Relations with Russia

Kazakhstan’s closer economic cooperation with Russia has not compromised its multi-vector foreign policy. Astana has continued to maintain an independent line on principal issues of global and regional security. Gloomy predictions by Western pundits that the EEU would be “the first step in a drive by Mr. Putin to reunify, in one form or another, those former republics that contain significant numbers of ethnic Russians”, including Kazakhstan (Bennets 2014), failed to materialise.

Commentary has now shifted to toned-down rhetoric that Kazakhstan is complying with the Kremlin’s position due to “fear” of “a fading though still potentially dangerous empire” (Kuchins et al. 2015, p. 10). Such generalisations are not corroborated by empirical evidence. Public opinion surveys conducted in Kazakhstan during 2012-2015 demonstrated a stable and overwhelmingly high perception (82-84 % of those polled) of Russia as a friendly and nonthreatening nation (Eurasian Development Bank 2015, p. 25).3

The governing elite in Kazakhstan is not particularly concerned about the potential negative ramifications of the country’s alliance with Russia. A prominent local political scientist who surveyed the evolution of Moscow’s “pivoting to the East” during 2010-2015 agreed that “hypothetically, Astana might have been worried... about facing the risk of a shrinking space for manoeuvre in external affairs”, but then concluded: “However, we can see that this is not happening” (Nursha 2015, p. 74). Part of the explanation is that Nazarbaev, unlike many leaders in the West, has an in-depth understanding of how the Kremlin operates and an appreciation of its legitimate security concerns as well as cognisance of the limits to Moscow’s power. This awareness coupled with a dense plethora of institutions for mutual policy consultation has enabled what Laruelle (2015, pp. 9-10) described as Astana’s “subtle and balanced policy... recognising Russia’s key status for the country, and bolstering strategic cooperation in the framework of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), all while seeking to preserve its strategic autonomy”.

Kazakhstan’s response to the Ukraine crisis, which erupted in February 2014 when the government of President Victor Yanukovich was overthrown, is illustrative of this autonomy. On the one hand, Astana treated the results of the March 2014 referendum in Crimea which supported the secession of the peninsula from Ukraine as broadly representative of the popular will. On the other hand, it refused to recognise Crimea’s accession to the Russian Federation officially, claiming that under international law Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity must remain intact (Baizakova and McDermott 2015, p. 4). Kazakhstan alone among Central Asian nations sent a high-level delegation to the inauguration ceremony of the newly elected President of Ukraine, Petro Poroshenko, in June 2014. It refrained from taking part in Russian economic sanctions imposed on Ukraine, and even cooperated with Azerbaijan and Georgia in devising the Trans-Caspian transport corridor which would allow Ukraine to bypass Russia in delivering up to 10 million tonnes of goods per year via rail and ferry to Central Asia and China (Platonova 2016).

Nazarbaev assumed the mantle of an avuncular statesman, “senior both in age and length of political career” (Baigarin 2014), calling on the presidents of Russia and Ukraine to find a political compromise. He opined that sanctions and counter-sanctions would not resolve the conflict, and offered to mediate between European, Russian and Ukrainian leaders: “Kazakhstan has the same attitude to Russia and Ukraine, we don’t have a conflict of interest, I am what is called ‘an honest broker’ who supports neither side, a neutral person who could make a contribution” (quoted in Agimbetov 2014). Nazarbaev adopted a similarly conciliatory position in the crisis between Moscow and Ankara after a Russian military jet was downed by Turkey in November 2015. He declined to join the Russian economic embargo and promised to work hard to salvage friendly relations between Russia and Turkey, which he claimed he had spent many years nurturing (Panvilova 2015).

Kazakhstan has used the EEU as an instrument to increase its influence in the Central Asian region. It was a staunch supporter of Kyrgyzstan’s membership in the bloc. In fact, Astana committed to providing US$177 mn out of the US$377 mn requested by Bishkek to implement its roadmap towards acceding to the organisation (Muminov 2014). Kazakhstani experts speak quite openly about building a Central Asian “economic system under the aegis of Kazakhstan” as a subset of the Russia-led EEU, whereby the water and other natural, production and labour resources of Kyrgyzstan and eventually Tajikistan will be locked into Kazakhstan’s quest for development and prosperity (Muhamedzhanova 2015).

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