The Effect of War? Kazakhstani Intellectuals’ Perceptions of Russia and the Question of Western Education
Dr. Sanat Kushkumbayev and Aigerim Bakhtiyarova
After Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, it became evident that Kazakhstan’s traditional “multivector foreign policy” (by which, we mean the nation’s approach to diversifying its political and economic relationships with multiple countries or regions, as opposed to aligning itself closely with a single great-power ally or bloc of nations) faced new challenges. Although Astana’s official position on the war remains neutral, the Kazakhstani policy community has expressed much more polarized views. Yet we lack evidence-based knowledge about local experts’ perceptions of their country’s foreign policy orientations. To fill this gap, the paper ponders the question of which foreign policy orientation of Kazakhstan is now considered the most attractive among Kazakhstani intellectual elites. For this, we conducted research based on surveys and in-depth interviews among the Kazakhstani expert community. To understand the reason for experts’ commitments to the West or Russia, we selected education as a research variable that helped to explore their analysis of the war. Indeed, in Joseph Nye’s view, education is a part of higher culture manifestations, which appeal to elites, and a form of soft power.1
Table 1. Approval of Russian leadership by region according to Gallup, 2021 and 2022.
Source: Gallup, https://news.gallup.com/poll/474596/russia-suffers-global-rebuke-invasion.aspx
* Note: The category “Post-Soviet Eurasia” included surveys of all post-Soviet states in Asia except for Turkmenistan and Tajikistan.
** Note: The category “Asia Pacific” included surveys conducted in all the countries of Southeast Asia, plus Australia and New Zealand.
Russia, the West, and Kazakhstan’s Own Path: An Expert Survey

Although Russia and the United States have significant strategic interests in Kazakhstan, their respective degrees of influence remain unequal. Russia enjoys a privileged position over that of the US in terms of territorial proximity, the language factor, and the cultural and psychological affinity of the people, even though there is a growing sense of a national identity as being dissociated from, if not opposed to, Russia among Kazakhstani youth. With the full-scale war, approval of Russian leadership in Kazakhstan fell from 55% in 2021 to 29% in 2022, while disapproval climbed from 20% to 50%, according to Gallup data (see Table 1).2

Even though the Gallup data demonstrates disapproval of Russia’s leadership in post-Soviet Eurasia, it is vital to highlight the unevenness of percentages among post-Soviet countries. For example, Kyrgyzstan (30% disapproval) and Uzbekistan (18% disapproval) showed a relatively lower percentage of disapproval when compared to that of Kazakhstan, where 50% of respondents expressed disapproval of Russia’s leadership. In turn, Azerbaijan saw a 46% rate of disapproval; Moldova, 54; Armenia, 58%; Georgia, 85%; and in Ukraine, understandably, it was a whopping 96%.

To complement the Gallup data, we conducted our own survey on the Alchemer platform between June 2022 and March 2023. The sampling was conducted in a snowball manner: it was sent to the country’s main social media professional groups, the Bolashak Education & Science Club, Young Researchers Alliance, Nazarbayev University graduates and students, al-Farabi Kazakh National University Students chat, the working group of the Oxus Society for Central Asian Affairs (9 participants, only Kazakhstani citizens). We also sent questionnaires personally to professional experts and educators affiliated with well-known think tanks and universities. This procedure demanded much effort due to personal contact with respondents and feedforward. When it comes to civil servants, getting their consent to fill out the questionnaire turned out to be quite difficult due to administrative restrictions.

In total, 165 people responded to our survey (in Russian, as the Alchemer platform does not allow for Kazakh to be used), representing all regions of the country and from different ages and genders (46.4% male, 53.6% female). Most respondents (59.6%) were under 35 years old. They can be divided in the following categories: scholars (21%); academic staff (17%); students (in bachelor’s, master’s, and PhD programs: 21%); professional experts from think tanks (25%); and civil servants (8%).
Figure 1. Survey results on the preferences of Kazakhstani experts about foreign policy choices, June 2022. Source: Authors’ own survey conducted on the paid platform Alchemer.
Note: Questions and responses translated from original Russian language.
To measure respondents’ commitment to a particular foreign policy orientation for Kazakhstan, we asked: “Which direction do you prefer for the foreign policy of the Republic of Kazakhstan?” (Kakoe napravlenie vneshnei politiki Respubliki Kazakhstan Vy schitaete predpochitel’nym?) (see Figure 1). Among all respondents, 11.1% chose the West, in turn, 10.4% Russia, and 73.3% state that equidistance and multivector policy are the correct positions Kazakhstan should follow. It is also worth noting that a Chinese orientation was almost not selected at all (0.7%).

