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Astana's Multi-Vector Foreign Policy

Kazakhstan's Quest for Balance in the Heart of Asia



Introduction

Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, Kazakhstan has seen a push to reevaluate its close ties with Russia. The possibility of a potential "Crimean scenario" in North Kazakhstan has been expressed by multiple Russian government officials. Despite this, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev accepted an invitation to attend the annual Victory Day Parade on May 9, commemorating the 79th anniversary of the end of the The Great Patriotic War (World War II), spending sweet time next to Russian president Vladimir Putin. This visit occurred just a few weeks after David Cameron, the British Foreign Secretary, visited the country to discuss closer partnerships with the region.

Similarly, over the past year, a host of other Western officials have mimicked Cameron in visiting the region to discuss strengthening relations. However, Kazakhstan repeatedly appears on the list of EU sanction packages against Russia, even though the Kremlin feels its close “friend” slipping away, causing both to be dissatisfied with the Tokayev government.

Astana’s traditional foreign policy, multi-vectorism, has served the country well over its 30 years of independence, but is now increasingly under pressure. With rising tensions between superpowers, Kazakhstan faces the critical question of whether it can continue its multi-vector approach or if it must finally choose a primary ally.


Multi-Vectorism

Multi-vectorism is an orientation of foreign policy toward several centers of power. This concept was first highlighted by Nursultan Nazarbayev, the first president of Kazakhstan, in 2007 in the Address of the President of the Republic to the People of the Republic. It has been reiterated multiple times and officially recognised in the Concept of the Republic of Kazakhstan Foreign Policy 2014-2020. This approach has also been favored by President Tokayev, who has mentioned it as the country’s main foreign policy strategy in multiple public presentations.

Observing the strategy, it could be said that it has worked effectively for the past 33 years of the country's independence, saving the country from the fate of other Central Asian republics. While all followed with a similar neutrality strategy, strategic bilateral agreements and steady inflow of international investments, helped Kazakhstan regain its stability and solidify its position on the international arena faster after the collapse of USSR. However, with the country maturing, internal power struggles, national frustration, and rising global conflicts, the question arises: how long can Kazakhstan maintain pragmatic neutralism, and is multi-vectorism sustainable? This article will examine Kazakhstan’s relationship with the world's superpowers.


Russia and Kazakhstan 

Kazakhstan has a long history with Russia dating back to its colonial past, through the Soviet period, and now as a "friendly" neighboring independent state. Both countries are closely tied through multiple treaties, including economic, political, and security agreements. Major treaties include the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). While Kazakhstan is one of Russia's biggest allies, the country has rarely shown active support for its ally, particularly in military conflicts. Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, the relationship between the two has been slowly deteriorating. Kazakhstan has never strongly condemned Russia's actions, but has acknowledged the severity of the situation and did not recognize the independence of separatist regions. At the onset of the war, Kazakhstan encouraged dialogue between Putin and Zelensky to resolve the conflict.

President Tokayev’s visit to Moscow for a Victory parade. May 9, 2024
President Tokayev’s visit to Moscow for a Victory parade. May 9, 2024. Credit: Kremlin
An observation of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) voting habits on resolutions shows that Kazakhstan’s voting cohesion with Russia has been dropping since 2014. On the resolution regarding the territorial integrity of Ukraine (68/262) and the previous one on the militarization of Crimea (74/17), Kazakhstan abstained from voting. Other Russian allies, such as Armenia and Belarus, supported Russia in the Ukrainian conflict. However, there has been an overall weakening of Russia's influence in the post-Soviet region, evidenced by Armenia's recent deviation after the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. The halt of CSTO financing from Armenia was driven by dissatisfaction with the lack of support from the organization and Russia in particular.

In Kazakhstan, national sentiment towards Russia has been increasingly negative since the start of the war. A survey conducted by the Central Asian Barometer (with graphs made by Vlast Media) measured how favorable views of Russia were amongst the population and found the following:

Kazakh public opinion towards Russia

The age groups 18-29 and 50-59 showed the most significant condemnation of Russia, with 20% and 28% respectively answering "Very unfavorable." While sentiment has changed, there are still those who favor Russia and blame the war on Ukraine and the West. In Spring 2022, 28% attributed responsibility for the war to Russia, 19% to Ukraine. By Autumn 2022, blame for Ukraine had increased to 23% . These differences between age groups and the lack of a consensus can be attributed to Russia's strong influence on Kazakhstan’s information field through TV channels and news, as well as Kazakhstan's low media freedom.

