The Divergent Roles of Russia and Kazakhstan in the Collapse of the Soviet Union



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The Divergent Roles of Russia and Kazakhstan in the Collapse of the Soviet Union:

A synopsis on the impact of elite decision-making regarding secession

IS-337WX: Comparative Paper I

Daniel Bradford

24 March 2014

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The modern states of Russia and Kazakhstan are former republics under the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). In addition to being former republics, Russia and Kazakhstan have much in common. For example, both states share borders and are located in the same geographic region. Demographically speaking, Russia and Kazakhstan are similar because of the commonalities that exist amongst the populations of both states and the ethnic groups that compose those populations. For instance, within both states there are Russian and Tatar ethnic groups. Yet, while being comparable on various terms, the two modern states are not presently identical and nor were they indistinguishable republics under the Soviet Union. In this comparative essay, I examine the roles of Russia and Kazakhstan in Soviet collapse. Through my analysis, I found that each state played a distinct role in the process that brought about the dissolution of the USSR. Elite action, during the period leading up to Soviet collapse, was distinct for both states. When compared, variance in elite action proves to be significant in accounting for the divergence amongst the roles that each state practiced in the dismantling process of the Soviet Union. I argue that the roles and contributions of each state, concerning Soviet collapse, were predicated on the governing elites of each regime and the cost-benefit analysis they undertook in regards to secession. To support my argument, I analyze and illustrate how the structure of the Soviet Union provided both states with an opportunity to actively participate in the process of Soviet dissolution. Yet, Russia played an active role while Kazakhstan did not and this can be explained by the variance of elite action between the states.

Guidepost for Comparison

I begin my comparative analysis by briefly reviewing the structure of the Soviet Union and how it can be problematic for state preservation. I then briefly review Soviet collapse by noting several factors that accelerated the process. Next, I analyze the roles that Russia and Kazakhstan sustained during the period preceding Soviet collapse. Finally, after analyzing the distinct roles of each state, I illustrate how elite decision-making and action helped to produce the divergent roles of Russia and Kazakhstan.



Ethnoferderalism and the Prospect for State Breakup

The reign Union of Soviet Socialist Republics lasted began in 1922 and ended in 1991. Russia and Kazakhstan comprised two of the fifteen republics that were under Soviet rule. The USSR, having a socialist regime typology, held an all union command economy. The structure of the Soviet socialist regime is characterized for practicing ethnofederalism. To understand ethnofederalism it is important to first review federalism because it represents the start point from which ethnofederalism evolved. Federalism, as defined by William Riker, “is a political organization in which the activities of government are divided between regional governments and a central government in such a way that each kind of government has some activities on which it makes final decisions.”1 Ethnofederalism, as noted by Henry Hale, is “a federal political system in which component regions are intentionally associated with specific ethnic categories…”2 Thus, similar to federalism, ethnofederalism is a political system where sovereignty is divided between a central or federal government and political sub-units such as states or republics. The difference between ethnofederalism and federalism is that at least one of the sub-units within an ethnofederation, which are distributed sovereignty, is representative of an ethnic group.

Ethnofederalism, because of its structure and sovereignty distribution, can be problematic for governing regimes seeking the preservation of central authority. This is because ethnofederal structures increase the prospects of secession and secessionist demands, particularly when ethnic groups have established sub-unit institutions that allow them to overcome the collective action problem (in regards to the problems associated with participation in rebellion). The risk of secession by sub-units rises when a core ethnic region exists within an ethnofederation. As Hale notes, a core ethnic region exists when a political sub-unit is “clearly dominant in terms of population, containing a majority of the union’s citizens.”3 Core ethnic regions facilitate secession and state breakup in several ways, all of which are noted by Henry Hale in his article titled, The Makeup and Breakup of Ethnofederal States: Why Russia Survives Where the USSR Fell. Hale asserts that core ethnic regions are problematic and can increase the likelihood for state breakup in the following ways, “they facilitate dual sovereignty [which delegitimizes the authority of the central/federal government], exacerbate the security fears of minority-group regions, and promote the ‘imagining’ of core-group identifications independent of the federation [which can ultimately lead to secessionist demands if ethnic sub-units can adequately mobilize against central authority].”4 The structure of Soviet ethnofederalism was designed in a manner that allowed for a core ethnic region to be formed in the system. Thus the mere fact that a core ethnic region existed within the structure of the Soviet ethnofederation, made it somewhat possible, albeit to different extents, for Russia and Kazakhstan to practice active roles in breaking up the USSR. Yet, as I show in the succeeding sections, even though ethnofederal structural factors afforded both states with the opportunity to push for sovereignty demands, Kazakhstan’s participation was relatively passive in regards to the Soviet dismantling process.