When filling out the survey, respondents could choose to provide their own answers if they selected “other” from the list of options presented to them, and six people elaborated on their preferences. None of them indicated a preference for a strictly Russia-oriented foreign policy, and two of them stated that the Kazakhstani authorities should promote the strengthening of Turkey’s role in the foreign policy of Kazakhstan. The rest of the respondents opted for a Western-oriented foreign policy, and one made a point of prioritizing Kazakhstan’s national interests as the first and foremost consideration when choosing close partners with whom the country would strengthen its ties.

The Expert Community in Favor of Kazakhstan’s Multivector Foreign Policy

The same question was addressed to 16 policy experts who agreed to a follow-up structured interview. More than half of these interviews were held in person from July 12, 2022, to March 29, 2023, and some others were conducted online, either in Kazakh or in Russian. Although most government employees we approached refused to participate in an interview that touched on the sensitive subject of relations with Russia, we were able to meet with three of them, including a policymaker from the Almaty mayor’s office. The other 13 interviewees were comprised of 6 experts at think tanks and 7 experts from academia. All 16 experts supported a multivector foreign policy for Kazakhstan, meanwhile giving detailed responses regarding their thoughts on the issue.

One expert neatly summarized the official Kazakhstani position and its balancing act:
… Kazakhstan’s foreign policy is very situational, but its strategic direction within a multipolar world remains unchanged. Fear of potential escalation with Russia is one of the reasons for Kazakhstan’s commitment to a good neighbor policy, even within context of the current war. President Tokayev performs acts of political curtsying towards Russia. However, his firm position at the Saint Petersburg International Economic Forum about non-recognition of the legitimacy of the quasi-states of the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic, to some extent, expresses the foreign policy maturity of Kazakhstan. Good relations with China may also influence Tokayev’s bold move. Whichever is true, the country has less room for maneuver, so this delicate balancing policy is the right decision in the foreign policy of the Republic of Kazakhstan.

(Anonymous Interviewee #1, 2022)3

Two interviewees working for a key ministry outlined the government’s commitment to national interests when developing relationships with foreign actors. Describing the foreign policy of Kazakhstan, one of them clarified that “when the government establishes relations with any state, the decisions made should not contravene relations with other parties. This is all about Kazakhstan’s multivector foreign policy, and this is the right decision to make in today’s geopolitical conditions.” (Anonymous Interviewee #7, 2023)4

A similar view was expressed by another interviewee, who worried of the potential risks run by Kazakhstan if it were to distance itself too much from Russia. A sharp distancing from such a strategic partner could complicate the future actions of the Kazakhstani government, and considering the copious amount of pending domestic issues at hand, these might stick out as a lever of pressure for any foreign state to pull on. That is why, even though a pro-Western mood may prevail in some segments of society, Kazakhstan should balance its approach among the great powers and partners by adapting its foreign policy to a new geopolitical reality.
I sincerely sympathize with Ukraine, but when it comes to state affairs, you need to be able to separate your personal mood from the realistic policy and put the national security of the state at the forefront. (Anonymous Interviewee #2, 2023)5
Other experts expressed concerns about a weakening Russia and what it means for the balance of powers in the region. As another interviewee mentioned:
… despite the attractiveness of many Western attributes compared to Russian ones, Russia’s weakened condition does not favor Kazakhstan’s foreign policy perspectives. One reason is that Russia always used to be a counterbalance to another great state, and its weakening means the rise of others’ influence. In addition, a shortage of domestic experts specializing in Russian studies should be mentioned as our weakness. A common opinion that Kazakhstanis are well-educated about their strategic neighbors seems like a delusion. Probably, strong knowledge about the strategic partner could serve as the right framework to establish valuable equal treatment.

(Anonymous Interviewee #3, 2023)6

On the other hand, some others see the weakening of Russia as a potential opportunity for Kazakhstan. As one interviewed noted:
The results of the Ukrainian crisis will bring enormous changes to the international relations system. Accordingly, those who are economically dependent on Russia will strengthen cooperation with the West, or even China, as a counterbalance. Yet today Kazakhstan is of great interest to other powers. Visits of Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2022, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in 2023, and the planned trip of President Vladimir Putin to Kazakhstan give grounds to the state to that each side seeks to strengthen its influence in a field. In response, Kazakhstan can find itself in a convenient position if takes advantage of bringing equal relations with Russia.

