Evidence from Expert Interviews: Is Kazakhstan an AGC or Just a Potential One?

According to the discussion and evidence presented so far, Kazakhstan is unlikely to behave like an AGC. There is little to no evidence of emulation of the Kazakhstani governance practices and institutions, no signs of a foreign policy directed at influencing neighbors’ domestic dynamics, and no evidence that Kazakhstan actually has a model to export or that it is an important reference point for the Central Asian elites. The only case where emulation from Kazakhstan appears to be likely - the National Leader legislation in Tajikistan - is hardly an issue of importance beyond its symbolic value. It should be said, however, that, given the obscurity that surrounds political processes in the region, we might be missing some important evidence, which was not accessible to the experts or was not shared during the interviews. Moreover, the fact that Kazakhstan is not exerting significant influence now does not mean that it is not interested in doing so. Kazakhstan does have some leadership ambitions in the region. Its behavior, however, does not seem to fit that of an AGC, but rather that of a “benevolent middle power" - an intermediary in possible conflicts, without claims to shape the region (which Russia or, to some extent, China or, in the early 1990s, Turkey made). Most of the structural features discussed at the beginning of the chapter, however, show that Kazakhstan has the potential to turn into an AGC, although under specific (and currently unlikely) conditions. This is also what we can learn from the case of the conflict between Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan in 2017, which we will discuss in the next section.

Kazakhstan’s “Involvement” in Kyrgyzstan’s Presidential Elections

As seen before, cases where Kazakhstan intervenes in domestic developments in foreign countries are hard to find. Unlike other AGCs discussed in this book (or frequently studies in the literature, like Russia), there have been hardly any cases when Kazakhstan openly reacted on the political changes in other states by more than a diplomatic statement (in many cases, a very moderate and well-thought one). Kazakhstan’s reaction to even major turmoil abroad was mostly defensive. In 2010, for instance, after the revolution in Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan closed the border to this country; but the main reason voiced by the Kazakhstani leaders were concerns that the unrest in the neighboring state would spill over to Kazakhstan.34 It is, thus, even more interesting to examine the so-far unique case of Kazakhstan’s involvement during the Kyrgyzstani elections of 2017. This case was frequently framed in Kyrgyzstan as an example of an (attempted) interference of Kazakhstan for the sake of supporting a particular candidate. Do we observe any behavior similar to that of other AGCs supporting authoritarian trajectory of the regime transition? As the subsequent analysis will show, the case appears to be much more ambiguous than at first sight.


Smaller and poorer, Kyrgyzstan, which is Kazakhstan’s southern neighbor, appears to be a natural target for Astana’s (potential) foreign policy. Kyrgyzstan has strong historical and cultural ties to Kazakhstan, which were supplemented by strong economic ties after the collapse of the USSR: Kazakhstan is (alongside with Russia) an important destination for Kyrgyzstani labor migrants; also, until the global economic crisis of 2008-2010, Kazakhstan was the main investor in the Kyrgyzstani economy (Libman 2013). At the same time, Kazakhstan substantially exceeds Kyrgyzstan in terms of economic potential: As of 2016, its GDP per capita was about ten times larger than in Kyrgyzstan, and the population about three times larger than in Kyrgyzstan. While Kyrgyzstan is also rich in natural resources (in particular, non-ferrous metals), it does not have comparable oil and gas resources as those of Kazakhstan. Finally, the economic development model of Kyrgyzstan strongly relies on this country’s function of an entrepot for Chinese consumer goods into the Central Asian market, and especially to Kazakhstan (Kaminski and Raballand 2009). In addition, while Kazakhstan remained politically stable since early 1990s, Kyrgyzstan experienced substantial political disturbances, including two cases when the incumbent president was overthrown by the popular uprising - in 2005 and in 2010 (Radnitz 2006; Laruelle and Engvall 2015). In addition, Kyrgyzstan repeatedly experienced episodes of ethnic tension, resulting in violent conflict. All this should make Kazakhstan potentially able to exercise an influence on the political situation in Kyrgyzstan.

While in the 2000s Kyrgyzstan experienced strong authoritarian tendencies (similar to most other Central Asian countries), since 2010, it has become a much more pluralist polity, with numerous competing political forces. An attempt to establish a parliamentary republic was made in the aftermath of the 2010 events, in the hope that it would prevent the consolidation of a new authoritarian regime, but was not completed by 2017. In fact, throughout his term of office, President Almazbek Atam- bayev (2011-2017) attempted to increase the actual and symbolic power of the president by, for example, initiating direct contacts to individual members of the government. Nevertheless, according to the Constitution of Kyrgyzstan in force since 2010, Atambayev was prohibited to run for office: The president had to be elected for a single six-year term. Thus, in 2017, for the first time in the history of Kyrgyzstan, elections should have led to a peaceful transition of power from one president to another.

The presidential office was contested by a large number of candidates, but only two stood out as having a substantial chance of succeeding Atambayev: Sooronbay Zheenbekov and Omurbek Babanov. In the Kyr- gyzstani case, it is not so easy to label one of them as “opposition” and one as representing the “incumbent.” Zheenbekov’s candidacy was supported by the Social-Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan of President Atambayev; Babanov, however, also had good relations with the government; he was prime minister in 2011-2012 - as of 2017, furthermore, he was the richest person in Kyrgyzstan. In July 2017, Atambayev, while publicly backing Zheenbekov, explained his decision to do so only by the fact that Zheenbekov was backed by the Social-Democrats; if they did not do so, he would have backed Babanov.35 Most certainly, however, Atambayev’s decision was not random; the victory of Zheenbekov would ensure Atambayev the possibility to either exercise the political influence behind the curtains or - in case of transition to the parliamentary republic - to even take over the office of the prime minister and remain the key political figure in the republic.

At the beginning of the electoral campaign, the public opinion polls seemed to favor Babanov.36 However, on the election day of 15 October 2017, Zheenbekov managed to secure a convincing victory with 55 percent of the votes (vs. 34 percent of Babanov). An important topic of controversy throughout the presidential elections was the potential intervention by Kazakhstan. Which role, however, did Kazakhstan play in the Kyrgyzstani elections? Was it indeed consistent with the potential role of Kazakhstan as an AGC? The next subsections will review the alleged involvement of Kazakhstan, the escalation of the conflict between the two countries, and its consequences for the elections in greater detail.

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