Kazakh public opinion towards Russian media

From the government’s position, while neutrality remains the main stance, some interesting changes were made to the military doctrine in October 2022. After the invasion, Russia’s actions fell under the previous conditions for the emergence of military threats to the country, adopted in September 2017. New changes included:
  1. Creation of territorial defense units designed for a more mobile and adequate response to military threats.

  2. Creation of a unit designed to counter enemy information and psychological operations, as well as cyberattacks.

  3. Measures aimed at improving the country's economic and military mobilization.

These changes reflect cautious consideration from Kazakhstan's leadership towards its "ally" after the start of the invasion.

However, despite growing discontent and detachment from Russia, certain actions from Kazakhstan regarding the conflict must be questioned. Re-exporting dual-use goods to Russia helped bypass mandatory sanctions at the beginning of the war. Strong pressure from the EU and US pushed the government to ban 106 goods related to the war, such as electronics, drone components and computer chips on October 19, 2023. Yet, there have been multiple reports of illegal smuggling due to weak customs services at the border and a culture of bribery. Kazakhstan-based companies have fallen under new EU sanction packages against Russia, with the latest being tech company Elim LLP entering the 13th sanction package published on February 26, 2024. In the past week another Kazakhstan’s company, KBR Technology LLP, fell under US sanctions after an investigative report by  Kazakh and Belarusian journalists uncovered that the company was supplying semiconductors to Russia through Belarus. 

While the West wants more active actions from Kazakhstan, there is little room for maneuvering due to Russia’s significant influence, especially in Kazakhstan's economic sector. One "passive-aggressive" threat from Putin was the halt of operations at the Novorossiysk terminal, which connects pipelines from Kazakhstan to the Black Sea. The Caspian Pipeline Consortium (CPC) is responsible for 1% of global crude, 80% of Kazakhstan's oil export, and in 2021 accounted for about 44% of Kazakhstan's budget. In the summer of 2022, there were multiple halts of shipments, limiting Kazakhstan’s exports. Analysts believe these actions are related to Kazakhstan's refusal to recognize separatist states and its offer to help the EU with energy issues. Recently, on May 17, Novorossiysk port came under a drone attack. The Ministry of Energy of Kazakhstan stated that the attack hadn’t affected operations.

Another issue is the testing of Russian rockets on Kazakhstan's territory. An investigation by Novaya Gazeta revealed that Kazakhstan rents out nearly a million hectares in Bokeyorda, northeastern Kazakhstan, to Russia for $2.30 per hectare per year.  The area has been rented out since 1991. The ballistic and zenith missiles fired from the Kapustin Yar polygon in Astrakhan region of Russia land in Kazakhstan, damaging the ecology and poisoning people for the past 30 years. These rockets were later used in the war.

Kazakhstan's unfortunate location leaves only the option of staying a good neighbor. Some praise President Tokayev, as the country's economy has withstood the sanctions and avoided overt support for Russia. While Putin focuses on the war, Kazakhstan has an opportunity  to work on its own independence without excessive reliance on the Kremlin, potentially providing a more equal footing between the two countries in the  future.


A Bit About China

Aside from Russia, Kazakhstan shares a border with another superpower, China. Kazakhstan has established a strong economic partnership with Beijing since independence, engaging in initiatives such as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), benefiting from Chinese infrastructure investments in the Eurasian region, and participating in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), a regional security treaty. These policies aim to expand trade, facilitate the movement of goods and services, and increase investment in the region. Kazakhstan's high agricultural productivity and significant oil and gas reserves have been crucial for China in its effort to diversify energy sources, as evidenced by the recently completed China-Central Asia gas pipeline.

Kazakhstan's alignment with China is also reflected in its voting patterns at the UNGA, where it has the highest vote cohesion with China at nearly 87%, with Russia coming second. This voting pattern is primarily driven by economic considerations. Notably, the number of instances when China and Russia's votes deviated from each other is very low.