(Anonymous Interviewee #10, 2023)7

Interestingly, several interviewees compared former Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s and current President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev’s foreign policies either to insist on their continuity or their diverence. One insisted on “underlining the role of the first president of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, not to pay tribute to the Nazarbayev regime, but because a multivector approach has been the only right choice—whatever the government and head of state—considering the government’s location at the junction of several civilizations and regional powers like Russia and China.” (Anonymous Interviewee #4, 2022)8 Another one added that “Kazakhstan’s multivector approach has a chance to be broadly realized in the current geopolitical environment compared with the situation in the early days of independence. Kazakhstan has matured to the point where it can conduct an independent foreign policy, if it takes the right steps” (Anonymous Interviewee #5, 2023).9Interviews seemed to be more demanding toward the current government, expressing “hope for eradicating corruption in Kazakhstan so citizens can work in a naturally competitive environment as a positive expectation from the current regime, even though the country suffered human casualties during the January [2022] events as a negative feature of it.” (Anonymous Interviewee #6, 2022)10

Another expert brought Turkey into the discussion, considering that Kazakhstanis’ worldview has greater affinity with the Turkic world. He would like to live “in a country that is able to be mature and independent in its foreign affairs, even though the influence of either Russia or the West will be dominant as a whole.” (Anonymous Interviewee #8, 2023)11 Another one wanted a more assertive Kazakhstani way: “to achieve maturity and realize the full potential of the state, first of all, the mistakes of the previous 30 years of independence need to be recognized and learned from. Above all, the meritocracy principle needs to be implemented in a place of power to make the right decisions regarding foreign policy.” (Anonymous Interviewee #9, 2023)12

To sum up, Kazakhstani policy experts seem to strongly support a multivector approach to foreign policy, and while their counterparts in the West may personally sympathize with of many of them, the Kazakhstani experts all agree that Russia will always be the priority on Kazakhstan’s agenda because considerations of political and economic interdependence stemming from territorial proximity dominate.
Table 2. Students from Central Asia studying in Russian universities between 2006 and 2017.
Source: Alexander L. Arefiev, Eksport rossiiskikh obrazovatelnykh uslug, Vypusk 8 (Moscow: TsSPiM, 2018), 40.
Experts Preferences in US and Russian Higher Education

We then worked on correlating our data with preferences for higher education models from Russia and the US. Educational attraction forms a core component of soft power for both the US and Russia.

Taking advantage of the shared legacy of the Russian language, Russia attaches great importance to higher education capabilities to attract talented youth and mid-career professionals from Kazakhstan and other Central Asian countries. Statistically, between 2007 and 2017, the number of students from Central Asia, including Kazakhstan, who entered Russia’s universities increased (see Table 2).

Comparatively, the number of Kazakhstani students studying in the United States in a given year is relatively low. In 2020–2021, only 1,830 Kazakhstani students were studying at US universities. The lengthy application process to get into US universities, the requirement to demonstrate English-language proficiency, the high cost of tuition and fees, and their relatively weak ties to Kazakh partner institutions, all seriously hinder the growth of Kazakhstani student enrollment in higher education institutions in the United States.13

Here one should mention the leading role played by the Bolashak International Scholarship Program, created in 1993 to support the access of Kazakhstani citizens to international educational opportunities. Most of the recipients of this scholarship study at Western universities: Great Britain, the US, Canada, Germany, France, and the Netherlands are the leading destinations for Bolashak Fellows.14
Figure 2. Admission trends of Kazakhstanis to universities in the US and Russia under the Bolashak Program, 1994–2020. Source: Ministry of Education and Science of Kazakhstan, per authors’ request.
The Bolashak Program at first refused to send its fellows to Russia and began doing so only in 2004, yet the Russian option has always remained a minority within the Bolashak strategic portfolio, which is instead focused on Europe, the US, and certain Asian countries (Singapore, South Korea, Malaysia, and Japan). The majority of Kazakhstani citizens studying in Russia do so on their own funds or through Russian fellowships. Upon our request, the Ministry of Education and Science of Kazakhstan provided us with the following Bolashak data for the US and Russia (see Figure 2).