A Rundown of Soviet Collapse

To better understand the roles of Russia and Kazakhstan in the process of Soviet collapse, I provide a brief synopsis on the events that preceded and accelerated the dissolution of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. The review that I provide is not comprehensive and it is only meant to provide better comprehension on the roles that Russia and Kazakhstan played in the process of Soviet collapse.

There is much debate concerning the initial starting point of the process that produced the Soviet collapse. Most would agree that the Soviet Union officially dissolved on 25 December 1991, when “the Soviet hammer and sickle flag lowered for the last time over the Kremlin, thereafter replaced by the Russian tricolor.”5 I begin my synopsis in 1985 because during this period, the process of Soviet collapse was vastly accelerated. This acceleration, as noted by Mark Beissinger, “was in fact the unintended result of Mikhail Gorbachev’s policies, not its conscious goal…”6 Specifically, Gorbachev’s implementation of Glasnost and Perestroika, directly impacted Soviet collapse. As Beissinger notes, “until glasnost, secessionist sentiments remained very much on the margins of Soviet society…”7 In his attempt to reform the failing Soviet system, Mikhail Gorbachev implemented the policies of glasnost and perestroika. Perestroika was meant to bring about “the reconstruction of the political and economic system established by the Communist Party.”8 When translated, glasnost means openness and this “was the name for the social and political reforms to bestow more rights and freedoms upon the Soviet people.”9 Yet in his attempt to save communism, Gorbachev provided the means for its demise. Beissinger asserts that, “Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost and the political liberalization that it produced were obviously the critical institutional conditions that allowed the collapse of communism to occur.”10 The reformation of the USSR’s economy and politics, coupled with the opening up of Soviet society, allowed for the spread of nationalist sentiment across the republics of the union. In addition to Gorbachev’s policies and the growth of nationalist movements they produced, I agree with Henry Hale and his analysis on the problematic structural design of the Soviet ethnofederation. Specifically, I agree with Hale’s assertion that the existence of a core ethnic region, within an ethnofederal system, can help facilitate secession. The collapse of the Soviet Union cannot be attributed to any one cause and I have only referenced a few significant variables that are commonly seen as having accelerated the process of Soviet collapse.

The Russian role in Soviet Collapse

As suggested earlier, Russia exercised a very active role in the dismantling process of the Soviet Union. In this section of my analysis, I provide an overview of Russia’s actions and participation in pushing for Soviet collapse. I examine Russia’s role by highlighting the aspects that illustrate its distinctiveness from Kazakhstan and the role that it exercised in Soviet collapse. I account for the divergence amongst the roles of both states in the later portions of my analysis.

While under the Soviet Union, Russia was the largest of all fifteen Soviet socialist republics. Russians were also “the dominant nationality of the Soviet Union and had the most to lose from attempts to undermine the Soviet empire.”11 Russia’s role in the Soviet collapse came as a surprise to some because, as Beissinger notes, “Soviet communism was widely viewed as Russian communism, and Leninist ideology was said to have resonated powerfully with embedded elements of Russian political culture.”12 Yet, the Russian republic did push for sovereignty demands and, as noted by Kathryn Stoner-Weiss and Michael McFaul, was successful in obtaining them because the former republic “became the clear international successor state of the former empire.”13

The Russian republic held close economic ties with the Soviet Union, yet Russian imperial nationalism and support for the USSR was relatively weak. Glasnost, by opening up society and allowing for the flow of information across the union, best accounts for the lack of Russian support towards the Soviet Union. This is because the policy, and “its constant revelations of Soviet abuses and atrocities drove a wedge between many ordinary Russians and the Soviet state.”14 Also resulting from the newfound openness, Russians, “who constituted a disproportionate share of the Soviet intelligentsia and working class relative to most other nationalities”, realized the abuses they had been receiving from the Soviet Union and the all union command economy.15 As Hale notes, “Russia was a net donor to the rest of the union despite the other republic’s claims of exploitation, primarily because it supplied oil and gas to them at far-below-market prices.”16 In the end, “glasnost significantly undermined Russian support for the communist regime…”17

