Kazakhstan, Central Asia's giant, is stirring and the Russians are not amused

Kazakhstan is exploring its options. The government has embarked on a series of reforms, as yet mainly in the economic sphere, although reforms in the governance sector are also inevitable. They include slimming down the bloated state bureaucracy and also slowly re-calibrating Kazakh foreign policy to make it less dependant on Russia. The Russians are not amused, says Dennis Sammut in this op-ed for commonspace.eu.

If I had to sum up Kazakhstan in one sentence, I would say that it is the most modest, most underestimated country in the world today. It is a country with huge potential, with many talented people, and one which is slowly but surely coming out of the shadow of Russia which has dominated it in different ways and forms over the last centuries.

Kazakhstan has a huge landmass. It covers a land area of 2,724,900 square kilometres and is the world's largest landlocked country and the ninth largest country in the world. However, it has only a small population of 18.94 million according to the latest figures issued in April.

Like the other post-Soviet Republics, Kazakhstan has over the last three decades embarked on a process of state-building after the unexpected collapse of the Soviet Union. For most of this period the man in charge was Nursultan Nazarbayev. He ran the country with a firm grip, but with an amazingly open mind. He kept Kazakhstan close to Russia – he had little choice – but helped forge a national identity. In 2019, he left office to make way for a new generation, keeping some leverages on power, which he has also been gradually handing on to others since. 

Kazakhstan has a lot going for it, but some drawbacks too. Its energy resources have enabled it to build a cushion against unplanned surprises, such as the pandemic. According to Fitch's recent assessment Kazakhstan demonstrated a robust economic performance that enabled its economy to address the 2020 shocks – coronavirus pandemic and the subsequent fall in oil prices.

Kazakhstan is land locked, except for its Caspian Coast, and it is sandwiched between Russia and China, both of which eye it with a certain amount of envy. It has been spared the sort of internal conflicts that bedeviled some other post soviet republics, but relations with the neighbours have at times been awkward.

Kazakhstan is Central Asia's economic motor, generating 60% of the region's GDP. This is due largely to its oil and gas industry and huge reserves of mineral resources. This has enabled Kazakhstan to slowly develop its own identity as a nation, and to manage relations with neighbouring China, and even more importantly with the post imperial power, Russia despite the fact that Moscow sometimes still see it as an adjunct.

Kazakhstan is a member of all of the Russian led post-Soviet structures, created by the Kremlin to maintain its grip on the near abroad: the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), the Collective Security Treaty organisation (CSTO) and the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU). A Treaty on Military Co-operation between Russia and Kazakhstan was signed in Nur-Sultan on 16 October 2020, for 10 years. It is expected to be ratified soon.

Yet, despite this, Russians don't always treat Kazakhstan properly. Some statements by Russian politicians recently have been blatantly condescending, if not rude. President Putin is more careful. He knows he is dealing with a sleeping giant, and the giant now appears to be stirring. Under its new president, Kasym-Jomart Tokaev, Kazakhstan is exploring its options. He has embarked on a series of reforms, as yet mainly in the economic sphere, although reforms in the governance sector are also inevitable. They include slimming down the bloated state bureaucracy. He is also slowly re-calibrating Kazakh foreign policy to make it less dependant on Russia.

The Russians are worried.

In the last days, the influential Russian newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta focused on Kazakhstan, and wondered what was going on

Kazakhstan’s policy and its close contacts with the United States might present serious inconsistencies in military cooperation with Russia, Nezavisimaya Gazeta wrote last week.

The newspaper added that the Director of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, Sergey Naryshkin, cautioned that Kazakhstan's consent to the deployment of US and NATO troops being pulled out of Afghanistan might be a major surprise for Russia.

Kazakhstan is maintaining active contacts with NATO and even plans to hold regular military exercises on its soil in July 2021 with the participation of US, UK, and Canadian troops. The US armed forces here are not just engaged in instructing and training military personnel, the newspaper wrote.

"I won’t be surprised if the US military soon surfaces in Arys again, and whether there will be only engineers, sappers, and not other specialists, for example, members of intelligence, radio-technical troops, air forces, air defence forces – is a big question," military expert, Colonel Shamil Gareev told Nezavisimaya Gazeta. "It is beneficial for the Americans to have their own units in this region on a long-term basis. And there is a fear that the Kazakh leadership will not strongly oppose this," the expert believes.

"I believe that Russia will be able to compensate for the growing influence of the US and NATO over Kazakhstan by interacting with China. Beijing is interested in boosting its influence in Central Asia," military expert, Colonel Nikolay Shulgin told the newspaper.

This approach appears shortsighted. The biggest mistake the Russians can do is to try to somehow constrain Kazakhstan from coming into its own on the international stage. If they are clever, they should be helpful and supportive. The Russians have plenty of leverages on Kazakhstan and should not overreact if their neighbour is exploring new horizons. Otherwise they will only have themselves to blame if their relationship with Kazakhstan is poisoned going forward.

As for the West, there should be no hurry. Just gentle encouragement. In the end the Kazakhs will find their own place in the world, and I doubt if external forces will be able to stop that, one way or the other.

The European Union has a good relationship with Kazakhstan, at least in the economic sphere. The EU is Kazakhstan's biggest trade partner, accounting for 29.7% of the country’s total trade in goods in 2020. 16.1% of Kazakhstan’s imports came from the EU and 41.0% of its exports went to the EU. Total trade in goods between the EU and Kazakhstan in 2020 amounted to €18.6 billion. 

But the political relations between the EU and Kazakhstan remain rudimentary. Brussels has not spend enough time understanding Nur-Sultan (formerly Astana), and Nur-Sultan has spent little time explaining. There are therefore plenty of misconceptions on all sides. It is time to change this, although it will take time and work to do so. As Kazakhstan emerges on the world stage it must see the EU as a friend, and the EU must see Kazakhstan as a genuine partner. There is potentially a lot of benefit for both from such a relationship.


source: Dr Dennis Sammut is the Director of LINKS Europe and Managing Editor of commonspace.eu. He writes regularly on relations between Europe and neighbouring regions and European security. (director@links-europe.eu).
photo: Nur-Sultan, the new, glitzy, capital of Kazakhstan (archive picture)


The views expressed in opinion pieces and commentaries do not necessarily reflect the position of commonspace.eu or its partners  

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