Kazakhstan and the World’s Big Powers: A Return to the ‘Great Game’?
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Kazakhstan and the World’s Big Powers: A Return to the ‘Great Game’?

The process of Kazakhstan distancing from Russia is accompanied by big efforts by China for further rapprochement with the Central Asian country, which should signal to the EU and the US that they should bring the country westward, writes Harun Karčić.

Harun Karčić is journalist and co-founder of the Strategic Analysis Initiative.

Kazakhstan President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev recently rejected his Belarusian counterpart’s proposal to join the Russia-Belarus “Union State,” calling the offer a “joke.” The proposal came after Russia decided to deploy tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus for the first time since the fall of the Soviet Union back in 1991.

The proposal came only a few weeks after China’s President Xi Jinping hosted his first-ever summit with the leaders of Central Asian nations in the central Chinese city of Xian. According to international observers, the event represents the potential for Chinese influence to further expand into what used to be formerly Russia’s sphere of influence. China’s President paid particular attention to his Kazakh counterpart and showered him with respect.

There is a reason why both Belarus and Russia, on the one hand, and China, on the other, want Kazakhstan on their side.

Kazakhstan shares a 7,591km border with Russia and a 1,782 km border with China. Economic interweaving between the two is considerable. The country’s President is not the only Central Asian leader deftly walking a tightrope relationship with Vladimir Putin. Almost all Central Asian heads of state pay lip service to Russia while refraining from endorsing its brutal invasion of Ukraine. One major trait of Tokayev’s foreign policy is caution towards Moscow. There is no flag-waving or provocation of the old colonial power, and every decision taken seems to have a twin objective: to limit Russia’s influence without annoying.

This is now accompanied by a decolonisation of Astana’s diplomatic dependence on a Russo-centric orientation and actively moving to consolidate links with other world powers. This multi-vector approach extended over the years with an emphasis on multilateralism, has also allowed the landlocked country to play a significant role in global diplomacy. It is worth recalling that Astana hosted numerous high-level peace negotiations, including the ‘Astana Process’ Syrian peace talks, bringing together warring factions and asserting its position as a neutral broker. Several months into the war in Ukraine, President Tokayev visited Turkey for the first time since his inauguration, and in addition to boosting their relationship to a strategic partnership level, both sides agreed to produce Turkish drones in Kazakhstan and to exchange military intelligence. This is the first time a country that is part of the CSTO has decided to exchange sensitive intelligence with a NATO member.

On the economic front, the country did make significant progress in many domains since the dissolution of the USSR, not to mention being ranked 25th in the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business Index – well ahead of other states in its neighbourhood. It is gradually evolving from a Soviet-command-style economy to a more Western-style market economy to attract investors, develop new industries and gain new trade partners. Kazakhstan’s good fortune is to be found beneath its soil. Although a major crude oil and gas exporter, its biggest potential lies in mineral reserves – including uranium, iron ore, chromium, manganese and gold.

All this hasn’t gone unnoticed in Beijing.

China is a significant player in Central Asia’s and specifically Kazakhstan’s economy, primarily through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), of which Kazakhstan has been called the “buckle”.  Thus far, Astana has managed its ties with Beijing and avoided the debt trap that has ensnared countries such as Sri Lanka.

To avoid any sensitive overdependence on China, Kazakhstan’s diplomacy has been multilateral, reaching out in new directions, including the EU. Valdis Dombrovskis, the European Commission Executive Vice-President for Economy, highlighted the fast-paced development of Kazakhstan-EU relations at the recent European Union–Central Asia Economic Forum. EU member states are already by far the most significant source of Foreign Direct Investment in the region, accounting for more than 40% of FDI, which is more than China and Russia. The EU-Central Asia summit’s main focus was facilitating a green and digital transition, improving the business environment, and enhancing trade and connectivity.

Geography alone dictates that Kazakhstan cannot realistically cut all ties with Russia, as most of its exports have to pass through Russian territory. However, as we have seen previously with two EU programs—Interstate Oil and Gas Transportation to Europe (INOGATE) and Transport Corridor Europe-Caucasus-Asia (TRACECA)— with the proper international assistance, Kazakhstan and other Central Asian states can lead a qualitative expansion of their critical infrastructure which Europe so crucially needs today. It is also worth mentioning recent developments with Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey reaching an agreement “to create a joint venture within the framework of the Trans-Caspian International Transport Route (TITR).”

On the political level, having spoken to several Kazakh businessmen and political analysts recently, I am under the impression that President Tokayev’s rather bold moves against Russia recently have taken many by surprise since it was Russian forces sent by Putin that essentially saved him from being toppled in January 2022 – in what Tokayev himself described as an attempted coup. However, Kazakhstan understands that Moscow’s primary motivation during the unrest was fear for its security should things get irrevocably out of control and have a spillover effect.

The region is far from being a bastion of blossoming democracy; however, according to a 2022 State Department report, ‘‘President Tokayev has committed to gradually institute much-needed political and economic reforms, providing an opportunity for the US to support the country and its people as they address political, economic, and social challenges.’’

Since the 1990s, Russia and China have recognised each other’s predominant role in Central Asia. Russia has remained the primary security actor, while China has been developing its regional economic influence. However, in the face of the growing Sino-Russian competition and the shifting balance between the two countries, their mutual understanding is beginning to crack.

But despite the strategic significance of Central Asia and the Caspian Basin, Western countries need to pay more attention to the region. This is due to a combination of factors, including the absence of a shared strategic framework for helping stabilise and develop Asia’s heartland. However, following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and increased Chinese interests in the region, this is the moment Kazakhstan and other Central Asian countries can use to re-direct themselves diplomatically and economically westward.

From the perspective of Washington and Brussels and their new global commitment to Eurasian stability, now is the moment to enhance the region’s stability and prosperity. The US and EU must utilise this momentum to get more closely involved, enhance Kazakhstan’s democratic evolution, strengthen Central Asian security, and fortify American and European interests.