The Russian republic, while decreasing its backing towards the Soviet Union, still lacked an independence movement. This is partly because of perestroika and the political and economic reforms it entailed. The population of the Russian republic was largest of all republics and there diverse and there were “multiple political roles that Russians could and did assume during these years.”18 As Beissinger notes, “Russians were deeply divided politically…”19 The figure who largely helped the Russian republic to unite and jumpstart its independence movement was Boris Yeltsin. As asserted by Hale, the significant “reform that launched the Russian Republic on its challenge to Soviet sovereignty was the introduction of republic-level elections in March 1990 [which brought Yeltsin to center stage].”20 As Stephen Kotkin observes, it was Yeltsin who lead “Russia’s drive for ‘sovereignty,’” and it was him who “attracted an enormous following inside and outside the hall as the unofficial leader of the ‘democrats.’”21 As Hale notes, “much of Yeltsin’s activity as Russian Republic leader can be understood as an attempt to permanently rectify… [the] disparity between Russia’s dominance in population and territory and its perceived disadvantages in terms of economic policy.”22 Under the reign of Yeltsin, the Russian republic was able to formulate its own identity apart from the Soviet Union. Boris Yeltsin challenged the Soviet Union when he created and ran for presidential election in the Russia, which he won. Yeltsin’s victory left Moscow with two presidents, Yeltsin being the only one elected by the people. Closely following Yeltsin’s presidential victory, the republic of Russia “played its most-union destructive role during and after the attempted coup of August 1991.”23 Russia’s role in the failed coup of 1991 illustrated the deficiencies of the Soviet Union and ultimately delegitimized the Soviet system.

The role of Kazakhstan in Soviet Collapse

When compared to the former Russian republic, the role of Kazakhstan in the process of Soviet collapse is distinct. Having already evaluated the role of the Russian republic in Soviet collapse, it will be easier to examine Kazakhstan and what distinguished its role from that of Russia. As noted above, Russia exercised an active role that pushed for Soviet collapse. In contrast, Kazakhstan endured a passive role that sought the preservation of the Soviet Union.

Kazakhstan is currently one of the five states that reside and compose the region of Central Asia. All five states were former republics of the Soviet Union and they did not become independent until after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The Central Asian republics, Kazakhstan included, were largely underdeveloped and lacked infrastructure. The republics were economically dependent on the USSR and thus did not possess the secessionist sentiments that other Soviet Republics did (like Russia). As Brent Hierman notes about the five states in Central Asia, they “were given something that the elites, and seemingly much of the population had not demanded, wanted, nor prepared for: their independence.”24 Kazakhstan held a very passive role and did not push for Soviet collapse because of its dependence on the Soviet command economy. Kazakhstan did not have the proper infrastructure and institutions to be a well functioning independent state. As Kotkin notes, up until the end, “almost all of Central Asia’s leaders maintained hope that the Union could be saved…”25 This is true for Kazakhstan and its leader, Nursultan Nazarbaev. Nazarbaev was the chairman of the Kazakhstan Supreme Soviet and he, along “with his supporters in the Kazakhstan elite, manipulated nationalism to consolidate power in the republic…”26 Yet, as Kotkin asserts, “even during his campaign for the new Kazakh presidency in late 1991, Nazarbaev resisted calls for complete independence.”27 Kazakhstan did not push for sovereignty and was ultimately ill prepared when the state received its independence after Soviet collapse.

Elite Action and Divergent Roles

I argue that elite action, within Russia and Kazakhstan, is the primary factor that produced the stark contrast between the roles that each republic practiced during the process of Soviet collapse. Supporters of Henry Hale may potentially challenge my argument. Hale proposes a structural explanation for the dismantling of the Soviet Union. He maintains that the design of the Soviet ethnofederation allowed for a core ethnic region to exist and that this ultimately accelerated Soviet collapse. Russia was the core ethnic region within the Soviet ethnofederation. Some may challenge my argument by citing Russia’s status as the core ethnic region within the USSR as the primary factor that caused Russia to play such an active role in the process of Soviet collapse. I agree that the design of Soviet ethnofederalism aided in the collapse of the Soviet Union and provided Russia with the means to push for secession. Yet, the design of the Soviet ethnofederation would have also allowed for Kazakhstan to be more active in the process of Soviet collapse than it was. In addition, this counter-argument does not fully account for the mobilization of the Russian republic because, even though Russia was the core ethnic region, it was politically divided and lacked an independence movement until Boris Yeltsin arrived on the scene.



