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Russia, West fight for Kazakhstan as Astana plays both sides

Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev (R) and Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) attend their meeting at the Ak Orda Presidential Palace, Nov. 9, 2023 in Astana, Kazakhstan. (Contributor/Getty Images)
by Katie Marie Davies November 12, 2023 6:03 PM 8 min read
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On the surface, Russian President Vladimir Putin's trip to Kazakhstan on Nov. 9 exuded an air of business as usual.

The Russian leader was met at dawn on the tarmac of Astana airport by Kazakhstan's President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev before being greeted by an official guard of honor.

The trip coincided with the 19th Russia-Kazakhstan Interregional Cooperation Forum, an annual gathering focusing on bilateral ties, held in the northern Kazakhstan city of Kostanay.

Speeches from both leaders focused heavily on trade links, many of which have benefited from sanctions imposed on Russia elsewhere, as well as new deals on energy, customs, and labor issues.

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But the visit — Putin's third international trip since the International Criminal Court issued a warrant for his arrest — came only days after French President Emmanual Macron was welcomed in the country, some pundits mistakenly have called Russia's backyard.

In recent months, Western leaders have taken a number of trips to Central Asia, rushing to show interest in a region they neglected for years. Their actions have heralded a new drive to gain more influence in a country that Moscow still sees as within its sphere of control.

Yet, unlike many countries that were seen as close to Russia before the full-scale invasion, Kazakhstan was able to maintain a strong, independent foreign policy. Many have praised Astana for refusing to support Moscow's invasion of Ukraine, while Tokayev has publicly distanced himself from accepting Russia's views of changing borders by force.

Tokayev has also spoken with President Volodymyr Zelensky in 2023, who thanked the Kazakh president for providing humanitarian aid to the country.

Meanwhile, Putin got an unusual welcome during his latest visit.

The opening remarks by Kazakhstan's Tokayev were made in Kazakh language, an unusual feature for the Russian delegation that for decades enjoyed being greeted in Russian, a co-official language in the country.

The Russian delegation scrambling to find headphones was seen by some observers as the new reality of Russian-Kazakh relations – a reality where Kazakhstan decides the rules.

Renewed Interests

The idea that Western leaders hope to influence Kazakhstan on issues of both Russia and Ukraine is not unfounded.

Despite Astana's historically close ties to Moscow, Tokayev has made it clear that Kazakhstan will not recognize occupied Ukrainian regions as Russian territory. He has remained in touch with Zelensky and pushed back against Kazakhstan being used to bypass sanctions. As the West continues to support Ukraine, Western countries hope to ensure that Kazakhstan at least maintains this stance.

President Macron's trip to Astana centered on business ties: France is the fifth-biggest foreign investor in Kazakhstan and is interested in the country's uranium supply to fuel its nuclear power plants.

But he also made time to publicly praise Tokayev for his stance on Ukraine.

"I do not underestimate the geopolitical difficulties, the pressures, sometimes the jostling, to which you may be subjected," he told his Kazakh counterpart during a press conference.

France's President Emmanuel Macron (L) gestures as he is welcomed by Kazakhstan's President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev (R) in Astana on Nov. 1, 2023. (Stanislav Filippov/AFP via Getty Images)

"France values … the path you are following for your country, refusing to be a vassal of any power and seeking to build numerous and balanced relations with different countries."

The U.K. government announced on Friday that "the deepening of U.K. engagement in Central Asia should be seen as a geopolitical imperative," while U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken made time to visit Astana in February 2023.

There has been no significant shift in Astana's policy toward Russia or Ukraine in response to this rhetoric. But that's not to say that the Kremlin is not worried by these overtures.

"Moscow sees Central Asia as a region where only Russia has full kind of rights to do whatever they want. Of course, they are jealous when Central Asian countries are negotiating with the West," says Temur Umarov, a fellow at the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center.

But Moscow also is taking a pragmatic approach.

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Kazakhstan is a key trading partner for Russia, and the country's economic development has knock-on benefits for Moscow. In contrast, the Kremlin has little to gain from prohibiting Central Asian countries from cooperating economically with the West and much to lose by provoking their ire.