President Tokayev’s visit to Beijing. December 2023. Credit: Akorda
President Tokayev’s visit to Beijing. December 2023. Credit: Akorda
Thanks to the BRI, China grew to become Kazakhstan's largest export destination, recording imports of $13.5 billion in 2022, mostly from crude oil. Nonetheless, the infrastructure development projects of the BRI primarily facilitate bilateral trade with China, rather than expansion to wider global markets as promised, leaving Kazakhstan in a disadvantageous position of dependency. BRI projects have been globally scaled back and halted indefinitely, which will likely be reflected by a slowdown of investments in Kazakhstan. 
Due to China’s unwillingness to restrict Russian access to critical equipment, deteriorating relations between the West and  China puts Kazakhstan in a peculiar position. As there have been instances of Chinese products being transferred through Kazakhstan, highlighting the logistical role Kazakhstan plays in China-Russian trade. Given China's current economic deflation and strained relationships with the West, Kazakhstan must reconsider its investments and close economic partnership with China

There is relatively little fear of Chinese political influence in Kazakhstan, as China has strictly economic interests and avoids involvement in what it perceives as a Russian sphere of influence. However the soft power that economic influence entails shouldn’t be underestimated, as it indirectly strengthens Kazakh’s authoritarian regime. The interest of elites in investment projects like the BRI, further increases opportunities for corruption and bribery.  A notable example is the extremely controversial Light Rail Transit (LRT) project in Astana. Initially part of the BRI, the over-road intercity rail system was planned for EXPO 2017. Now, a decade after the project’s approval, the rail is still unfinished, serving as a reminder of the high corruption in the country.

Cultural differences and human rights issues also affect the deepening ties between Kazakhstan and China. The labor “reformation” camps in Xinjiang, which hold anti-Muslim policies, are a major issue, as Kazakhstan has the largest Uighur population outside China. Ethnic Kazakhs are also detained in those camps. The general public, with the majority of muslims, are enraged by those actions. While the government condemns these actions, it is not the first time Kazakhstan has compromised its morals and ethics for security and economic benefit. As of March 2024, exports from China to Kazakhstan mainly come from the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region ($1.15 billion), and imports show the same pattern. Seen in past years, ethnic Kazakhs from Xinjiang face significant discrimination at immigration offices, often receiving refusals for their repatriation attempts, compared to Kazakhs coming from Iran, Iraq, and Syria. 


The West 

President Tokayev’s visit to Beijing. December 2023. Credit: Akorda
Meeting with the president of the European Council. November 2021. Credit: Akorda

Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, the West's interest in the Central Asian region, particularly Kazakhstan, has increased significantly. This is reflected in the packed diplomatic schedule of the past two years. In March, British Foreign Secretary David Cameron made a visit to the region. In the autumn of 2023, Kazakhstan welcomed President Macron, followed by Prime Minister Orban. Earlier this year, President Tokayev made a visit to Italy, which was followed by a visit to Berlin to join a meeting of the 5 Central Asian leaders with Germany’s Chancellor Scholz and President Steinmeier, all with the intention of further strengthening bilateral and multilateral relationships between Kazakhstan and the European states. 

The European Union has always been a significant investor in the Central Asian region, particularly in Kazakhstan. In 2021, the EU was the largest foreign investor in Kazakhstan, providing above 50% in total foreign direct investment (FDI) stock. Next came the United States, accounting for about 14% of FDI in the country. The FDI inflows have doubled in 2022, compared to pre-pandemic periods, mostly in extractive industries.

The EU Foreign Affairs Council adopted on June 17, 2019 the New Strategy on Central Asia, focused on promoting regional cooperation and forging strong partnerships with Central Asian countries. In line with these goals, the EU and Kazakhstan signed the Enhanced Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (EPCA) in 2020. The EPCA covers various areas, including trade and investment, energy, transport, environmental protection, and human rights. These programs show a desire to hold  the mineral rich country close, especially with recent weakening Russian influence.

