Main Image Credit Standing tall: Kazakhstan, along with other Central Asian states, is increasingly pursuing a foreign policy independent of Moscow. Image: 1599685sv / Adobe Stock
Central Asia’s states have long been considered a theatre for great power competition, rather than geopolitical players in their own right. However, following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, these countries have begun resolving their differences and enhancing their mutual cooperation.
Central Asian heads of state converged last week on the historic Chinese city of Xian for the first ever China–Central Asia summit, which included one-on-ones with Chinese leader Xi Jinping. As Russia channels what remaining resources it has into its war with Ukraine, China is increasingly intensifying its economic and political engagement with Central Asia. Some of the region’s states are increasingly standing up to Moscow – from Kazakhstan not recognising Russian-controlled regions in eastern Ukraine, to Tajikistan demanding more ‘respect’ from the Kremlin.
The first head of state to arrive in Xian was President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev of Kazakhstan – China's largest trading partner in Central Asia. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan has been one of Moscow’s closest and most reliable allies in the post-Soviet space. It is one of the few former Soviet countries where the Russian language enjoys official status and is still used by a vast majority of the population. The country has a significant ethnic Russian population, and it also hosts the Soviet-era Baikonur satellite launch base, under lease to Moscow until 2050. Bearing this in mind, the war in Ukraine has had significant repercussions for Kazakhstan’s society, changing the country’s geopolitical standing and transforming the way many Kazakhs perceive their own identity. Geopolitical tensions linked to the Ukrainian war highlighted two main opposing camps: democracies on one side and authoritarian regimes on the other. A number of countries have resisted choosing sides, instead striving to balance their national interests with international developments while simultaneously advocating the need to maintain peaceful diplomacy and global connections. These countries include Turkey, Israel and Kazakhstan – among others.
Amid a slew of destabilising events including a violent coup attempt in January 2022 and an ongoing regional crisis embroiling its neighbour Russia, Kazakhstan has taken a number of steps towards strengthening democracy and stability at home, such as limiting presidential powers, recovering assets stolen from the country by cronies of the old regime and fighting oligopolies.
On the foreign policy front, Kazakhstan has maintained its commitment to Ukraine’s territorial integrity and has worked to ensure energy and food security in Europe by helping ameliorate the world’s grain shortages. In fact, not a single official in Kazakhstan has expressed support for Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine. President Tokayev has openly refused to support Russia, and in a public discussion with Vladimir Putin at the St Petersburg International Economic Forum in 2022, he made it very clear that his country remained committed to the UN principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity. ‘Kazakhstan recognizes neither Taiwan, nor Kosovo, nor South Ossetia and Abkhazia. This principle will be applied to quasi-state entities, which, in our opinion, are Luhansk and Donetsk’, the president said.
Having already made big strides toward reducing its dependence on Russian infrastructure, Kazakhstan now hopes to lure in Western investment and boost energy exports to the EU
It is worth noting that Kazakhstan’s compliance with economic sanctions imposed by Western countries against Russia has stood the test of time. Moscow has taken note of this. Realising that former allies may be slipping away, Russian President Vladimir Putin made no fewer than five trips to Central Asia in 2022, seeking to shore up Russia’s role as a regional hegemon. But his travels have mainly illustrated just how fragile that position has become. For example, at the Caspian Summit in Turkmenistan in July 2022, he was humiliated as the only foreign dignitary not to be received at the airport with the customary greeting of bread and salt.
Trade between Russia and Kazakhstan is a critical component of their relations. Russia accounts for a fifth of Kazakhstan’s total external trade, while over half of Kazakhstan’s cargo transits Russian territory. If pushed, Russia could cut off Kazakhstan’s main source of income. The same goes for oil. Right now, 80% of Kazakhstan’s oil exports go through the Caspian Pipeline Consortium (CPC), in which Russia holds a 31% stake. While seemingly innocuous at first, over the last few months there have been no fewer than five incidents involving the CPC that have led to a substantial decrease in oil exports from Kazakhstan to Europe – and at times even a complete halt.