"Russia understands that Central Asian countries need to develop economically, and they cannot rely on Russia to do that because Russia doesn't have resources to develop its own economy," says Umarov. In the meantime, he says, Moscow tries to gain advantages from this trade by encouraging parallel imports from Kazakhstan that can help bypass global sanctions.

It's also unlikely that Kazakhstan will reject ties with Moscow as it draws economically closer to the West.

Kazakhstan imports more goods from Russia than anywhere else and depends heavily on Russian gas. Kazakhstan also has a long land border with Russia and a sizable ethnic Russian minority, particularly in the country's north.

Despite Astana's stance on the invasion, Russia and Kazakhstan have made a deliberate effort to keep their relationship going.

"There has been actually an intensification of the political dialogue between the two countries since February 2022," says Marie Dumoulin, director of the Wider Europe program at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

"That doesn't mean that Kazakhstan is willingly coming under Russian influence, but that it's trying to preserve its relationship with the country that is still its most important partner."

A multilateral approach

In the meantime, Astana is dealing with renewed pressure from both sides by deliberately expanding and diversifying its political and economic ties.

While Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine and the resulting rift between Moscow and the West may have spotlighted the delicate balancing act, the policy is a relatively longstanding one, says Dumoulin.

It also stretches far further than Brussels, Moscow, or even Washington.

Ties with Beijing are key in Kazakhstan, with China investing heavily in the country as part of its ongoing Belt and Road strategy. Astana's relationship with Turkey has also continued to grow.

"Europeans are only one partner among many. China is more important, probably Turkey too, and the Gulf countries are also very actively developing their investments in the region. I would say that Kazakhstan has been very successful with this," says Dumoulin.

With these strong multilateral ties and a renewed surge of geopolitical interest, Kazakhstan could potentially benefit by playing different countries off each other.

But experts don't believe that this is Tokayev's focus.

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"I think that what Tokayev really wants is to create an atmosphere in Kazakhstan that will allow countries that are currently adversaries to coexist with each other," says Umarov. "It's not in his interest to create tension between Russia and the West, or even Russia and China."

"Kazakhstan's main goal is not to be dragged into this confrontation."

Ultimately, the task of keeping all parties happy — as well as refusing to choose a geopolitical camp in one of the world's most contentious issues — is a hugely challenging one.

But as a career diplomat, a former Director-General of the United Nations Office at Geneva, and Kazakhstan's former foreign minister, it is one of which Tokayaev is more than capable.

While the attention of world leaders may be pushing Kazakhstan into the global spotlight, Astana is ultimately unlikely to change course in relation to either Kyiv or Moscow.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz (R) and Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev (L) hold a press conference in Berlin on Sept. 28, 2023. (Kay Nietfeld/picture alliance via Getty Images)

National identity

However, certain scenarios could prompt change.

Russia could become more hostile toward Kazakhstan, especially if relations are strained on issues such as culture, language, and history.

Kazakhstan has taken steps to solidify its national identity in recent years, such as promoting the Kazakh language. Moscow and Astana have already butted heads on such topics.

The Russian consul general in Almaty, Evgeny Bobrov, swiftly left his post in September after his comments lamenting reduced Russian-language teaching in Kazakh schools sparked backlash.

"Putin cares a lot about preserving this so-called 'Russkiy Mir,' or 'Russian world': the Russian language, Russian history," says Umarov.

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"There is always a threat that Russia could become aggressive and target Kazakhstan's northern territories, which have a large ethnic Russian population," he adds. "Before the invasion of Ukraine, such scenarios were unimaginable. Now, it's very possible to imagine."

Growing pressure from within Kazakh society could also tip this balance.

But while the country's influential urban middle class is vocal in its support for Ukraine, many Kazakhs hope that Astana will remain neutral. Tokayev's studied stance —working with Putin on one side while sending humanitarian aid to Ukraine on the other — is an attempt to appease both sides, says Umarov.

But, as Kazakhstan remains largely authoritarian, the impact of civic initiatives is likely to be limited.

In the meantime, as Kazakhstan continues its course, the West can only try to be consistent in its offer of open political dialogue.

"We need to offer Kazakhstan options so that they're not in a tete-a-tete with Russia," says Dumoulin. "That's doing more visits and investments. Pressure is not the way to go about it."

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