The decline of Russian education’s attractiveness among Kazakhstani experts is confirmed by our expert survey, in which 63.7% of respondents of 165 respondents indicated their preference for US higher education, while only 8.4% preferred Russian higher education (see Figure 3).
Figure 3. Preferences between US and Russian higher education among Kazakhstani experts. Source: Authors’ own survey, conducted in Russian, on the paid platform Alchemer.
However, despite the strong preference for US higher education, most respondents believe that President Tokayev’s initiative to open branches of Russian technical universities in Kazakhstan is a mutually beneficial form of bilateral cooperation. In our survey, we also asked about the loyalty of graduates to the foreign policy orientation of the country they studied in. About 60% of interviewees believed that students show geopolitical loyalty to the country they studied in, with 14% disagreeing with this notion.

Our 16 in-depth interviews (separate from the opinion survey data presented in Figure 3) showed that experts’ opinions on the perception of Russia and the United States through these countries higher education systems turned out to be quite contradictory and heterogeneous. One interviewee declared that opening branches of Russian universities in Kazakhstan “was not a well-developed solution,” as Moscow uses this to maintain influence over Kazakhstan (Anonymous Interviewee #8, 2023). Some other experts disagreed, with one suggesting that “the branches of Russian universities can contribute to the cultivation of technical specialists in the country.” (Anonymous Interviewee #11, 2022)15

Another one stated:
Russian universities preserve ideological separatism among the Russian-speaking population in Kazakhstan and contribute to the blurring of the citizens’ identification with Kazakhstan. It turns out that the Ukrainian crisis has eroded the reputation of Russian higher education and led to a decrease in the value of a Russian worldwide. The fear of there being less demand for graduates with Russian diplomas forces people to opt for education in other foreign countries, including in the United States. Nevertheless, we must also recognize that Russia’s tattered reputation does not mean the quality of its higher education is poor. The problem is that higher education institutions and academic environments are frequently used as political tools for Russian ideology to influence the world, especially in Russia’s neighboring states.

(Anonymous Interviewee #12, 2022)16

Some experts expressed their concerns about Russia’s ideology and worldview regarding Kazakhstan’s sovereignty, especially on the inclusion of the country in the “Russian World” narrative, with reference to such Russian ideologists as Vyacheslav Nikonov and Alexander Dugin. (Anonymous Interviewee #10, 2022)

Respondents also noted how the widespread acceptance of American educational credentials gives pre-eminence to the US model.
Knowledge is relevant only when it is applicable, and the American global economy allows knowledge to be put into practice. The economic factor is an advantage of US higher education, although Russia has substantial scientific potential. Russian education is not inferior to American education in its fundamentals, but it is inferior in its application [in preparing graduates for the job market], hence the idea that the economy is the cornerstone of the projection of real soft power.

(Anonymous Interviewee #13, 2022)17

Still another argues that the US model is more attractive for other pragmatic reasons: “the attractiveness of American higher education for Kazakhstani experts is explained by the high levels of scholarly citation and academic reputation in the world.” (Anonymous Interviewee #14, 2022).18 Considering the influence of Western education, another interviewee gave credit to the critical-thinking ability graduates master during their studies. In the end, “these people become capable of critically evaluating the issues, contributing to the intellectual potential of Kazakhstani youth. This is an advantage of higher education in the United States, favoring the country’s attractiveness.” (Anonymous Interviewee #16, 2023).19

Those favorable to the US educational system seem also sensitive to the notion of multiculturalism, seeing knowledge as a social experience where one can both absorb culture of the country of study and preserve one’s own ethnic identity. But despite the American universities’ higher rankings, one interviewee was convinced that “Western education in the humanities goes against the Kazakh national mentality, which is more Eastern in its orientation. In practice, graduates of humanities programs of US universities look at the world through the prism of liberal values, which may not always coincide with the Kazakh reality.” (Anonymous Interviewee #15, 2023)20 Another set of respondents proclaimed a positive perception of Russian higher education: for them, anyone who has read Tolstoy, Pushkin, and Dostoevsky naturally sympathizes with Russian culture and education; the Gamalei Institute developed the Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine; and Russia has a significant cultural and scientific heritage that is worthy of admiration.