Elite action is a better explanatory variable to utilize in the attempt to explain the divergent roles of Russia and Kazakhstan in the process of Soviet collapse. Structural design made it possible for both republics to be active in accelerating the Soviet dismantling process but because of elite action and decision making, only the Russian exhibited an active role. Before Yeltsin, Russia was politically divided and lacked any legitimate independence movements (even though it was the core ethnic region). Boris Yeltsin, as Kotkin points out, was known for being a “man of the people…”28 Charismatic Yeltsin was able to unite the Russian population who had been politically divided under the Soviet Union and perestroika. The charisma of Yeltsin and his actions in seeking the rectification of Russian disparity in the USSR (regarding Russia’s population and territorial dominance within the Soviet Union and the economic burdens it faced from the all union command economy) is largely what shaped and defined the active role of the Russian republic in the process of Soviet Collapse. Similarly, because of the problematic design of the Soviet ethnofederation, Kazakhstan had the ability to accelerate Soviet collapse but because of elite action, it did not. Nursultan Nazarbaev, the leading elite of the Soviet republic of Kazakhstan, chose to resist demands for complete independence and secession from the Soviet Union. The cost-benefit analysis that Yeltsin and Nazarbaev undertook, with regards to succession, shaped their actions and ultimately the roles of the Russia and Kazakhstan in the collapse of the Soviet Union. Yeltsin determined that independent sovereignty provided greater utility for Russia and himself than working to preserve the Soviet Union could supply. In contrast, Nazarbaev, as a result of Kazakhstan’s under-developed infrastructure, determined that the preservation of the USSR was beneficial for the republic of Kazakhstan and himself.



1 Volden, Craig. "Origin, Operation, and Significance: The Federalism of William H. Riker." Publius: Conservative Perspectives on American Federalism. no. 4 (2004): 91.

2 Hale, Henry. "The Makeup and Breakup of Ethnofederal States: Why Russia Survives Where the USSR Fell," Perspectives on Politics. no. 1 (2005): 55.

3 Ibid., 56.

4 Ibid.

5 U.S. Department of State: Office of the Historian, "The Collapse of the Soviet Union." Last modified October 31, 2013. Accessed March 23, 2014. https://history.state.gov/milestones/1989-1992/collapse-soviet-union.

6 Beissinger, Mark. "Nationalism and the Collapse of Soviet Communism." Contemporary European History. no. 3 (2009): 335.

7 Ibid., 337.

8 Gitomirski, Sasha. The Cold War Museum, "Glasnost and Perestroika." Accessed March 23, 2014. http://www.coldwar.org/articles/80s/glasnostandperestroika.asp.

9 Ibid.

10 Beissinger, Mark. "Nationalism and the Collapse of Soviet Communism." Contemporary European History. no. 3 (2009): 335.

11 Ibid., 342.

12 Ibid.

13 Stoner-Weiss, Kathryn, and Michael McFaul. Domestic and International Influences on the Collapse of the Soviet Union (1991) and Russia's Initial Transition to Democracy (1993). working paper., CDDRL Stanford University, 2009.

14 Beissinger, Mark. "Nationalism and the Collapse of Soviet Communism." Contemporary European History. no. 3 (2009): 342.

15 Ibid.

16 Hale, Henry. "The Makeup and Breakup of Ethnofederal States: Why Russia Survives Where the USSR Fell," Perspectives on Politics. no. 1 (2005): 59.

17 Beissinger, Mark. "Nationalism and the Collapse of Soviet Communism." Contemporary European History. no. 3 (2009): 343.

18 Ibid., 342.

19 Ibid., 343.

20 Hale, Henry. "The Makeup and Breakup of Ethnofederal States: Why Russia Survives Where the USSR Fell," Perspectives on Politics. no. 1 (2005): 59.

21 Stephen Kotkin, Armageddon Averted: The Soviet Collapse 1970-2000, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 95.

22 Hale, Henry. "The Makeup and Breakup of Ethnofederal States: Why Russia Survives Where the USSR Fell," Perspectives on Politics. no. 1 (2005): 59.

23 Ibid., 60.

24 Hierman, Brent. Understanding the Unpredictable Stability of Post-Soviet Central Asia. Unpublished manuscript

25 Stephen Kotkin, Armageddon Averted: The Soviet Collapse 1970-2000, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 106.

26 Ibid.

27 Ibid.

28 Ibid., 96.


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