International Policy Digest

World News /17 Apr 2019

Kazakhstan – Between Two Giants

Kazakhstan’s new President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev’s first international visit is to Russia seems to signal a continuation of former President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s foreign policy – one that is all about balance. Kazakhstan lies sandwiched between the two great regional powers, China and Russia, a geopolitical situation that Nazarbayev was famously adept at managing over thirty years, by carefully balancing the overlapping interests of both countries and achieving friendly relations with both.

The general consensus is that President Tokayev will follow in his predecessors’ footsteps when it comes to Kazakhstan’s foreign policy, as it is in Kazakhstan’s best interests to ensure the continuation of this multi-vectored political alliance. However, some analysts have questioned whether Nazarbayev’s resignation will have caused the Russian bear and the Chinese dragon to raise their heads in interest, with the thoughts of using this period of transition as a way to exert greater control on their Central Asian neighbour. Both Russia and China are becoming increasingly assertive and could view Kazakhstan as a useful pawn.

Some believe that Nazarbayev’s resignation will bolster the Kremlin’s hopes that they have the opportunity to pull Kazakhstan further into Russia’s sphere of influence. Under Nazarbayev, there was an obvious pulling away from Russia in an effort to establish Kazakhstan’s own national identity. Nazarbayev also believed that it was vital for Kazakhstan not to be overly reliant on Moscow.

Nazarbayev was quick to create a strong Kazakhstani identity, banning Russian in cabinet meetings and switching the Cyrillic alphabet to the Latin script and there was also a focus on Kazakh nationalism which caused a moving away from the Soviet ideals of shared culture. Kazakhstan was successful in creating a national identity, but it does still have a strong Russian minority – about one-third of Kazakh citizens are ethnically Russian. This factor could prove pivotal in how the Kremlin greets Nazarbayev’s resignation and its future relationship with Kazakhstan.

A major theme when it comes to Russia asserting itself on former Soviet states is the idea of ‘protecting ethnic Russians’ and the idea of a shared history and culture. The number of ethnic Russians in Kazakhstan could mean the Kremlin will attempt to exploit this period of transition. It would not be the first time the Kremlin justifies a more aggressive foreign policy with the pretext of protecting ethnic Russian interests.

Tokayev’s trip to Russia and his meeting with President Vladimir Putin signaled that the two countries intend to build on their already strong bilateral relations. Tokayev studied in Moscow so he knows the country well, and Putin greeted his accession as interim president warmly. Putin hopes to enhance Russian influence in the region.

In recent years China’s foreign policy has also become increasingly international and assertive in its outlook as its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has seen its influence grow across Asia, Africa and now into Europe. Beijing views Kazakhstan as an integral part of its BRI. It was in Astana that President Xi Jinping first launched the initiative and he sees it as a vital gateway between Asia and Europe.

Beijing is a vital economic partner for Kazakhstan. It has invested heavily throughout the country and Tokayev surely knows that continued investment from China will remain important. However, as has been seen throughout the BRI, especially in Africa, the more China invests, the higher its interest and desire to protect its assets in that country. This draws concern over the potential for Kazakhstan to lose its sovereignty to China in some key strategic and national assets.

Kazakhstan’s growing economic dependence on China is reflected in the muted reaction by Kazakhstan to the Muslim detainment camps in China’s Xinjiang where ethnic Kazakhs have been held in appalling conditions, with many experiencing forced labour. Not only have the Kazakh authorities withheld from criticizing the camps, but they have also imprisoned Kazakh human rights activists who have campaigned against them. This failure to criticize Beijing over a policy that hurts its own people demonstrates just how unwilling the Kazakhstan government is to fall out with Beijing; this was highlighted by Beijing thanking Kazakhstan for its support over the controversial ‘de-radicalisation’ scheme.

The interim president and the future leader of Kazakhstan both need and want to ensure the continuation of this balancing act, but it will not be easy. Tokayev has said that the multi-vector foreign policy approach has been vital and has allowed Kazakhstan to avoid interstate and regional conflicts. This balancing act may prove more difficult to uphold as international great powers struggle for more influence. Despite China and Russia seeming happy to go ahead with relations as they are now as both vie for increasing regional power, the probability of competition and confrontation are high. As China’s influence in Kazakhstan grows, thanks to its numerous BRI investment interests, the Kremlin’s need to protect its own sphere of influence will no doubt increase. Kazakhstan is one of Russia’s last strongholds in its sphere of influence or ‘near abroad.’ As Russia continues to try to reassert itself on the world stage, it is possible that the Kremlin will do anything to prevent Kazakhstan from falling too fully into Beijing’s arms.