In response to the growing influence of China in Central Asia, the European Union launched initiatives such as the Europe-Asia Connectivity Strategy in 2018 and the Global Gateway Initiative in 2021. Both programs are similar to China's BRI, focusing on investments in infrastructure. 

In 2022, during the Central Asia Connectivity Conference as part of the Global Gateway initiative, the European team launched two initiatives: sustainable management of water and energy, and increasing digital connectivity. Leveraging the expertise of the EU, there is a dedicated push for the region to become more involved in the global economy while adhering to European standards.

Multiple analysts believe that assistance to the region to reduce its dependence on Russia and China fits into the wider European multipolar global competition with these powers. In the past couple of years the Central Asian Five entered multiple agreements with the EU, Germany in particular, to bypass Russia to supply raw materials. While Kazakh oil lacks the capacity to match European demand, it could help reduce the EU’s reliance on Russian gas and oil.

Similar statements were made by US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken during his visit in 2023. Previously, the region was mostly of interest to multinational enterprises (MNEs), with US-based investments being second only to those from the Netherlands. Moreover, in the past decades, US policy in the region revolved around the war in Afghanistan, but now Biden’s administration is focusing on more balanced engagement in the political and economic sector, especially as the region heavily relies on trade with China and Russia.

While the EU presents one of the best vectors for future growth, Kazakhstan needs to adopt a more active approach to EU pillar commitments. The EU is actively pushing the Green Deal, sustainability, and regional autonomy. Kazakhstan could be negatively affected since almost 88% of its exports to the EU consist of oil, gas, and uranium. Thus, Kazakhstan must diversify its export goods.

At the same time, Kazakhstan has assured the EU and the US of compliance with sanctions against Russia. However, as previously discussed, more effort is required to stop the re-export of goods, as some Western and Chinese companies use the country to evade sanctions against Moscow.  A high increase in “dual-use” goods in 2024, compared to previous year’s commitment to the sanctions, draws Kazakhstan’s neutrality into question. The EU’s Sanctions Envoy, David O’ Sullivan, is planning to make another visit to Astana to resolve this issue. While the EU is not going to place secondary sanctions, it’s very likely that Kazakh companies would have an increasingly hard time operating with the EU.  The Russian Federation holds an upper hand in the region, which limits direct actions that can be taken. President Tokayev must always be cautious regarding his remarks, as clear disagreements would not be viewed favorably by the Kremlin. With the CSTO and EEU serving as both protection and leash, it’s worth questioning whether the passive-aggressive nature of Putin could turn into active threats. Russia is not above disregarding its `friends’ for its own agenda, as evidenced by its actions in Ukraine and regions of Georgia occupied in 2008. Therefore, while the EU can help Kazakhstan develop a certain degree of economic and political autonomy, it's still not enough for Kazakhstan to disregard its “good neighbor” approach.

The EU partnership is a long-term goal, but Kazakhstan faces challenges due to its human rights and media freedom violations. As of 2024, Kazakhstan is ranked 142nd out of 180 countries on the Reporters Without Borders media freedom index. Along with national discrimination towards LGBTQ+ individuals, gender based inequality, and a significant wealth gap, there have been multiple accounts of torture and ill-treatment that went unrecorded, especially during the Bloody January protests in 2022.

As for the US, the overall strategy towards the region is unclear, especially after the troops left Afghanistan, increasing the regional security threat. The uncertainty of the leadership, particularly with the upcoming presidential elections, adds to the ambiguity. While the Biden administration has recently shown interest in the region, the Trump administration- the first to introduce a new foreign policy for Central Asia- primarily focused on partnership with Uzbekistan, especially in relation to Afghanistan.

Another conflicting layer is the US being a significant sponsor of Israel, which conflicts with Kazakhstan's stance. Based on UNGA voting patterns, Kazakhstan has the lowest voting coherence with the US, with a score of 22% in 2022. This is 20-30% lower compared to coherence with Russia, Germany, China, and Turkey. Additionally, through the years, Kazakhstan and the US have never voted coherently regarding the Palestinian conflict.

