Italy and Kazakhstan Work to Broaden Ties Beyond Energy

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 21 Issue: 46

(Source: President of the Italian Republic)

Executive Summary:

  •  Kazakh and Italian officials met in March to underscore their healthy bilateral relations and discuss increasing economic and trade cooperation.
  • Kazakhstan and Italy’s strategic economic partnership gives the countries a foothold to deepen their engagement with the European Union and Central Asia, especially as Western sanctions have compromised traditional Russian-dominated transit routes.
  • Astana is working more proactively to diversify its foreign relations in part due to Russia’s war against Ukraine, though, given Kazakhstan’s geographic position, it must always strike a delicate balance.

On March 11, Kazakhstan’s Minister of Commerce Arman Shakkaliyev visited Italy to meet with Italian Economic Minister Adolfo Urso and Undersecretary of State Maria Tripodi. After the meeting, Tripodi stated that the meeting underscored the “outstanding state” of Kazakh-Italian relations and highlighted the opportunity for further economic cooperation. She added that, in the evolving international landscape, “Kazakhstan has gained significant geopolitical importance, presenting new and compelling opportunities for [Italy], despite the challenging global circumstances. This is evidenced by President [Kassym-Jomart] Tokayev’s visit to Rome last January” (Press Release – Italian MFA, March 11). For his part, Urso mentioned the prospect of extending cooperation into new sectors, including critical raw materials “for ensuring our continent’s strategic independence.” He also announced that he would visit Kazakhstan later this year (, March 11). Astana and Rome’s efforts to expand bilateral ties comes as Russian influence has waned in Central Asia due to Moscow’s war against Ukraine. Nevertheless, Kazakhstan, due to its ongoing dependency on Russia in some sectors, seeks to strike a delicate balance in diversifying its foreign relations while maintaining ties with the Kremlin.

Shakkaliyev is one of the new government ministers confirmed after Tokayev reshuffled his cabinet in February—an attempt, some said, to start weeding out corruption (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, February 7; Kaztag.Info, February 7). His visit to Italy was the first for a Kazakh official following Tokayev’s January 18 visit, which was the Kazakh president’s first official visit in 2024. Tokayev met with all of Italy’s major political leaders, including President Sergio Mattarella, Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, and Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani (Decode39, January 19). Tokayev participated in a roundtable, with Tajani, on investments during which the two sides signed 18 commercial agreements worth 1.5 billion dollars (Astana Times, January 23). During the visit, Mattarella stressed that the “bilateral economic relationship is intense.” He added that the two countries are “bound by a principle of multilateralism” and are on the “same wavelength in terms of international relations.” Italy is Kazakhstan’s third-largest trading partner, after Russia and China, and the top EU country for Kazakh exports (Il Sole 24 Ore, January 18).

For Tokayev, the visit represents the opening of a “new chapter” in Kazakhstan’s relations with Italy. He pledged to bring the partnership “to a higher level” and to “explore new fields of cooperation” (Agenzia Nova, January 18). This more active engagement comes as part of Kazakhstan’s renewed focus on pursuing “multi-vector” foreign policy (see EDM, January 3, 2023). Against this backdrop, Kazakhstan has been actively trying to deepen its economic relationship with Europe. In 2023, French President Emmanuel Macron paid a historic visit to Kazakhstan—the first by a French president since 1994—and signed business deals in nuclear energy, minerals, and aerospace (Le Monde, November 1, 2023). Tokayev also visited Germany to further consolidate Kazakhstan’s relations with the European Union. He engaged with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and President Frank-Walter Steinmeier in high-level discussions on deepening economic ties, expanding trade relations, and enhancing cooperation (The Astana Times, January 23).

Kazakhstan is proactively diversifying its foreign relations largely due to Russia’s war against Ukraine and the subsequent geopolitical upheavals. Astana, however, must maintain a delicate balance due to its ongoing dependency on Russia. Moscow’s war against Ukraine has adversely affected many Kazakh elites and public opinion toward the Kremlin, as many fear that Russia could do something similar in their country. Even so, Kazakhstan’s political and economic dependency on Moscow remains significant. For example, the current Kazakh leadership needed Russian intervention to quell widespread protests across Kazakhstan in January 2022 weeks before the Ukrainian invasion (see EDM, January 19, 2022). In addition, Kazakhstan is one of the founding countries of the Eurasian Economic Union and has agreed to host a number of military drills for the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty organization later this year (see EDM, February 26).  

For Italy, Kazakhstan has long represented a crucial priority in its engagement with Central Asia. Since 1991, Italy has invested almost $10 billion in Kazakhstan’s economy, primarily in the energy sector. The two countries officially signed a strategic partnership agreement in 2009 (Treaty on Strategic Partnership between the Republic of Kazakhstan and the Italian Republic, November 5, 2009). Since the COVID-19 pandemic, Italy has tried to revive its ties in Central Asia engagement. Those efforts took on added significance with Russia’s expanded invasion of Ukraine, especially as Moscow’s influence began to diminish in Central Asia. Tajani’s visit to Kazakhstan in September 2023 underlined Rome’s renewed focus to the region as the last time an Italian foreign minister made a trip to Astana was in 1997. The visit broadened bilateral engagement from solely the sole energy dossier to include other economic sectors and cultural diplomacy (Formiche.Net, September 8, 2023; Italy MFA, November 23, 2023).

Against this backdrop, Italy is also trying to deepen its engagement with Uzbekistan, although it must take a different approach than it has with Kazakhstan. This is because Tashkent is historically less dependent on Russia than Kazakhstan as it is not part of the Eurasian Economic Union, has troubled relations with the Collective Security Treaty Organization, and maintains often ambiguous ties with Moscow (see EDM, May 6, 2023). Italy thus sees room to deepen its role in both countries, even in the technology, transportation, and defense sectors. Moreover, one element that has strengthened Italy’s projection in Kazakhstan over the past few years is the presence of a particularly active and effective ambassador, Marco Alberti, widely seen in Rome as a rising star of Italian diplomacy (YouTube, January 29).

Kazakhstan and Italy share several structural principles regarding their foreign policy approaches. They focus on multilateralism and center economic diplomacy. Kazakhstan has always represented a major priority for Italy in Central Asia. However, if the focus was previously merely on energy ties, their relationship is now broadening to include many more sectors. Italy is a complementary economic partner for Kazakhstan and a crucial element of its broader strategy to engage the European Union. The latter is itself an element of Kazakh multi-vector foreign policy. Despite the difficulties created by the war in Ukraine and a persistent dependency on Moscow for political and economic reasons, this multi-vector approach remains Astana’s trademark foreign policy.