Kazakhstan’s Expanding Multi-Vector Foreign Policy

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 20 Issue: 1

(Source: Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People's Republic of China)

Recently, Kazakhstani Energy Minister Bolat Akchulakov declared that, while his country maintains close ties with Russia and Uzbekistan on gas transit, no formal discussions have been held regarding the possible formation of a gas union, the trilateral initiative suggested by Russian President Vladimir Putin (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, November 29). Kazakhstan’s refusal would not be as surprising had it not been for the incredible geopolitical upheavals that have begun to transform the wider Eurasian region since Russia’s re-invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. As a result, this changing environment has enabled the Central Asian states to become more vocal about their own interests, pushing against Moscow’s imperial ambitions.

Moreover, Kazakhstan has been emboldened by a strategic relationship that Ukraine, Georgia or Moldova do not enjoy—namely, its deepening cooperation with Beijing. China is not only an aspiring global power with heaps of cash, but it also shares a long common border with Kazakhstan, thus placing Beijing as a necessary counterbalance to Moscow. Kazakhstan is also a critical artery within China’s sprawling, yet struggling Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and serves as a gateway for Beijing in its push to reshape Eurasian geopolitics.

China’s special relationship with Kazakhstan was reflected in Chinese President Xi Jinping’s choice to visit Astana for his first official visit abroad after the COVID-19 pandemic (Fmprc.gov.cn, September 15). During his trip, the Chinese leader underscored Beijing’s support for its neighbor’s independence and pledged to defend Kazakhstan’s territorial integrity. The message, at the time, was read as a warning to external powers, but the veiled nature and timing of the statement could indicate that it was meant directly for Russia.

As Russia continues its war against Ukraine, increased cooperation with China seems quite beneficial for Astana. Indeed, the two countries are expanding railway connections to boost transit and bilateral trade (Eurasianet, November 22). Yet, the boundary between benign dependence and a toxic, one-sided relationship is always dangerously thin. The Kazakhstani government is aware of this, which explains why the country does not want to become another junior partner of the Russian-Chinese “condominium,” preferring instead to diversify its foreign relations through building bridges with other ambitious actors in Eurasia (Chinaobservers.eu, January 20).

In these efforts, Turkey plays a key role. Astana’s ties with Ankara are strengthening, as reflected by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s recent visit to Kazakhstan (Daily Sabah, October 11), which, in turn, built on Kazakhstani President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev’s much-vaunted trip to Turkey in May 2022 (Anadolu Agency, May 10). Both leaders highlighted the need to expand trade and political ties during the visits, as well as the growing importance of the Middle Corridor.

Beyond Ankara, Astana has looked even further west in building cooperation with the European Union, which, amid its open rivalry with Russia, has been especially interested in fostering closer ties with Kazakhstan. During his visit to the country in October 2022, European Council President Charles Michel proclaimed that bilateral relations are growing stronger and characterized Kazakhstan as the “main economic powerhouse” in the region (France 24, October 27). On November 16 and 17, EU High Representative for Foreign Policy Josep Borrell also visited Astana, marking the 30th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Kazakhstan and the EU (Eeas.europa.eu, November 17).

A critical component of Kazakhstan’s new geopolitical vision is the expansion of the Middle Corridor. Amid Russia’s war against Ukraine, Kazakhstan has been subject to a number of intermittent closures of oil-exporting pipelines by Russia, which pushed Tokayev to officially declare the need to find new transit routes (Eurasianet, July 7). Thus, further development of the Middle Corridor will assuredly remain a focal point of Astana’s plans in 2023.

Although China and Russia see themselves (and rightly so) as critical actors in Eurasian connectivity, Kazakhstan is no less ambitious: China’s BRI was launched there, and the idea of the Eurasian Economic Union came from former Kazakhstani President Nursultan Nazarbayev. Thus, positioning Kazakhstan as a major Eurasian transit and energy node is part of Astana’s long-held ambitions and will help the country finally find its proper place in the post-Soviet world.

Astana’s multi-vector foreign policy, however, does not mean that Kazakhstan is wholly reconsidering its ties with Russia. Rather, the Kazakhstani government is seeking greater guarantees and flexibility in bilateral relations. Indeed, added security comes with the ability to play one power off the other. In fact, the Kazakhstani leadership knows Moscow needs Astana’s support and cooperation on numerous initiatives in Eurasia. And despite the fact that mutual suspicions have multiplied over the course of 2022, with the potential of seriously impacting bilateral relations, Kazakhstan also needs Russia as a critical player in its foreign policy. Without Russia, Kazakhstan could easily become overly reliant on China.

Perhaps, this explains why Tokayev has eagerly strived to maintain amicable relations with Russia. For instance, Putin and Tokayev met with one another in Sochi in August 2022, discussing possible approaches for strengthening trade and investment cooperation (The Astana Times, August 20). In October 2022, Putin arrived in Astana to attend the Sixth Summit of the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia (Anadolu Agency, October 12). Moreover, Russian-Kazakhstani relations remain generally strong on both the diplomatic and economic levels. In 2021, bilateral trade between the two countries reached a record high of $24.5 billion, and both governments maintain extensive defense and security ties.

Ultimately, the war in Ukraine has transformed Eurasia’s geopolitical landscape. Russia’s weakening position in Central Asia represents a potential boon for Kazakhstan. Likewise, it opens the door to increased foreign economic and diplomatic involvement in Central Asia. As such, Astana will have to tread carefully not to anger China and Russia, as both Eurasian powers are highly intolerant of the growing involvement of outside powers in the region. Even so, for 2023, Kazakhstan finds itself in a favorable position to elevate its leadership and influence throughout Central Asia.