: Kazakhstan and the Eurasian Economic Union: The Dilemmas of Alliance-Making in the Post-Soviet Period

Kirill Nourzhanov

In January 2014, Kazakhstan adopted a new Foreign Policy Concept - a framework document outlining the principles, objectives and instruments of the country’s engagement with the rest of the world. It contained many novel provisions reflecting the changing political, economic and security landscape regionally and internationally, yet its fundamental approach remained exactly the same as enunciated at independence: “Kazakhstan’s foreign policy is based on the principles of multi-vector [sic], balance, pragmatism, mutual benefit and solid defense of its national interests” (Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Kazakhstan 2014). In Kazakhstan, President Nursultan Nazarbaev’s multi-vector diplomacy is widely regarded as a major achievement of his long tenure: “It has not only proved its usefulness but also demonstrated that it is the only correct method of survival in modern-day geopolitics” (Makasheva 2009, p. 117).

Until recently, this sentiment was widely shared by scholars and politicians in the West. In his comprehensive study of Kazakhstan’s

K. Nourzhanov (*)

Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies (The Middle East and Central Asia), Australian National University, Canberra, Australia e-mail: This email address is being protected from spam bots, you need Javascript enabled to view it

© The Author(s) 2017

Fish, Gill, Petrovic (eds.), A Quarter Century of Post-Communism Assessed, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-43437-7_13

foreign policy under Nazarbaev, Hanks defined “multi-vectorism” as a nonideological policy guided by two concerns - state security and economic development (Hanks 2009, p. 260). He highlighted its main achievements as follows: maintenance of internal societal peace and harmony; good working relations with Moscow, Washington and other major international players; active participation in a plethora of regional and global security organisations and extraction of concessions and favourable terms from foreign trade and investment partners. For two decades, Kazakhstan successfully avoided costly entanglements in geopolitical games simultaneously positioning itself as Russia’s regional ally, supporting US military action in Afghanistan and Iraq, and working with Beijing on China’s energy security. The republic’s “exquisitely balanced response” (Eurasian Council on Foreign Affairs 2014, p. 5) to regional and international challenges won near-universal approbation among its partners. A visible symbol of this recognition was Kazakhstan’s chairmanship of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in 2010, for which role it was endorsed by Russia, the European Union (EU) and eventually the United States (Aitken 2009, pp. 209-211).

Since 2012, Kazakhstan’s participation in Russia-led trading blocs culminating in the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), which was officially launched on 1 January 2015, has been interpreted as a major deviation from the multi-vector policy by observers in the West. Nazarbaev’s critics have posited that Kazakhstan’s EEU membership is detrimental to its security and economic interests (Starr and Cornell 2014; International Crisis Group 2015), critically reduces the room for foreign policy manoeuvre (Clarke 2015) or, in the worst-case scenario, may lead to partial or complete loss of sovereignty at the hands of neoimperialist Russia (De Haas 2015).

This chapter will argue that Kazakhstan’s joining of the EEU should not be regarded as an act of submission, voluntary or otherwise, to the Kremlin’s putative drive to re-establish an empire. It does not constitute a deviation from the multi-vector policy; on the contrary, it illustrates Astana’s ability to maximise security and economic benefits without jeopardising the traditional balancing act. The chapter will provide a brief discussion on the EEU and then examine Kazakhstan’s policy debate concerning the pros and contras of taking part in this bloc, with a particular emphasis on Nazarbaev’s quest for legitimacy, dilemmas of economic development and sovereignty and relations with major international partners.

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