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Kazakhstan Avoids a Tug of War

24 March 2023 17:50:00 - Last updated: 28 March 2023 12:59:54

By Huda al-Husseini

Kazakhstan held early parliamentary elections last week, with citizens casting their ballots on Sunday and possibly ushering in independent members of parliament, which indicates a modest increase in democratic openness.

These elections have reinvigorated the politics of this former Soviet republic that shares borders with both Russia and China and witnessed deadly riots in January 2022.

Kazakhstan, which finds itself in the backyard of a waning Russia and on the path of a rising China, is turning into a site of immense geostrategic significance in its own right. And it is now trying to avoid a situation in which it is eaten alive by its two intimidating neighbors.

In the vast steppes of Kazakhstan, resource extraction is thriving. At the heart of this country’s economy is the rise in exports of oil, gas, iron, copper, and uranium, which are extracted by state-owned companies and joint ventures with major energy companies and global mining giants.

Part of the explanation for this export boom can be found in the national infrastructure modernization program (Bright Path) and Kazakhstan’s investment-friendly policies. Moreover, the country is becoming a crucial corridor for trade between East and West, bringing back memories of past centuries and a time when most of global trade passed through the Silk Road.

Last year, Astana was faced with unique challenges. High inflation sparked civil unrest, and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine left regional supply chains plunging into chaos. Many of the materials that Kazakhstan exports either pass through Russia or undergo final processing there before being sent to global markets. The two country’s deep industrial links are as much a legacy of the Soviet era as they are a consequence of the fact that Kazakhstan is a remote and landlocked country. Indeed, Russia has maintained a strong paternal relationship with the former Soviet republics.

In February last year, Kazakhstan’s President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev irritated the Kremlin when he refused to send troops to Ukraine despite having requested assistance from the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization to suppress domestic protests a month prior.

Tokayev then went on to distance himself even further from Moscow, banning Russian military symbols, canceling the May 9th Soviet Victory Day Parade, and even declaring that he would not recognize the independence of the separatist regions in the Donbas while seated next to Putin at an economic conference in June. His defiance marks a pivot away from the approach towards Moscow that the nation’s founding father, Nursultan Nazarbayev, had taken during his twenty-seven-year reign.

While Astana is now more determined to break free from a weakened Moscow, it lacks the security guarantees or strategic depth to stand tall on its own. If the Kremlin were to direct its covert operations to garner influence or its overt aggression towards Astana, the latter is far too distant from the West, both politically and geographically, to expect the kind of assistance offered to Ukraine. Tokayev has met Putin six times since the June conference, either for direct talks or through regional bodies like the Eurasian Economic Union and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.

Kazakhstan will always have to grapple with the fact that Moscow sees the former Soviet republics as its “privileged sphere of influence,” indeed, many Russians see Kazakhstan through the same distorted lens that was used to justify Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev tweeted (though he later deleted it and alleged that it had been tweeted by hackers) that Kazakhstan was a “made-up country” in October, echoing a claim Putin has been making of Ukraine since his annexation of Crimea in 2014.

After Russia’s neo-imperial ambitions were put on full display, Tokayev can have no doubts about Putin’s intentions. While he may still be an ally, Tokayev is not just another subordinate of Putin’s. One reason for Tokayev’s newfound confidence is that his ties to Chinese President Xi Jinping have been growing more robust. While the latter maintains its “no-limits” partnership with Russia, Tokayev’s veiled apprehensions about Putin make the Chinese president the right man to offer a counterweight to the Kremlin’s influence.

Xi Jinping’s first international post-pandemic foreign trip was to Astana, where he and Tokayev discussed developing bilateral cooperation on energy, trade, media, and water conservation extensively. Kazakhstan has always been of great importance to Beijing, which presents the former, with its vast territory and friendly landscapes, as a pivotal partner in the Belt and Road Initiative and a bridge to Europe and the Middle East because

The People’s Republic of China has also invested at least 45 billion US dollars in Kazakh oil, gas, and uranium since 1997, as it sought to meet the needs of its rising energy consumption and curb its reliance on Russia’s pipelines and its carriers from the Arabian Gulf.

Although their partnership seemed acceptable on paper, tangible barriers have played a major role in putting a glass sealing over Beijing’s initiatives - the ethnic majority in Kazakhstan shares the Turkish roots, Islamic culture, and language of the Uighurs, who are being severely oppressed in the Xinjiang province on the border with Kazakhstan.

However, this has not stopped politicians and business elites from embracing Chinese investment. Nonetheless, the National Bank of Kazakhstan has reduced its debt to Chinese institutions and bodies by 40% since 2014, and the bank is pushing for development projects that empower Kazakh workers and domestic industry. The central bank’s actions reflect deeper fears, as Astana seeks to avoid the problems that its neighbors have undergone.

The examples of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, which have been heavily drained by developmental debts to China, raise questions regarding the impact of such debt on sovereignty. Despite this, the People’s Republic of China is poised to become Kazakhstan’s largest export partner in the near future, and China’s engagement with Central Asia will only continue to grow as the Belt and Road Initiative develops. Thus, the People’s Republic of China is prepared to fill any gaps that would emerge if Tokayev continued to gravitate further and further away from Russia.

Over the decades, Kazakhstan’s multiple diplomatic channels have allowed it to balance Russia, China, and the United States. However, this foreign policy has only seen success in an era of US global dominance during which Washington was reasonably willing to concede influence over Central Asia. Astana now feels it needs to diversify its state sponsors through a third pole, which Astana hopes would alleviate some of the pressure coming from its two neighbors.

Tokayev is unsure of which direction to take. Gravitating towards China could stir up local unrest, and evidence of how this could threaten his hold on power is very much fresh in Tokayev’s memory. Meanwhile, amid the new iron curtain of sanctions, remaining so closely aligned to Moscow could cost him access to European markets or even the broader world.

To this end, Astana is throwing its backing to an initiative linked to the Caspian Sea. The plan is to develop an alternative route that goes the Caspian Sea from the western coast of Kazakhstan, then to Azerbaijan, Georgia, the Black Sea, and then the Turkish Straits, from which it sails into the world through the Mediterranean Sea. Developing this trade route favors Türkiye, which shares Kazakhstan’s cultural mosaic and has vigorously stood up to both Russia and China on political issues.

At the same time, Astana is equally keen on avoiding a situation in which it's caught in a tug-of-war. Both its neighbors pose long-term challenges to Kazakhstan’s sovereignty; thus, Astana must continue to build relationships with powerful friends if it is to counterbalance the historical dominance of Russia and China’s immense pull.

And so, until further notice, we can expect Tokayev, either alone or through an alliance with the presidents of Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan, to seek closer ties with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as he works to make the Middle Corridor a reality, thereby making possible his country’s transition from a post-Soviet republic to an indispensable link in the chain of global trade.

No matter how harmonious the relationship between Russia and China may be at the moment, we must be prepared for eventual competition among them over the Caucasus region.