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6 August 2015

Could a Ukraine-style crisis happen in Kazakhstan?

The Kazakh government has a delicate balancing act between Russia and China, says David Clark.

By David Clark

Although the spotlight has been focused almost exclusively on Russia’s relations with the West, the crisis in Ukraine has had an unsettling impact throughout the post-Soviet space. This has been true even in Central Asia where, despite occasional blips, close and friendly ties with Moscow have remained the norm since the break up of the Soviet Union. In a region described as the “pivot of history’, where great power rivalry has often been a cause of conflict and tension, governments are sensitive to anything that might upset the existing balance of relations. This is already having an effect in fostering new alignments and complicating plans for Eurasian integration under Russian leadership.

The fallout from Ukraine poses a particular challenge for Kazakhstan, the largest Central Asian republic, which for the last two decades has pursued arguably the most nuanced and successful foreign policy of all the former Soviet states. Kazakhstan shares a 6467km border with Russia and counts a large number of ethnic Russians among its population – nearly a quarter of the total. Its response to the Ukraine crisis has reflected these existential realities. Not wanting either to antagonise Moscow or allow a precedent for border revisions to become established, President Nazarbayev expressed “understanding” over Russia’s annexation of Crimea while calling for Ukraine’s territorial integrity to be preserved as part of a negotiated settlement. 

This is consistent with the careful balancing act Kazakhstan has managed to achieve since independence. Its diplomacy has aimed to turn what would otherwise be a vulnerable geopolitical position as a land-locked, resource rich nation, wedged between two great powers, into a source of diplomatic strength. What its practitioners call a “multi-vectored” foreign policy involves building an extensive network of bilateral relations and maximising multilateral engagement through a wide range of international organisations. It belongs to the Commonwealth of Independent States, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe and the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation. In January it became a founder member of the Eurasian Union with Russia and Belarus, and this month joins the World Trade Organisation. 

The diversification of Kazakhstan’s foreign relations has been pursued as a deliberate strategy aimed at strengthening its sovereignty by avoiding over-dependence on a single ‘vector’. It has also allowed its leaders to position their country as bridge between east and west, facilitating communications and developing relationships of mutual advantage. As a member of both NATO’s Partnership for Peace and the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organisation, Kazakhstan’s annual Steppe Eagle military exercises provide probably the only environment in which armed forces from the two organisations are still able to meet.

Membership of the Eurasian Union should to be understood in this context. The Eurasianism advocated by President Nazarbayev is an expression of his country’s identity as a crossroads between continents and cultures, not an invitation to restore a privileged sphere of Russian influence, as some in the West have supposed. Participation therefore remains contingent on serving the national interest. Last August, when Vladimir Putin described Kazakhstan as part of the “Russian world” and appeared to question its future statehood, Nazarbayev publicly threatened to withdraw from the project. Firm limits have since been set on the scope of future integration with steps towards monetary and political union, favoured by Russia, explicitly ruled out in Astana.

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Kazakhstan regards the Eurasian Union as a purely economic partnership, and not necessarily its most important one in the light of recent trends. With Russia entering what may prove to be a prolonged period of stagnation, stronger ties to an economically dynamic China provide better prospects for growth and investment. China has already become a major investor in the Kazakhstan’s energy sector through the purchase of companies like Petrokazakhstan and MangistauMunaiGas by the China National Petroleum Company. The construction of pipelines carrying oil and gas supplies to China have reduced Kazakhstan’s dependence on a Soviet-era pipeline network that previously tied it to Russia.

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The developing economic relationship with China is increasingly about much more than the export of natural resources. The two countries are now major partners in delivering China’s vision of a New Silk Road connecting Europe and Asia through an expanding web of modern rail, road, telecommunications and energy links. Since 2013 China and Kazakhstan have signed bilateral investment and infrastructure deals worth a total of $68bn. As China seeks to project investment-led growth to its western regions and beyond as part of its ‘March West’, Kazakhstan’s economic and political influence in the region is likely to grow correspondingly. Its target of becoming one of the thirty most developed countries in the world is ambitious, but not far-fetched. 

The Western ‘vector’ of Kazakhstan’s foreign policy remains important, but not as strong as it was in the immediate aftermath of independence when the US became its leading foreign investor. With ‘Asian pivot’ focussed primarily on the Pacific Rim and the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, America’s footprint in the region has become smaller. Kazakhstan has sought to offset this by strengthening other relationships. An Enhanced Partnership and Co-operation Agreement with the EU intended to deepen trade links and political dialogue was signed in January. South Korea is emerging as an important commercial partner and efforts are being made to cultivate ties with the Arab Gulf states. 

South Asia is another region of growing interest with Kazakhstan strongly supporting India and Pakistan’s accession to the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation.The visit of the Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, to Kazakhstan and neighbouring countries earlier this month shows that the desire for closer bilateral ties is shared. Modi’s decision to re-focus Indian foreign policy towards the “extended neighbourhood” reflects an awareness of Central Asia’s rising importance and a determination not to lose out. In addition to securing a new deal to supply uranium for India’s expanding civil nuclear programme, Modi arrived in Astana with a trade delegation representing sectors like IT and pharmaceuticals where an expansion of trade is anticipated.

Kazakhstan has more diplomatic options than most countries and plays them with considerable skill. That’s the main reason why the Ukraine scenario is unlikely to be reprised in Central Asia. Kazakhstan’s leaders will take care to ensure that they remain on friendly terms with Russia, not least in order to balance relations with China. Yet Eurasian integration is destined to stop short of the point where Russian hopes of reclaiming an exclusive leadership role can be realised and Vladimir Putin knows that forcing the issue would cause a breach with China, a country whose good will he needs to offset Russia’s isolation from the West. Such has been Kazakhstan’s success in using interdependence to carve out a strong and independent place for itself as a regional power. Given its starting point twenty-five years ago as the backwater of a fragmenting empire, it’s a significant achievement.