• Richard Murff

The Kissing Game

Russia and its Southern Tier

As troops were massing on Ukraine’s borders in February, Vladimir Putin was busy calling the leaders of former Soviet satellites along what’s called Russia’s “southern tier” in the Caucuses and Central Asia. Or what you probably think of as the “Stans.” The blitz was a “getting the band back together” style pep-rally for the invasion. What he got was the shoulder shrugging ambivalence you give a boozed-up friend when there is no way to talk him out of a terrible idea.


This shouldn’t be taken for indifference. A scattering of small, underdeveloped states pinched between Russia, China, and Iran don’t have much of a choice: They want to keep their distance from Moscow’s ill-advised quagmire, but their economies demand they keep doing business with Russia without being too picky.


Alone in the region, Kazakhstan is attempting a high-road. On 28 March, a Kazakh presidential emissary, Timur Suleimenov, explained that he was in Brussels to “demonstrate to our European partners that Kazakhstan will not be a tool to circumvent the sanctions.”


It’s a noble, but risky, strategy. Putin famously declared that Ukraine isn’t a state, but he also said it about Kazakhstan, arguably the most developed and independent economy of the southern tier. In 2018, Russian media went into fits over its decision to scrap the Cyrillic alphabet for the Western Latin one. Moscow saw it as a threat not only to Russian culture but it’s God-given right to pester its former satellites into submission. That same year, the government quietly refused Moscow’s demand that Kazakhstan abolish its visa-free agreement with the US. While seeking to chart its own course, Kazakhstan has been careful not to openly antagonize Moscow.


In 2019, former Soviet strong man the and only “Supreme Leader” independent Kazakhstan has ever known, Nursultan Nazarbayen (sort of) retired in favor of a hand-picked successor, Kassym Tokoyev. Not much changed until Nur-Sultan (a careful reader will note that the country’s shiny new capital was built by, and named after, the old guy) decided to scrap state subsidies of liquified petroleum gas (LPG) which is used for heating homes to driving cars. Prices doubled overnight, triggering a wave of protests across the country that grew into something like an insurrection. To restore order, President Tokayev asked for assistance through (mainly Russian) Collective Security Treaty Organization. With order restored, Russian troops broke will all historical president and actually withdrew. They were needed for the invasion of Ukraine.


Tokayev may have swallowed Putin’s earlier quip that Kazakhstan “never existed as a state”, but it is hard to argue that he does not owe the continued existence of his regime to Moscow. If Putin has spent years setting up the chess pieces in Ukraine, he’s done the same in Central Asia.


Eyeballing Europe, Tokayev now says that his most important job is “protecting national sovereignty and territorial integrity.” He’s got his work cut out for him. Kazakhstan’s shared border with Russia is about 4,750 miles of completely indefensible steppe. It is the largest land locked country in the world, despite a long shore along the Caspian Sea, which is also landlocked. The area was largely unsettled until the opening of the “Silk Road” connecting East and West, but it wasn’t until the Mongols arrived in the 13th century that any sort of administration was established. What became known a Kazakh culture didn’t really develop until the 16th century.


By the mid 19th, the Russians moved in, but largely left the local culture alone. It wasn’t until the 1920’s that the Soviets “reorganized” the region several times before settling on the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic in 1936. True to style, they attempted rewrite the culture with the collectivization of small farms which, like clockwork, triggered famine and misery. In the 1950’s they tried it again under the titillating name of the “Virgin Lands Program” which worked almost as well. Finally, the Soviets settled for exploitation of the region’s rich mineral and oil wealth – like collectivization but with a lot more pollution.


Kazakhstan preexisted the Russians, but as the last of the Soviet republics to leave the USSR in 1991, it was still economically undeveloped when they left. Since independence Kazakhstan has pursued a “Multi-vector foreign policy” that seeks openness with big neighbors like Russia and China, while keeping the door open with the West. All of which is a euphemism for playing the big guys off each other. Everyone with the industrial capacity to do so is drilling for natural gas and oil, and mining the countries rich deposits of uranium, chromium, lead, copper, zinc, and even diamonds. All of this foreign investment is being centrally managed for the people or, more accurately, it’s lining a few pockets and the rest is going down the toilet.


Putin’s theories on what makes a people notwithstanding, the Kazakh’s do have their own a unique, if baffling, society flavored with nomadic, saddle-bound traditions. For example, horse sphincter is a traditional canapé which, I understand, does not taste at all like chicken.


Despite what it must do to the breath, Kazakhs have their romantic side: Kyz kuu is a traditional game that is almost a national sport. Euphemistically means “the Kissing game”, but more literally, it means “girl chasing.” A man waits on horseback at the starting line while a young belle starts galloping way back to build up speed, when she charges past, he sets off after her as fast as he can. If he catches up – close enough to steal a kiss makes it official – before they cross the finish line, he wins. If, on the other hand, the young lady crosses the finish line unsmooched, both riders reel around and head off back to the start line. If he reaches the mark first, nothing much happens. However, if she can close the gap, her prize is to beat the fella with a whip. This is an eye-opening look into the Kazakh battle of the sexes – unsettling for both its foreignness and its universality.


There is also a cautionary tale here about for trying to have your way with a former satellite who’d rather ride off on their own.