On June 20, after meeting with Kazakhstan President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev in Astana, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier announced Germany’s recent endorsement of Kazakhstan’s efforts to create alternative trade routes and transport corridors to Europe while bypassing Russia. Steinmeier declared that such measures would further prevent the Kremlin’s ability to evade sanctions via Kazakhstan (Svoboda, June 20). However, Moscow’s moves to redirect trade through a new corridor that would circumvent Kazakhstan pose a challenge to Astana’s ambitions (see EDM, 5 July).
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, both local governments, neighboring foreign states and international institutions have invested much effort and money in designing and then building regional and intercontinental trade routes. Regardless of where they originate, all of these plans are inextricably tied to the sponsors’ geopolitical as well as economic interests. Consequently, they invariably have become elements of bilateral, regional and international contestation. These plans have long served to bring together Asian, European and Central Asian states, including Afghanistan and the former Soviet republics (Unescap.org, accessed July 19).
Throughout history, Central Asia has been at the crossroads of civilizations and trade routes. Its strategic location has attracted the attention of various empires and powers seeking to control the potentially lucrative corridors between Asia, Europe and the Middle East. As a significant part of the Great Silk Road, Kazakhstan’s cities not only served as transshipment points for commodities traveling from China to Europe but also actively participated in joint production and trade, as well as the interchange of cultural values and ideas (Russian.people.com.cn, November 29, 2013; EL, March 18, 2017).
Therefore, it is unsurprising that such maneuvers have become a long-standing element in Central Asia’s international politics—not least in Kazakhstan, due to its geographical location as a link between Central Asia, the Caspian Sea, as well as Russia and China. For example, for the first time, in June 2023, Kazakhstan signed a series of agreements with Azerbaijan to bring energy and other natural resources and minerals through the Caspian and Azerbaijan to the Caucasus and European markets, which are eager to obtain these imports (Astana Times, June 22). Not least in these matters is the fact that these agreements bypass Russia thereby marking another step toward Kazakhstan’s economic and political independence from Putin’s Russia (Eurasianet, June 28).
These agreements are part of a larger grand design for Astana. Recently, Tokayev suggested that the German government could replace embargoed Russian oil with Kazakhstani oil (Radio Azattyk, June 3). He suggested that Kazakhstan could increase its exports of oil by 600 percent to Germany and presumably German-operated, but not Russian-owned, refineries in Germany could increase their capacity from 90,000 to 200,000 tons by the end of 2023 and then 900,000 to 1 or 2 million tons annually in the near future. Likewise, Italy is already importing oil from Kazakhstan, increasing its share of imports from 28 percent in 2022 to 38 percent in 2023.
These trade contracts clearly represent significant efforts by Astana to diversify its foreign economic relations. For example, Kazakhstan has signed accords with Beijing to enhance energy flows to China, and the aforementioned agreements with Azerbaijan likewise speak to that ambition (Kursiv.media, May 18; Upstream, May 19). Indeed, recently, the European Union has announced its intention to import “critical goods” from Kazakhstan via the Trans-Caspian International Transport Route, bypassing Russia (Kursiv.media, July 4). These goods include lithium, cobalt, titanium and other rare earth metals vital to the contemporary global economy, as well as defense manufacturing. For the EU, this is explicitly about reversing its excessive dependence on China and Russia for such goods; thus, its geo-economic and geopolitical intentions are clearly and openly stated.
Kazakhstan has also repeatedly criticized Moscow’s war against Ukraine, something Putin and his subordinates will not soon forget (Tengrinew.kz, June 20). And one way Moscow can get back at Astana is to exclude Kazakhstan from newly proposed trade routes running from Central Asia through the Caspian to Russia (see EDM, July 5). This trade route from the Turkmenbashi Seaport in Turkmenistan to Astrakhan on the Caspian has been on the table for several months. Clearly, it represents an attack on Kazakhstan, with the Kremlin alleging that Astana is blocking other Central Asian traders from exporting their wares.
Russian sources also allege that this planned trade route is linked to Moscow’s ambitious north-south transit project to connect Russia, Central Asia, Iran and India and could lead to the mutual supply of dual-use goods among its members (Orda.kz, July 7). It also appears that Uzbekistan, which has been much quieter, though nonetheless unhappy about the war, and has recently improved ties with Russia, was strongly lobbying for this trade route to avoid its own excessive dependence on Kazakhstan (Ratel.kz, July 12). Thus, this corridor, along with the others proposed by Kazakhstan, reveals the intertwining of economic and political motives for strategically critical region ranging from Europe and the Caucasus to Central Asia and China.
India can also be included among these states, a proposed beneficiary and terminus of the projected north-south route and a state with its own active program to build trade with Central Asia and major European markets (ORF, February 2020). Indeed, China has consistently sought to minimize Indian exposure to those trade routes and markets as part of its own long-standing efforts to suppress India’s rise to the status of a great power (Nikkei, January 29).
Undoubtedly, as India, China, Russia and smaller but nonetheless critical regional actors strive to expand their economic and political influence globally, and Europe seeks to develop viable and long-lasting trade routes with Asian markets, the contestation over these corridors will grow. This rivalry will not be confined to Kazakhstan but will engage every Central Asian state for years to come, as the countries in the region are entering a period of enhanced trade and geopolitical rivalries. Therefore, the struggles and rivalries depicted here will be part of the regular agenda and landscape of international affairs in both their political and economic dimensions in Central Asia for the indefinite future.