Central Asia

An alternative to multi-vectorism that could be targeted is the regional autonomy of Central Asia. Central Asia, a subregion containing five countries with similar cultural and historical backgrounds, authoritative governments, and multi-vector foreign policies. All were formerly part of the Soviet Union. Besides Kazakhstan, these countries are Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan. After the collapse of the Soviet regime, these countries dealt with internal development, territorial conflicts, and economic collapses. Following stabilization, discussions on regional integration were never properly executed. The attempt to create the Central Asian Cooperation Organization in 2004 failed, as Russia's economic influence historically overshadowed such efforts, providing financial support to the region and leading to the organization’s integration into the EEC. In particular, Kazakhstan’s development benefited significantly from this relationship compared to other Central Asian countries. Additionally, overall distrust among the countries' governments further hindered the development of relationships. However, with Russia now viewed as an "aggressor," there has been more frequent engagement between Central Asian countries.

On May 16, Astana hosted a meeting of the five Central Asian Heads of Security along with President Tokayev. The aim of the meeting was to provide an effective platform for collaboratively preventing external and internal challenges and threats, and to develop necessary response measures. This renewed engagement can be tied to the leadership transition in Uzbekistan, previously under a repressive regime, and the first meeting of Central Asian heads of state in decades, hosted in 2018. Notably, intra-regional trade has grown by about 80% over the past five years. Cultural and humanitarian ties have also intensified, contributing to the further rapprochement of the Central Asian states. The development of the Central Asia – 2040 strategy for regional cooperation is expected to have conceptual significance for the region.

President Tokayev’s visit to Beijing. December 2023. Credit: Akorda
Central Asian Five: Heads of Security meeting. May 2024. Credit: Akorda
This increased cooperation shows promise for more regional autonomy. There has been an increase in bilateral and multilateral agreements, with some analysts suggesting the possibility of strategic cooperation similar to the European Coal and Steel Community, potentially leading to a more integrated security, monetary, economic, and political community. The region faces significant challenges such as water and energy needs. The recently announced construction of the Kambar-Ata-1 hydroelectric station is the first major cooperative project between Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan, aimed at addressing the region's energy security. Supported by the World Bank, the project is expected to take 15 years to complete. However, past failures, such as the protection of the Aral Sea, cast doubt on the collaboration among Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan in the ecological sphere. The corrupt nature of the involved countries also raise questions about the project's feasibility and completion. Nonetheless, recent steps toward cooperation and the involvement of foreign investment offer hope. Addressing climate and water issues is crucial to prevent potential water conflicts.

Another important issue to tackle is the return of the Taliban. When the US left Afghanistan in 2021, it prompted Central Asian governments to raise security concerns. Uzbekistan and Tajikistan in particular, have a troubled history with religious radicals. The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and the Islamic Jihad Union, affiliated with the Taliban, were prominent in the early 90s. With Taliban training camps, militant Islamism rose in the region, leading to jihadist activities. After 9/11, the US stationed troops in the region, and Islamic radicalism decreased. However, there has been a resurgence of Islamism, and the authoritarian regime in Kazakhstan has aggressively tried to curtail religious freedoms, fearing increased recruitment by terrorist groups, as seen in the 90s and early 2000s, as well as the rise of chauvinism in Russia after the Crocus City Hall terrorist attack. However, last year Kazakhstan removed the Taliban from its list of banned organizations. Central Asian countries, specifically those not bordering Afghanistan, cautiously increase economic relationships. The refinancing of the CASA 1000 energy transmission project from Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan to Afghanistan and Pakistan by the World Bank could be viewed as a green flag for economical relationships of Central Asia with Afghanistan. In any case Central Asian leaders are very cautious about recognizing the Taliban's governance, so as to satisfy Western and Chinese investors. 

While bilateral and multilateral cooperation between countries is increasing, several obstacles must be tackled before true integration can happen. These include Kazakhstan’s human rights violations, Kyrgyzstan's rising autocracy, decade-long territorial conflicts between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan  essentially being “the North Korea of Central Asia”.

The trajectory towards regional autonomy is crucial for the sustainability and growth of power as a "union" on the global stage. While there are both opponents and supporters, the creation and strengthening of relationships is a long process. Meanwhile, Kazakhstan must tackle superpowers on its own and maintain its multi-vectorism independently.


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