic pragmatism first and foremost. Economic interests, and not abstract geopolitical ideas and slogans, are the main engine of integration processes ...
Second, I have always been and continue to be an advocate of the voluntary character of integration...
Third, from the outset, I have envisaged the Eurasian Union as an association of states on the basis of equality, non-interference in the internal affairs of each other, respect for sovereignty and inviolability of state borders.
Fourth, I have suggested creating the supranational organs of the Eurasian Union which would work on the basis of consensus, taking into account interests of each member state, and possess clear and real powers. This in no way implies the transfer of political sovereignty. It is an axiom. The successful experience of establishing the European Union was precisely about that (Nazarbaev 2011).
It is clear that the EEU as it emerged on 1 January 2015 carries more resemblance to Nazarbaev’s agenda than Putin’s idiom of a “powerful supranational association capable of becoming one of the poles in the modern world”.
As the intellectual father of modern Eurasianism, Nazarbaev has a personal stake in its promotion and success. Moreover, being seen as the EEU leader is symbolically important for the President ofKazakhstan who, since 1991, has consistently aimed to bolster his legitimacy by broadcasting external recognition inward to domestic audiences (Schatz 2006, p. 270). Deferential references to Nazarbaev as the “patriarch of Eurasian integration” and “one of the brightest and most experienced heads of state in the Eurasian space with a firm grasp of global problems” (TASS 2015) coming thick and fast from the Russian political elite and mass media help construct the image of a wise father of the nation who “has compelled the entire world to accept our country as an equal partner” (Ergaliev 2015).