Conclusion

The emergence of pro-Western sentiment in Kazakhstan’s foreign policy community appears to be a new development. However, asserting that the country can seriously distance itself from Russia in the current geopolitical context would be inaccurate, due to economic and security interdependence and the influential role of the Russian language. This is underscored by President Tokayev’s decision in October 2023 to support the establishment of the International Organization for the Russian Language, along with the notable increase in bilateral trade volume and the influx of Russian investments. Alongside expressions of commitment to the West by Kazakhstani elites, the imperative to collaborate with Russia persists.

Maintaining a clear distinction between public opinion and elite perspectives is essential. While our survey indicates a prevalence of pro-Western sentiments among Kazakhstani experts, the non-governmental center Demoscope’s survey conducted in April 2022 reveals a contrasting allegiance among the general population. Approximately 36% of respondents favored Russia, with only 6% opting for a partnership with the West.21 Experts attribute this primarily to Russia’s informational influence and presence in Kazakhstani society. One way for Kazakhstan to avoid a risky binary choice in its foreign policy orientation has been to widen the spectrum of cooperation with other countries, especially with middle powers. All experts interviewed insisted on the idea that Astana has reached the point where it can now take more decisive action in favor of its own national interests.
[1] Joseph S. Nye, Jr., Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics (New York: PublicAffairs Books, 2005), p. 11.
[2] Zac Ritter and Steve Crabtree, “Russia Suffers Global Rebuke after Invasion” Gallup, World, April 25, 2023, https://news.gallup.com/poll/474596/russia-suffers-global-rebuke-invasion.aspx.
[3] Anonymous 1 interview, Kazakhstani student at Harvard University, 2022.
[4] Anonymous 7 interview, employee of one of the ministries of the Republic of Kazakhstan, 2023.
[5] Anonymous Interviewee #2 (2023), an expert economist at one of the leading think tanks of Kazakhstan.
[6] Anonymous Interviewee #3 (2023), a scholar at Nazarbayev University.
[7] Anonymous Interviewee #10 (2023), a civil servant from the Almaty Mayor’s Office.
[8] Anonymous Interviewee #4 (2022), a member of the Academy of Public Administration under the President of Kazakhstan.
[9] Anonymous Interviewee #5 (2023), a researcher at Nazarbayev University. 
[10] Anonymous Interviewee #6 (2022), a graduate of the Moscow Power Engineering Institute (Russia), and Oklahoma State University (USA), and a public activist in Kazakhstan.
[11] Anonymous Interviewee #8 (2023), a political scientist at one of the leading think tanks of Kazakhstan.
[12] Anonymous Interviewee #9 (2023), a foreign policy expert at one of the leading think tanks of Kazakhstan.
[13] US International Trade Administration, “Education Services and Technologies,” ITA website, March 25, 2022, https://www.trade.gov/country-commercial-guides/kazakhstan-education-services-and-technologies. 
[14] Ainash Mustoyapova, “ ‘Bolashak’ Scholarship: An Attempted Breakthrough,” Central Asian Bureau for Analytical Reporting, March 29, 2019, https://cabar.asia/en/bolashak-scholarship-an-attempted-breakthrough.
[15] Anonymous Interviewee #11 (2022), a graduate of L. N. Gumilyov Eurasian National University, and a political consultant specializing on information security in Kazakhstan.
[16] Anonymous Interviewee #12 (2022), a graduate of Columbia University.
[17] Anonymous Interviewee #13 (2022), a graduate of RUDN University, Russia.
[18] Anonymous Interviewee #14 (2022), a member of the Kazakhstan Institute of Strategic Studies
under the President of the Republic of Kazakhstan.
[19] Anonymous Interviewee #16 (2022), who works in one of the ministries of the Republic of Kazakhstan.
[20] Anonymous Interviewee #15 (2022), who works in one of the ministries of the Republic of Kazakhstan.
[21] Demoscope, “Opros: Znachitel’naya chast’ kazakhstantsev podverzhena vliyaniyu rossiyskoy propagandi,” Demoscope website, April 7, 2022, https://demos.kz/opros-znachitelnaja-chast-kazahstancev-podverzhena-vlijaniju-rossijskoj-propagandy/.
  • Dr. Sanat Kushkumbayev

    Visiting Scholar at The George Washington University

  • Aigerim Bakhtiyarova

    PhD candidate at L. N. Gumilyov Eurasian National University

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