The Platform

Camels in front of Turkestan, Kazakhstan. (Kalpak Travel)

A Brussels conference was told that Kazakhstan can put itself in the “vanguard” of economic and political change in Central Asia.

The huge landlocked country, the event was told, has already “created a model” for others in the region to follow.

But it now must forge ahead and capitalise on its “multi-vector foreign policy,” according to Dr. Ariel Cohen, Director of the Energy, Growth and Security Programme at the International Tax and Investment Center (ITIC).

He said, “I have great confidence in Kazakhstan, and this is one reason why major U.S. companies are moving there.”

“The multi-vector foreign policy serves Kazakhstan well as well as the whole region, that is, to engage with Russia, China, and all others. It makes sense.”

“This is a rising, promising region. No, Kazakhstan is not a Switzerland in terms of democracy and the rule of law but, given time, things can work out for the better. My message to the West and Europe is to engage and invest in Kazakhstan and the region.”

He was speaking at a conference at the Brussels Press Club on Thursday on Kazakhstan’s evolving role in contemporary geopolitics.

It was also a chance to discuss the publication of a major new report, “Kazakhstan offers the West a Strategic Opportunity” authored by Dr. John C. Hulsman, a Board Member of the Aspen Institute Europe and the founder of John C. Hulsman Associates.

Cohen, a keynote speaker, described Kazakhstan as “an important and multi-faceted” developing country in a “crucial region” which had proved itself “a leader in development.”

Cohen, who was born in Crimea but is now based in Washington, said, “Its destiny is to remain on the path of progress, and it is in the vanguard of economic reform, ahead of Russia, in that part of the world.”

He acknowledged the street violence that erupted in January, saying this was part of its “transition to the next level” but added that the country had “created a model that others like Iran and North Korea could have learned from but did not.”

He said the war in Ukraine had raised questions about “the whole post-Soviet transition model,” adding that “wars bring clarity, and this (war) will bring clarity as to where Russia is going.”

Economic sanctions against Moscow will lead to a fundamental rethinking of Russian foreign policy, he predicted.

He said that Kazakhstan “offers a lot to Europe and the rest of the world.”

This, he noted, includes energy, transportation corridors, food supplies, and “the transition from Russian gas.” Adding, “Kazakhstan has a lot of coal and can also export a lot of wheat, and this will be important.”

He said, “There is a common interest in the world in the territorial integrity of Kazakhstan and we need to watch what Russia is doing in ethnopolitics and with its rhetoric.”

With its “multi-vector” foreign policy, Kazakhstan is “going out of its way not to violate the economic sanctions against Russia but at the same time is mindful of maintaining its strategic position.”

The event was organised by the Energy, Growth, and Security Programme (EGS) at the International Tax and Investment Centre (ITIC), a Washington-based non-profit organisation.

It heard that since the Russian invasion of Ukraine began over four months ago, Kazakhstan has surprised the world with its quick re-emergence after the tragic January unrest with new far-reaching reforms, and an independent foreign policy.

Kazakhstan, it was said, did not allow the Russian-dominated Collective Security Treaty Organization’s intervention in January to sway its decision-making processes, and it has resolved to maintain its multi-vector foreign policy and orientation towards market reforms and social justice. These moves have bequeathed the West an invaluable strategic opportunity, the event was told.

Also speaking was veteran diplomat Kairat Abusseitov, head of International Programmes for the Nursultan Nazarbayev Foundation of Kazakhstan, who also addressed the “multi-lateral democratic and foreign policy” which he compared to an artist performing on a gymnastics beam.

He told the audience, “We still need to do a lot to stay on that beam, and striking a balance on that beam is not easy. This has even become more difficult in today’s world, but this is a key element of our government policy and all the more important as challenges are coming all the time, day after day and week after week.”

He said, “The role of Kazakhstan is absolutely important as we are a bridge between Europe and Asia although, to be honest, we are becoming a bit tired of being a bridge because that implies that there is a great gap between the two continents. I would rather that we would be more of a railway of ideas between the two continents, and I hope this new concept of thinking will happen.”

Kazakhstan, he argued, has the potential to be a “great supplier” of food for Europe but cautioned that a lot was still to be done in this area.

Roman Vassilenko, Kazakhstan’s deputy foreign minister, speaking via a video link from Kazakhstan, praised the “stimulating report” and spoke of Kazakhstan’s “new role” in the world order.

He said Kazakhstan had pledged to be an active participant in the global world and play a constructive role.

“We have built good relations with all nations, including Russia and China, and this policy has allowed us to act as an objective mediator in international crises such as the conflict in Syria. Our geographic position allows us to act as a bridge politically and economically. We have also built the largest economy in the region but there have been cracks and problems and these contributed to the tragic events in January when the country suffered the worst violence it has seen since independence 30 years ago. Important lessons have been learned from this.”

He added, “We now face the indirect economic impact of the Ukraine war, but our president has said he wants to press ahead and transform the country into a new Kazakhstan with far-reaching political reforms. This is a reflection of Kazakhstan’s democratic commitments.”

He admitted there were “tensions in the region” for example, in the area of water security which, he said, was “the biggest issue” to be resolved in the CIS region.

Fast-rising population growth was another issue with the region’s population forecast to increase dramatically by 50 percent in the next few years, he said.

“There is a rising need to strengthen regional cooperation and I hope we will see fruits of this in the near future. Yes, the multi-vector foreign policy is like a gymnast on a beam. I agree with this analogy. But I would also compare it to a tightrope which is becoming ever more narrow.”

The multi-vector foreign policy “is the only way forward” for the country, he said, adding, “It was drafted in the early 1990s and has served us well so we will stick with it.”

“But to develop this approach we need far greater engagement with Kazakhstan and not just by our neighbours but the EU and U.S. Kazakhstan extends its hand to the West and it is now important that this hand is shaken back in return. There needs to be more concrete action and for people to put money where their mouth is.”

Martin Banks is a highly qualified journalist with many years' experience of working within the EU institutions. He has writing on a wide variety of issues. A journalist for nearly 40 years, Martin Banks has been reporting on the European Union – and many other subjects – since arriving in Brussels in 2001. Specializing on foreign affairs and EU politics, he also writes on culture, art and lifestyle.