Squeezed between the continent-sized powers of Russia and China, Kazakhstan has become the economic frontier in an asymmetrical battle for influence. But while geopolitics and natural resources may define the scope of its future on the world stage, only a crafty foreign policy and a genuine willingness to pursue liberal democracy can give Kazakhstan the opportunity to fulfill its promise and become the heartland of Eurasia.

Image courtesy of mariusz kluzniak, © 2012, some rights reserved.

Image courtesy of mariusz kluzniak, © 2012, some rights reserved.

In terms of geopolitical clout, Kazakhstan naturally stands far above its perennially underdeveloped Central Asian neighbors. The country’s GDP exceeds that of Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan combined. At three-quarters the size of Western Europe, it remains the world’s ninth largest country: double the size of the rest of Central Asia. Although landlocked, it sits comfortably on the Caspian Sea, where oil, gas, and hydrocarbons abound. Its Tengiz field, which lies on the coast of the Caspian, may contain twice the oil of the Alaskan Northern Slope, and plans for oil and gas pipelines to both China and the West will ensure its future as a major player in global energy markets.

Yet rather than rely on its substantial energy sector, Kazakhstan has successfully diversified its natural resource potential: it is one of the largest producers of uranium, and it holds some of the world’s largest reserves of lead, zinc, chromium, manganese, copper, coal, iron, and gold. Moreover, the government’s heavy-handed leadership has proven itself capable of converting these resources into tangible benefits for the country’s ongoing economic modernization, even as it bows to foreign interests to accomplish its lofty goals.

Central Asia borders the chronically unstable Chinese region of Xinjiang, where the native Turkic Uyghurs have endlessly irritated Beijing with protests and riots. If only for the fact of geography alone, China seeks to secure the centralisation of Beijing’s control of its far-flung provinces by ensuring stable borders with Central Asia. Consequently, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, China has invested heavily in the region. From 1992 to 2009, trade between the two rose fiftyfold to $25.9 billion, and China has further reinvested $25 billion, in part to finance critical infrastructure projects. It has exclusively financed the construction of a highway stretching two thousand miles across Kazakhstan’s otherwise vacant landscape, along with an oil pipeline extending from the Caspian Sea to Xinjiang; a major step toward reining in the unruly province.

Russia certainly sees the geopolitical benefits of bringing Kazakhstan back into its sphere of influence, but for the most part it is powerless to defy China’s far more effective strategy. China is winning the economic battle on two fronts: it is gaining the upper hand in obtaining Kazakhstan’s natural resources, and it is a far more attractive investment partner than Russia, which seems comparatively abrasive and controlling. But many Kazakhstanis remain nostalgic for the bygone days of the Soviet Union, and most of Kazakhstan’s political elite has a Soviet background. Russian influence in the region may be waning more rapidly than Moscow believes, though the internal dynamics of Kazakhstan demonstrate that China will have a geopolitical challenger for the foreseeable future.

Geopolitics, however, tells only half the story. The future of Kazakhstan will be decided not only by the natural consequences of its prime location in Central Asia and its fortunate position as a satellite of both Russia and China, but by the extent to which its political leadership can stave off political upheaval. Kazakhstan is on track to modernizing its economy, yet it must also modernize its political system.

This sort of change must be more than superficial. In 1997 President Nazarbayev shifted the country’s focus from its Soviet-era capital Almaty, which remains Kazakhstan’s largest city, to the new capital of Astana. Intending to restructure the country’s weak national identity, Mr Nazarbayev directed the construction of shiny new government buildings and artistically designed cultural monuments at the cost of over $10 billion. The ostentatious new capital has proven a mere distraction from the reality of ethnic divisions and crippling political unrest, which Mr Nazarbayev has addressed but failed to solve since first taking office nearly 23 years ago.

After two decades, Kazakhstan still has not shaken off its autocratic instincts. Elections in Kazakhstan remain rigged and unfair. By design, last year was the first of multi-party rule, and now his Nur Otan party shares power with two other pro-Nazarbayev parties. In December 2011, Kazakhstani police killed 15 demonstrators. More than a dozen anti-Nazarbayev activists were arrested, harsh sentences were distributed, accusations of torture were ignored, and a lack of evidence during the trials seemed to be of no bother. Since then, two television stations were closed and two newspapers charged with “inciting social discord” by reporting on the violence critically and journalistically.

Mr Nazarbayev thinks of himself as a master of flexible foreign policy, and in many ways he is. There are few leaders better equipped to deftly balance both Russian and Chinese interests, in the short term playing each one off of the other in order to claim economic rewards in the long run without falling completely into either’s sphere of influence. Yet for the sake of his country, he must learn the value of translating this flexibility to the domestic sphere. His success has come primarily from his motto, “the economy first, then politics,” which is why Kazakhstan has a growing business class, a thriving energy sector, and impressive growth, despite inexorable corruption. Ever the autocrat, he firmly believes that only state appropriation of the economy and the state can ensure stability for Kazakhstan. But it will take more than glitzy new cities to bridge ethnic divides and piece together Kazakhstan’s fragmented sense of identity.

Plagued with rumors of ill health and aged 72, Mr Nazarbayev will not be around forever, and behind the scenes a shadowy power struggle for control of post-Nazarbayev Kazakhstan is brewing. For a start, he ought to ensure press freedoms and allow true opposition parties to participate in elections; if he does not, the country faces long-term stagnation and enslavement to the fluctuating global oil prices. The president must immediately begin to outline procedures for legitimate leadership succession and modernize the country’s political institutions from the ground up, taking an especially critical approach to corruption. One way or another, Kazakhstan can no longer pretend to play the role of a democracy.

In the early 20th century, Sir Halford Mackinder wrote that an otherwise insignificant swathe of land—extending from Iran up through Central Asia and across Russia—held global geopolitical significance and would be the key pivot in deciding the geopolitical contests between the great empires of the globe. Whichever superpower controls this “Heartland,” he argued, would decide who could dominate Eurasia and, from there, the world. But Mackinder was wrong. Today, the core of this Heartland is called Kazakhstan, and the great power controlling it is its own indigenous peoples. Kazakhstan has a unique opportunity to become the master of its own geopolitical fate, and only by extending the same political stake to its citizens—through legitimate liberal democratic institutions that can usurp an entrenched, corrupt leadership—can the country and its people realize their unfulfilled potential.