Pauline Jones on Kazakhstan and the Role of the Ukraine-Russian War

Pauline Jones is a Professor of Political Science at the University of Michigan and the Edie N. Goldenberg Endowed Director for the Michigan in Washington Program. She is also Founder and Director of the Digital Islamic Studies Curriculum. She is an expert on Russia and Central Asia. She has authored or co-authored five books including the Institutional Change and Political Continuity in Post-Soviet Central Asia: Power, Perceptions, and Pacts, The Transformation of Central Asia: States and Societies from Soviet Rule to Independence, and The Oxford Handbook on Politics in Muslim Societies (with Melani Cammett). Prof. Jones has also published numerous articles in leading scholarly and policy journals, including the American Political Science Review, Comparative Political Studies, Foreign Affairs, International Journal of Public Health, Politics and Society, and Resources Policy.
Labiba Hassan '25 interviewed Dr. Pauline Jones on on December 2, 2022.
Photograph and biography courtesy of Dr. Pauline Jones.

In January 2022, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev decided to invite the Collective Security Treaty Organization’s troops to help the government contain protests over gas price hikes in Kazakhstan. Why did Tokayev solicit external military involvement to quash the protests? How controversial was this decision?

I cannot get inside the head of President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev exactly since he decided this. But I think that he was nervous that the protests were getting out of control. He wasn't able to squash the protests and was afraid that the protests might escalate into something like a color revolution that had occurred in neighboring Kyrgyzstan or in Ukraine. He was really unprepared for the level of protests since it was the biggest mass protests Kazakhstan had experienced since independence.  I think he panicked. 

His decision was pretty unpopular in Kazakhstan because there were protests against that decision to bring in Russian troops. There was a lot of backlash in the media. When there were protests in March against the Russian invasion of Ukraine, there were also calls to leave the CSTO because of concern that Russian troops could re-enter Kazakhstan. 

What is the Kazakh government’s position on the Russia-Ukraine war? Does Tokayev feel obligated to support Putin’s war given his reliance on Russian troops in January?

After Russian troops entered Kazakhstan territory for about five or six days, many of us, myself included, thought that would increase Kazakhstan’s dependency on Russia. It can cause a pivot back toward Russia’s orbit and away from the policy that Kazakhstan has been pursuing since independence. But, the war in Ukraine had a different effect. I think it actually made both the Kazakhstani government and the population more wary of Russia and Russian entanglements. Kazakhstan has actually been very divisive. It has been very reticent to support Russia in any way and has been very vocal in its support for Ukraine in the following ways. It refused to send troops when Russia asked them to send troops early in the war. It sent a ton of humanitarian aid to Ukraine. It has refused to recognize those with the People's Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk. They refuse to recognize this as false referendums with the Russian government. There have been lots of opportunities for Kazakhstan to support Russia and instead it has either not supported or abstained the UN from voting to sanction Russia. So Kazakhstan has not stood behind Russia at all, either on the level of the government or the population. To the extent Kazakhstan has been able, it's been pretty vocal against Russia.

What do we know about public opinion in Kazakhstan on the CSTO’s involvement in Kazakhstan and Russia’s war with Ukraine? Are there significant disparities in public opinion based on region, ethnicity or age?

I conducted a poll with my colleague of mine, Regina Smith, funded by the National Science Foundation, in September asking about popular support for Kazakhstan's membership in the CSTO. It was before Russia’s partial mobilization. We followed up and reran the survey just last month to account for this. What we find is that in September, there's generally low popular support for membership in the CSTO. It is highest among men, and ethnic Russians. It is lowest among women, educated people and Khazaks. September results serve as a baseline. What we find in November, which we got the data back for just last week, is that the support for the CSTO membership has declined to 35% post mobilization and given the escalation of the war. That's a 20-point difference. It is lower among men, not as low as it is among women, but it's lower. Ethnic Russians and ethnic Kazakhs are at more parity in terms of their opposition to the CSTO, so there's been a lot of change. Support has declined.

