The crisis in Ukraine has presented many challenges for Kazakhstan’s foreign policy—unwelcome comparisons between the domestic situations in both countries, growing tensions between Russia and the West, and disruptions to Kazakhstani-backed Eurasian integration schemes. In the past two weeks, moreover, the Kazakhstani government has struggled to articulate its nuanced position on these issues.
After the Russian parliament voted on March 1 to authorize President Vladimir Putin to use military force to protect ethnic Russians in Ukraine, Astana tried to avert Russian military intervention. On March 3, Kazakhstan’s foreign ministry had warned that “further escalation of tension may lead to unpredictable consequences” and called on all parties “to renounce options that imply the use of power” and instead focus on reaching a political settlement through negotiations based on International law (mfa.kz, March 3).
But after Crimea voted to join Russia in a controversial referendum on March 16, the Kazakhstani foreign ministry issued a statement that many read as endorsing the results. The ministry did reaffirm a commitment to international law and the United Nations Charter, which upholds the principle of territorial integrity and the non-use of force in border conflicts, and also called again for a peaceful solution to the crisis through “negotiations under the aegis of the United Nations and other reputable international organizations.” But the ministry also said that “The referendum held in Crimea is seen in Kazakhstan as a free expression of the will of the Autonomous Republic’s population, while the decision of the Russian Federation under the existing circumstances is regarded with understanding” (mfa.kz, March 18).
This last sentence led some commentators to see Kazakhstan as supporting the referendum and recognizing Russia’s annexation of Crimea; but it also prompted the new Ukrainian government to express “deep concern” and request clarification of Astana’s position (newskaz.ru, March 20). In response, Kazakhstani diplomats have stressed that they do not legally recognize the referendum or the annexation. Instead, they meant to communicate recognition that many Crimeans, for various reasons, presently want to join the Russian Federation and that the Russian government, like other countries, does have legitimate security, humanitarian and other interests in the fate of Crimea (Author’s interviews with Kazakhstani diplomats, March 20).
President Nursultan Nazarbayev and other Kazakhstani officials had earlier said that they understand Russia’s position and concerns (akorda.kz, March 10), but they had never said that they agreed with them. Kazakhstan certainly does not want to imply that Russia has the right to redraw national borders unilaterally or by force. Kazakhstan and Russia have the longest continuous land border in the world. Although many ethnic Russians continue to move to the Russian Federation, the last national census, undertaken in 2009, still indicates that 23.7 percent of Kazakhstan’s population consists of ethnic Russians (3,793,764 people) (https://www1.unece.org/stat/platform/download/attachments/64881183/Kaz2009%20Analytical%20report.pdf?version=1&modificationDate=1330590038432&api=v2). The share of ethnic Russians in the northern provinces of Akmola, Kostanay, Pavlodar, and North Kazakhstan is considerably higher: some 38–48 percent (see EDM, February 27). In February, the Kazakhstani government asked the Russian government for clarification after several Russian politicians had called on Russia to annex parts of Kazakhstan (Tengri News, February 20). Furthermore, Kazakhstan has refused to recognize the independence of the Georgian territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which Russian troops have occupied since the August 2008 Russia-Georgia war.
Astana strived to convince Moscow to avoid intervening militarily in Ukraine during the Crimean crisis. In an early March phone call with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Nazarbayev had “expressed Kazakhstan’s readiness to make—if needed—its constructive contribution to working out compromise solutions toward peacefully normalizing the situation in Ukraine” (Tengri News, February 20). Kazakhstan has undertaken such a mediation role in the past, such as regarding Iran and Central Asian water rights, but Russia and the other parties to the Ukraine dispute did not pursue this option. It is questionable whether such an effort could have worked given the speed of the crisis and the fact that the UN and other third parties proved unable to avert it.
Kazakhstan has crucial economic relations with both Russia and Ukraine, and its interests have only suffered from their conflict. Russia is Kazakhstan’s premier economic and security partner, while Ukraine offers Kazakhstan an important connection with European markets and institutions. Relations between Kazakhstan and Ukraine had been improving in recent years regardless of the changes in government in Kyiv. The cooperation “Roadmap” signed in 2007 under pro-Western former president Viktor Yushschenko (akorda.kz, February 2, 2007) has the same cooperative tone and content as that of the Roadmap signed in 2010 under Moscow-leaning president Viktor Yanukovych (https://www.kazakhstan-osce.org/content/issue-90-17-september-2010).
Kazakhstani officials had kept a low profile during the late 2013–early 2014 mass protests against Yanukovych, which began after the Ukrainian president announced he would seek an economic partnership with Russia rather than the European Union. Kazakhstani officials had said that they would welcome Ukraine’s joining their Customs Union, which would have increased mutual economic cooperation, but also stressed that they would respect any choice Ukraine made and would always treat Ukraine as an important partner (see EDM, October 18, 2013). If Ukraine had signed an enhanced association agreement with the EU, it would have enhanced Kazakhstan’s own economic relations with Europe.
Since the annexation, Kazakhstani officials, in accordance with their practice of seeking friendly relations with all important countries, have also not explicitly criticized the Russian, Ukrainian, or Western governments or officials for their actions, even though the Russian military moves and the Western economic sanctions have damaged Kazakhstani interests.
A current Kazakhstani priority is limiting further disruptions to the Customs Union of Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia as well as to the more comprehensive Eurasian Union, whose official launch is scheduled for this May. Noting the potential damage to the Customs Union as well as to the larger Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), President Nazarbayev had called for urgent consultations (Tengri News, March 4). Following phone calls to Russian President Vladimir Putin and Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka (Tengri News, March 4), Nazarbayev met with both leaders in Moscow in an impromptu summit, though apparently without concrete results (Akorda.kz, March 5). Kazakhstan may now replace Ukraine, which has withdrawn from the CIS (ITAR-TASS, March 24), as the organization’s chairman.
Another Kazakhstani priority is containing tensions among the great powers. With China assuming a low profile on the crisis, Astana’s main concern is how Russian-Western differences could worsen Kazakhstan’s own security and economic interests. It is likely that President Nazarbayev will make the Ukraine issue a major agenda item in his side meetings during this week’s Nuclear Security Summit in The Hague.