Russian President Vladimir Putin with President of Kazakhstan Kassym-Jomart Tokayev (Image courtesy: Kremlin.ru)
The Central Asia Setting
Kazakhstan and the other four Central Asian countries viz Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan have since the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, been considered a sphere of Russian influence and a part of its so-called “near abroad.”
This space became a part of the Russian and Soviet empires from the beginning of the 19th century. All the five countries developed and evolved their independent identities after they broke away from the Soviet Union and emerged as free nations in 1991. All of them however, keeping in view the compulsions of geography, history, economy and culture, maintained strong and vibrant relations with the Russian Federation.
Russia looms large over the policy decisions of these countries in diverse ways. The Russian labour market is a vital source of employment for many Central Asian countries particularly Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan; Russia plays key roles in the energy, and energy export, sectors of Central Asia; and Russia remains the guarantor of security in the region.
It is hence no surprise that these countries go out of their way to ensure friendly and cordial relations with Russia. They have however, to varying degrees, become increasingly conscious of their independence, individual identities and sovereignty over the last thirty years since their independence.
Kazakhstan, which is the largest country in territorial area and comprises about 60% of the region’s GDP, FDI, trade etc., and Uzbekistan, which has the largest population in the region and is the only country to share borders with all other Central Asian countries, follow a multi-vectored foreign policy and maintain warm and friendly relations with all major powers including Russia, China, USA and Europe. Turkmenistan is a neutral country and got the international community’s recognition of its legal status of permanent neutrality in accordance with the United Nations General Assembly Resolution in 1995. Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are far too dependent on Russia for their security, remittances, economy to say or do anything to upset or displease Russia.
All the above aspects have played out fully to determine their positions during the current Russia-Ukraine conflict. This is particularly evident in the manner in which these countries voted in the different Resolutions that were taken up in the UN over the last few weeks. Two examples in this regard would be illustrative.
The UN General Assembly (GA) Resolution titled ‘’Humanitarian consequences of the aggression against Ukraine" on 2nd March, 2022 (United Nations; 2nd March, 2022; ‘’General Assembly resolution demands end to Russian offensive in Ukraine’’) strongly reprimanded Russia for invading Ukraine and demanded that it “immediately, completely and unconditionally withdraw all of its military forces from the territory of Ukraine within its internationally recognized borders.” The vote was overwhelmingly in favour of the Resolution with 141 countries supporting, 5 opposing and 35 abstentions. Amongst the Central Asian countries, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan abstained while Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan did not vote.
In the UNGA Resolution to consider expulsion of Russia from the UN Human Rights Council on 7th April, 2022, (United Nations; 7th April, 2022; ‘’ UN General Assembly votes to suspend Russia from the Human Rights Council’’) 93 countries voted in favor of the Resolution, 24 against it and 57 countries abstained. Just before this vote, Russia had issued a general warning that an abstention or absence during the vote would be taken to be an ‘’unfriendly act’’ and would have grave adverse implications for bilateral relations of that country with Russia and their cooperation in the United Nations. Keeping the above in view, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan voted against the Resolution and in favor of Russia, while Turkmenistan, as before, did not exercise its right to vote.
It would be evident from the above that under normal circumstances, these countries would endeavor to safeguard their independence and sovereignty but when push comes to shove, they would fall in line with Russia and would not do anything to annoy or rile Russia.
In both the above votes, Turkmenistan did not exercise its franchise taking refuge behind its status of permanent neutrality recognized by the UN.
Kazakhstan enjoys the world’s longest land border with Russia of more than 7,000 kms. About 25% of the Kazakh population comprises of people of Russian origin. This number was considerably higher when the country became independent in 1991. Soon after Kazakhstan became free, rumors were rife that its Russian origin population, based in the north of the country along the Russia-Kazakhstan border, wanted to become a part of Russia as they felt they had little in common with the people and culture of Kazakhstan. It was to nip such chatter and tendencies in the bud, that the then President Nursultan Nazarbayev decided to shift the capital from the more salubrious climate of Almaty to the severe and freezing terrain of Astana (currently Nur-Sultan) in the north of the country, adjacent to the Russia-Kazakh border.
Kazakhstan could have been expected to be grateful to Russia for the support it provided under the aegis of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) when unforeseen violence gripped the country on 2nd January, 2022 because of a steep hike in the price of LPG. About 12,000 people were arrested and 240 were killed. CSTO under Russia responded with great alacrity to send troops to restore peace, stability and order in Kazakhstan.
Notwithstanding the above consideration, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev of Kazakhstan, in an Article in ‘’The National Interest’’ on 4th April, 2022, (The National Interest; 4th April, 2022; Turbulence Across Eurasia Will Not Slow Kazakhstan’s Progress; Kassym-Jomart Tokayev) wrote: ‘’As states that share the longest border in the world, Kazakhstan and Russia enjoy special relations of mutual cooperation. Meanwhile we also have deep traditions of friendly relations with Ukraine. We respect its territorial integrity—as the overwhelming majority of the world does. We hope for a swift and just resolution of the conflict in accordance with UN Charter.‘’
This comment by Kazakhstan’s President is indicative of an independent, autonomous stand that is far removed from that of Russia on the Russia-Ukraine conflict.
Kazakh Foreign Minister Mukhtar Tileuberdi said (The Conversation; 11th April, 2022; ‘’Ukraine conflict: Kazakhstan’s difficult balancing act between need for Russian support and popular opposition to the war’’; Bhavna Dave) that Kazakhstan does not recognize districts in Ukraine's eastern regions of Luhansk and Donetsk controlled by Russia-backed separatists as independent. He added that ‘’it is important that our territory (Kazakhstan) is not used to evade sanctions."
