In December 2014, Nazarbaev reassured the citizens of Kazakhstan: “We are not abandoning the multi-vector nature of our [foreign] policy, there are no grounds for this ... Every treaty we sign, including the one on the EEU, says that this does not impede our interaction with third countries” (2014e). The events of 2015 seemed to confirm the president’s pledge. Kazakhstan finally joined the WTO after 19 years of painstaking negotiations. It avoided entanglement in the Ukraine imbroglio and stayed out of the sanctions and counter-sanctions game played by Russia, the West and Turkey. It signed an Enhanced Partnership and Cooperation
Agreement (EPCA) with the EU - the first Central Asian republic to have done so. According to Kazakhstan’s Foreign Minister, Erlan Idrisov, the development of EPCA’s trade section was helped by his country’s experience in the CU and the EEU (Idrisov quoted in Turebekova 2015). Relations with the United States continued on an even keel, characterised by both sides as a “strategic partnership” (Nurbekov 2015).
While initially there was some apprehension in Kazakhstan’s policy community about the compatibility of Eurasian economic integration with China’s Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB) project (Amrebaev 2014), by the end of 2015 a substantial degree of harmonisation was achieved, at least on paper, among the interests of Kazakhstan, China and the EEU. The EEC’s official documents began to refer to a “joint partnership” between Kazakhstan’s Nurly Zhol programme of infrastructure development announced in November 2014, the EEU and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in the creation of a high-speed multimodal transport route connecting Western China and Western Europe - the Eurasian Transcontinental Corridor (Eurasian Economic Commission 2015, pp. 43-44).
Two salient themes in official policy discourse supporting the thesis about the EEU’s neutral or even beneficial impact on Kazakhstan’s independent foreign policy are worth noting here. The first addresses suspicions that Russia’s economic preponderance in the EEU will inevitably translate into its political domination as well. The counterpoint to them is a simple comparison: a close analogue to the EEU in the family of RTAs is The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), where the largest economy (the USA) is nine and 13 times bigger, respectively, than Canada’s and Mexico’s - a (dis)proportion that is similar to the Russia- Kazakhstan-Belarus trio (Sultanov and Dodonov 2012, p. 6). The logbook of more than 300 trade disputes among NAFTA participants as of 2014 makes the track record of the EEU look rather good. The second theme centres on the openness of the EEU to trade deals with external partners. In May 2014, a Kazakhstani academic counted no less than 40 countries and RTAs interested in forming a free trade zone (FTZ) with the EEU (Baimanov 2014). The first FTZ with Vietnam went into effect in May 2015. Upon assuming the headship of SEEC for 2016, Nazarbaev reiterated his commitment to open regionalism and declared that his top priority in office would be the “deepening of economic relations of the Union with third countries and key integrationist entities” (Nazarbaev cited in Baimanov 2016). There is no reason to believe, as some have suggested (Nurgaliyeva 2016), that Astana’s active search for foreign partners is a desperate attempt to balance Russian hegemony within the EEU: diversification of economic ties has been an essential feature of Kazakhstan’s multi-vector policy since independence, and the EEU membership has actually given it extra vigour.
Foreign Minister Idrisov had every right to claim in December 2015 that Kazakhstan was a mature political actor and not a pawn in a fictional “great game”, the concept of which he rejected out of hand. Instead, he identified Central Asia and Eurasia as a zone where “various big players have legitimate interests that can fortuitously cohere rather than conflict with each other” (Idrisov 2015). Nazarbaev clearly relished the role of peacemaker between Russia and the West when he called for the creation of the Eurasian Economic Space on the basis of the EU and EEU: “geopolitical games, mutual economic sanctions and other archaic atavisms should be forever left in the past. The creation of a peaceful, stable, prosperous and economically strong Eurasia will have a powerful multiplying effect on global growth and will be beneficial to all” (Nazarbaev 2016).