While Moscow remains focused on retaining the old south–north Soviet infrastructure, built mainly to pump oil and gas, Beijing is investing heavily in the Belt and Road Initiative, which envisions greater east–west trade. The fact that Chinese President Xi Jinping picked Kazakhstan for his first foreign trip since January 2020, and has promised to support Kazakhstan in 'safeguarding national independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity’, provides a golden opportunity to further this goal.
Having already made big strides toward reducing its dependence on Russian infrastructure, Kazakhstan now hopes to lure in Western investment and boost energy exports to the EU. As the EU seeks to substitute energy imports from Russia, Kazakhstan sees an opportunity. As Marie Dumoulin recently noted, Kazakhstan has become one of Eurasia’s heavyweights, with its real GDP ranking as one of the highest in the post-Soviet space. Additionally, its vast reserves of natural resources – including hydrocarbons, uranium, coal, and various ores and rare metals – along with a relatively business-friendly environment (Kazakhstan ranks 25th globally in the World Bank’s ‘ease of doing business’ database) have attracted numerous European companies to the country.
The EU has taken notice of Kazakhstan. Following the invasion of Ukraine and in order to diversify the sources of European energy imports, EU officials launched a set of major diplomatic initiatives and intensified mutual visits with Central Asian states. German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock visited Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan in October 2022, and was accompanied by ‘a delegation of experts in the energy and infrastructure sectors’. On 13 January 2023, Kazakh oil transporter KazTransOil announced that it would deliver 300,000 tons of oil to Germany in the first quarter of 2023 via Russia’s Druzhba pipeline system. In fact, the application submitted by KazTransOil in December 2022 reserved a capacity of 1.2 million tons of oil for the year 2023. Additionally, there have been talks about bringing natural gas across the Caspian Sea from Central Asia – specifically from Turkmenistan to Azerbaijan – and then via the Trans-Anatolian Natural Gas Pipeline to Europe in order to ensure a stable and voluminous natural gas supply.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine may not have changed the global order, but it has certainly changed the geopolitics of Asia
Since independence, Kazakhstan has seen its main foreign-policy priority as reducing Russia’s dominance and diversifying its ties with the rest of the world. Every conflict that Russia has had on its western borders (including Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014) has only reaffirmed Kazakhstan’s belief that it has chosen the right path. An important indicator of how Kazakhstan is turning its back on Russia lies in its growing rapprochement with Uzbekistan. At a meeting in Tashkent towards the end of 2022, the two sides agreed on enhancing trade, border demarcation and setting aside prior differences. While Kazakhstan has the largest economy in the region, Uzbekistan has the largest standing army and is the most populous Central Asian country, with 35 million people. Given that both are major energy producers, as a pair they form an attractive partner for outside players.
The balancing act that Kazakhstan’s government is trying to manage in both its international and domestic affairs involves many challenges. But credit should be given where it is due: the country’s nascent democratisation process and its efforts to break from the authoritarianism and corruption still rampant elsewhere in Central Asia should be supported and given a chance to succeed. It is a struggle that takes decades, and as those from the former Yugoslavia know only too well, democratisation and reforms cannot take place overnight and will always be obstructed by beneficiaries of the old regime.
Economic reform has been episodic but largely linear, and it is currently much easier for foreigners to do business in Kazakhstan than anywhere else in the region. Politically, the current informal pluralism in place is clearly not a substitute for formal Western-style pluralism, but it does help keep alive the potential for democratic development in the absence of a supportive regional environment. Given the current state of affairs in the world, economic development is Kazakhstan's best recipe for success and for the eventual development of a civil and pluralistic society.
All this has fed the anachronistic narrative that Central Asia is the theatre of a ‘great game’ between global powers. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine may not have changed the global order, but it has certainly changed the geopolitics of Asia. Although relations between Russia and Central Asia remain dominated by Soviet-era elite networks, this will also fade. As the younger generation takes over, links to Russia will be replaced by a globally minded, Western-educated middle class.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
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