Renowned US political scientist and philosopher Francis Fukuyama—best known for his 1992 book The End of History and the Last Man—says a diminished Russia caused by losses in the Ukraine war would remove any territorial threats to Kazakhstan and give Central Asian countries more opportunities to devise their own policies.
Fukuyama, director of the Center for the Advancement of Democracy and the Rule of Law at Stanford University, was in Almaty, Kazakhstan, for the Kazakh-language release of his new book, Liberalism And Its Discontents. While there, he was interviewed by RFE/RL’s Kazakhstan Service.
Fukuyama, who sees Russia's invasion of Ukraine as a strategic mistake by the Kremlin, said: "I think that Putin thought that he could launch that so-called special military operation and the regime in Kyiv would fall in two or three days, and he can install somebody to be sympathetic to Moscow. But more than a year and a half later, the Russian Army has suffered horrendous casualties. This was a much bigger action for Russia than Putin had intended."
Fukuyama also observed that the fall of Ukraine to Russian forces would pose a significant threat to Kazakhstan, given that some ultranationalist politicians in Moscow claim parts of northern Kazakhstan should be Russian.
"Any weakening of Russia...could give Central Asian countries—and [specifically] Kazakhstan—a greater ability to set their own policies [without Russian interference]," he said. "You can imagine the opposite if [Russians] conquer Ukraine or take some part of Kazakhstan, like they have in Ukraine. But a weakened Russia would allow [Central Asians to make their] own decisions without worrying what the Russians will say or how they will react."
Fukuyama mentioned the importance of a liberal development of society in Central Asia.
"It is important to form a national identity that truly includes all those who live in Kazakhstan rather than allowing one group or another to dominate. During the [Soviet era] there was an attempt [coming from Moscow] to Russify everything, to make everyone speak Russian, to make Russian culture somewhat dominant. And that was wrong," he said. "People really need the freedom to live in their own cultural environment without being blocked by others."
Fukuyama also spoke of his surprise at strict measures on Central Asia's borders, saying that a greater implementation of a free market and the opening of borders would lead to a surge in the region's economic development.
"One of the things that's been quite striking in visiting this region is how little communication trade interchange there is among the countries in Central Asia," he said. "[There could be much] bigger markets and much more prosperity if the countries in this region didn't impose border controls and didn't pursue more economically nationalist kinds of policies but rather were integrated into a larger single market. That's a project that the leaders in these countries could pursue at some point."
Looking at the present situation in terms of freedoms in Kazakhstan, Fukuyama said: "I think [Kazakhstan has] a very centralised authoritarian regime. I think that the transition to Mr. Tokayev [Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, the current president of Kazakhstan] nonetheless opens up certain possibilities that probably didn't exist under the first president, just because [former Kazakh president Nursultan] Nazarbayev was there for so long and had centralized so much power... [but] even if you don't have full democracy, I think you can still have an authoritarian regime that permits a greater degree of individual freedom."
"If you look at China, there's a big difference between China in 2010 and China in 2023 because individual Chinese in 2010 had much more freedom to travel, to speak, to think for themselves. Under [Chinese leader] Xi Jinping, those freedoms have been taken away. It's still an authoritarian regime as it was back then... but I think the degree of individual freedom has been gravely restricted. Those are the kinds of choices that exist in Kazakhstan, even if it continues to be a highly centralised regime," he added.
The possibilities for greater democracy in Central Asia are restricted because of its two big authoritarian neighbours, China and Russia, said Fukuyama, while pointing to some hope in Mongolia.
"Mongolia is also caught between Russia and China and yet, ever since 1991, it's had democratic elections," he said. "It's permitted a great deal of freedom for its citizens. So, I don't think that geographical location necessarily dictates the internal form of government. [But] if the power of Russia and China were to weaken, it will permit more freedom of action for Central Asian countries."
Fukuyama also observed that a poor level of education amplified dictatorship in Central Asia, though he noted the critical role of the new generations of Kazakhstan going abroad for their university education.
"If you have a population that is not very educated, it's easier to run a dictatorship," he said. "[But] if you have a country that's got a larger middle class where people travel abroad, they have different ideas, then you're going to have a greater demand for a more open society, and that's been happening in Kazakhstan. The number of students that have gone abroad to study outside of Central Asia is quite impressive, and they are in time going to make a difference. So that's a major social change in the last generation."