How does Kazakhstan’s large Russian-speaking minority factor into the government’s management of its relationship with Russia?

At independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Kazakhstan was the only former Soviet Republic where the titular nationality, the Kazakhs from the republic, was not a majority. Russians were actually a majority. That changed dramatically for a few reasons. It changed because Russians moved out and emigrated to Russia and also because Kazakh birthrate is relatively high. Some people from Mongolia moved to Kazakhstan as well. There was a demographic shift. It used to be about 39% Kazakhs, and 45% Russians. There was a shift to about 55% Kazakhs to 30% Russians. Over time, it came to be that Kazakhs were the majority and Russians were a minority. 

However, in the northern territories, the territories that border Russia, there's a majority of Russians in several key cities. To give you the background: It's important because Kazakhstan has managed its relationship with Russia by being very welcoming to Russians. For example, it has a strategy where Russian and Kazakh are both recognized as state languages. Over time, it's become less and less important as the demographic balance has shifted. But in the north, it's always been very, very important. It's been important for trade among other things because, again, that border region has a majority of Russians. 

What's interesting now is the influx of Russian refugees who are coming in as a result of the war. It started in March, but there was an influx even more so after the partial mobilization in October. So, there are hundreds of thousands of Russians fleeing into Kazakhstan, and primarily going to those areas that were already majority Russia, as well as the two capital cities in Astana and Amati. 

It's always been this issue of trying to balance the majority Russian regions against the majority Kazakh nation. The situation now shifted to where Russians were starting to be a majority in those regions and so it's going to be an issue for Kazakhstan to navigate this relationship with Russia. If Russia becomes hostile, those regions then could be an excuse for Russia to invade Kazakhstan the same way as Ukraine.

As Kazakhstan distances itself from Russia, what are possible conflicts that may arise? Do you foresee other Central Asian countries following suit?

Russia is a country that is in freefall economically and politically. It is going to be a long time before it recovers. Many of these refugees who have left Russia were highly educated. They probably will never return. Many Russian businesses have left and have gone to Kazakhstan and elsewhere, probably never to return. It's unlikely investment will return in Russia. If Russia stays weak, which I think it will, Kazakhstan really doesn't have much to fear from distancing itself from Russia. If anything, it has everything to gain from distancing itself from Russia. But again, that depends on what happens in Russia. 

Most of the other Central Asian countries have been pretty silent. They haven't really rallied around Russia at all. They haven't been as vocally opposed as Kazakhstan has. I think they're less important because Kazakhstan is very pivotal to the region and what happens in the region. What I tell people is that Kazakhstan is like the Germany of Central Asia. It would be difficult for other countries to counter Kazakhstan distancing itself from Russia. One of the interesting consequences of this war is that the migrant laborers from Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and even Uzbekistan who used to go to Russia to work are now going to Kazakhstan. 

What are the drawbacks of Russia losing Kazakhstan as an ally, especially in regards to Kazakhstan’s role in the Eurasian Economic Union?

The Eurasian Economic Union is largely political. There's really not that much economic benefit. It's supposed to be a sort of customs union and a free trade agreement. The countries kind of make their policies unilaterally, so it’s not that strong of a union. The Eurasian Economic Community symbolically would be important, but I don't think economically it would have a huge impact. 

For Russia, I'd say the number one thing at stake is trade with China. A lot of Russian goods that go to China have to go through Kazakhstan. That would be a huge obstacle, especially if in fact that border became closed. 

For Kazakhstan, it would be the oil sector. About 80% of Kazakhstan’s oil goes through the Caspian pipeline consortium; it goes through Russia to go out to Europe and other places. Kazakhstan would lose that export route, potentially, if relations got bad enough. At the same time, Russia needs products and trade routes, and Kazakhstan needs the export of oil. It is possible that they could distance themselves politically, but still have these economic relations because both of them are so dependent on those trade relations.

Labiba Hassan CMC '25Student Journalist, CC BY 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

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