As the largest Central Asian nation, located on the fringes of the Russian and Chinese worlds but oriented towards the EU, Kazakhstan is performing a strategic balancing act to maintain its stability and position in the heart of Eurasia.
Euractiv visited Kazakhstan as it celebrated the 32nd anniversary of its independence from the Soviet Union.
A key message from interlocutors was that the country is trying more than ever to pursue a multi-faced and balanced foreign policy that takes into account its powerful neighbours, its European trading partners, and the risks of domestic social unrest.
“After the riots of January 2022 and in combination with the war in Ukraine, stability has become almost sacred,” Astana-based expert Issatay Minuarov told Euractiv, adding that “there was talk of stability in public and political discourse, but these events really gave it meaning”.
In January 2022, Kazakhstan experienced its most serious unrest since independence. Sparked by anger over rising fuel prices, protests quickly spread across the country and turned violent in the largest city, Almaty.
The government eventually restored order with the help of Russian troops sent in the framework of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), a military alliance led by Russia.
According to Minuarov, after this experience, and also in the context of the war in Ukraine, Kazakhstan has resolutely taken a path that focused on independence from its northern neighbour.
Astana does not recognise the 2022 annexation referendums in Russian-occupied Ukraine and has approached sanctions against Russia in a pragmatic way that surprised many in the EU, Kazakhstan’s main trading partner.
“Kazakhstan has declared unambiguously that it will follow the sanctions regime. We maintain contacts with the relevant organisations on observing the sanctions regime, and I believe Germany should have no worries regarding possible steps to circumvent the sanctions regime,” President Kassym Jomart Tokayev declared during a visit to Berlin earlier this year.
But Tokayev’s statement does not mean cutting all ties with Russia or fully aligning with Western sanctions either.
“Kazakhstan has positioned itself as a unifying mediator between East and West,” Roman Vassilenko, Kazakhstan’s deputy foreign minister, told a press conference on 23 October, underlying the need for Kazakhstan to apply an independent and pragmatic approach to foreign affairs.
But geography and infrastructure are another important aspect, as Minuarov sees it, as Russia controls Kazakhstan’s oil exports to the West.
“The use of Russian pipelines remains crucial to Kazakhstan’s economy. That’s why severing ties with Russia, be they economic, political or even cultural, is something of a utopia. And like it or not, Kazakhstan can’t afford it”, Minuarov said, echoing a Kazakh government source who spoke to Euractiv.
“Kazakhstan has not joined the sanctions regime,” the government source explained to Euractiv, adding that the country shares a total of 7,500 km of borders and more than 50 border crossings with Russia alone.
Furthermore, since there is no customs border between Kazakhstan and Russia – as both countries are members of the Eurasian Customs Union – it is ” basically impossible” for Astana to introduce any sanctions, the source said.
But the source stressed that even though Kazakhstan is not joining the sanctions regime and does not support sanctions confrontation as a matter of principle, it will not allow its territory to be used to circumvent sanctions and has already taken measures to ensure this.
The government official also insisted that efforts to prevent sanctions circumvention should be implemented in a more robust way by the countries imposing the sanctions themselves.
China and the Middle corridor
As Kazakhstan seeks to balance its relations with the EU and Russia, the growing role of China in the country’s economy and logistics cannot be overlooked, as Kazakhstan plays a key role in the so-called Middle Corridor of China’s new Silk Road trade routes.
Also known as the Trans-Caspian International Transport Route, the Middle corridor is a trade route linking China to Europe through Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkey. It is a much-needed alternative to the traditional Northern and Southern Corridors, which pass through Russia and Iran, respectively, two powers subject to Western sanctions.
“The upgrading and fine-tuning of the Trans-Caspian International Transport Route (TITR), is among the key priorities of Kazakhstan, together with that of the North-South corridor, including the Kazakhstan-Turkmenistan-Iran railway, “Deputy Foreign Minister Vassilenko told journalists.
It was in this context that President Tokayev attended the Third Forum on International Cooperation “One Belt, One Road” in Beijing on 17-18 October, where 30 trade documents worth a total of $16.54 billion were signed between Astana and Beijing.
Among the most notable documents is an agreement to increase the capacity of the (TITR) fivefold, to 500,000 containers per year.
Commenting on what has already been achieved, Tokayev noted that “about 85% of all overland transit traffic from China to Europe passes through Kazakhstan” and that $35 billion has been allocated over 15 years for the development of highways.
According to Minuarov, China’s massive investment in Kazakhstan should be seen as an opportunity, rather than the concern expressed by some foreign diplomats.
“I don’t think we should see China as a risk. China represents a lot of opportunities for Kazakhstan’s economy and industry. We should see China as a neighbour and, of course, as the enormous market that it is”, he said, downplaying the fears around Chinese overdue influence in Kazakhstan.
Nevertheless, Euractiv heard several diplomats expressing concerns about Kazakhstan falling into the “Chinese orbit” as some other countries did along the new Chinese Silk Roads.
“It seems unlikely at the moment, but we’ll see,” one of them told Euractiv, with an explicit glance at the Chinese workers building the Chinese-funded high-speed railway that will connect Astana and its airport by 2025.
[Edited by Georgi Gotev/Zoran Radosavljevic]
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