Timur Suleimenov, the first deputy chief of staff to president Tokayaev said during his visit to Brussels (Ukrinform; 1st April, 2022; ‘’Kazakhstan won't be tool to circumvent sanctions against Russia, top Kazakh official says’’) that Kazakhstan is keen to expand cooperation with the EU and the West despite the Western sanctions on Russia. Suleimenov said that Kazakhstan will continue to invest in Russia and attract investment from Russia, because “there is no way for our economy to do it differently. However, he added ‘’Kazakhstan will not be a tool for circumventing US and EU sanctions against Russia. We will comply with the sanctions. Although we are part of the Economic Union with Russia, Belarus and other countries, we are also part of the international community. Therefore, the last thing we want is for Kazakhstan to be subject to secondary sanctions by the US and the EU….Kazakhstan respects the territorial integrity of Ukraine. We have not recognized and do not recognize either the situation with Crimea or the situation with Donbass, because the UN does not recognize them. We will only respect decisions made at the level of the United Nations.”
Kazakhstan’s Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Roman Vassilenko, in a meeting with the EU, emphasized the importance of minimizing or preventing the negative effects of EU’s sanctions against Russia on trade and economic relations between Kazakhstan and EU. He added: “European companies are leaving Russia either due to sanctions or due to pressure from the public, from shareholders and ethical reasons. They want to be somewhere in the neighbourhood, and we would like to be that neighbour.’’ He said in an interview that Kazakhstan did not want to become a collateral victim of politically motivated economic warfare and if ‘’there is a new iron curtain, we do not want to be behind it."
In addition to performing a diplomatic tightrope walk, Kazakh authorities are also keen to balance opposing local passions surrounding the war. The exchanges on social media have been vicious. An anti-war gathering in Almaty on March 6 was attended by around 2-3,000 people who sang Ukrainian songs and hurled invective at Putin. (Eurasianet; 4th April, 2022; ‘’Kazakhstan seeks to thread diplomatic needle over Russia’s Ukraine war’’; Chris Rickleton) These are big numbers by Kazakh standards, where permission for rallies is granted on an arbitrary basis, despite official claims to the contrary.
In March, Kazakhstan denied a request from Moscow to provide troops for the offensive in Ukraine. (Euractiv; 2nd March, 2022, Georgi Gotev; ‘’ Kazakhstan takes distance from Russia’s Ukraine war’’)
The import of several of the above comments/actions was however sought to be attenuated by the telephone call from President Putin to Tokayev on 2nd April. (Kazinform; 3rd April, 2022; ‘’President Tokayev had telephone conversation with Vladimir Putin’’) According to a readout by Kazakhstan on this conversation, the two men expressed “a common understanding on the exceptional importance of reaching agreements on a neutral, non-bloc, non-nuclear status of Ukraine.” These are among the demands made by Moscow in the ongoing talks to bring a close to the war in Ukraine.
It would appear that Putin has realized the limits up to which he can pressurize Kazakhstan and some other Central Asian states to support his position.
As the Western sanctions on Russia over its invasion of Ukraine start to bite, more than 300 U.S. companies are pulling out of Russia to relocate their regional headquarters. Kazakhstan could be the ideal choice, both from the economic and geostrategic perspective. (The Hill; 30th March, 2022; ‘’Washington’s potential hidden ace in rift with Russia: Kazakhstan’’; Sasha Toperich and Debra Cagan)
Kazakh oil production fell in March amid export problems from the Black Sea Caspian Pipeline Consortium (CPC) terminal. (Nasdaq; 4th April, 2022; ‘’Kazakhstan oil output down in March, Chevron leads the fall -sources Reuters). This fall was because of lower intake in the CPC system owing to storm damage to loading facilities at its terminal near Russian port of Novorossiysk.
Kazakhstan reduced its oil output forecast for 2022 and dramatically trimmed its projection for economic growth in fresh evidence of the damage being wrought by the impact of Russia’s war on Ukraine. The country now expects to pump 85.7 million tons of crude in 2022, which is 1.8 million tons less than had been projected earlier. (Eurasianet; 5th April, 2022; Almaz Kumenov; ‘’Kazakhstan sees economy slowed down by Russia’s war.’’) The government downgraded its economic growth forecast for this year from 3.9% to 2.1%. Kazakhstan will utilize its National Fund for a further 1.63 trillion tenge (US$3.5 billion) this year to finance additional spending. Kazakhstan was looking forward to a sustained period of buoyancy following the 2.6% contraction in GDP experienced in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Economic growth bounced back to 4% in 2021 – a rate the authorities would not be able to maintain in the current year.
Kazakhstan along with Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan continue to provide humanitarian aid to Ukraine.
Kazakhstan, a former Soviet republic, has close strategic, political, economic, commercial, cultural, linguistic and people-to-people ties with Russia. Both countries are members of the Russia dominated economic and security groupings viz Eurasian Economic Union and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), under which Russia sent its troops to deal with the January unrest in Kazakhstan.
The Kazakh people and leadership are however extremely sensitive and protective about their sovereignty and autonomy. They would not like their independence of policy and action to be diluted or impaired in any way. In addition, territorial integrity, sovereignty and inviolability of borders are extremely valuable principles for Kazakhstan. In the years since its independence, several comments have been forthcoming from some sections of the Russian leadership and people that the northern parts of the country, which are inhabited by Russian origin Kazakhs, should be subsumed into Russia. Such talk makes the Kazakh people very nervous.
Hence, for ensuring and safeguarding its sovereignty and independence as well as to protect and promote its strategic, political, economic and commercial interests, which at times are different from that of Russia, Kazakhstan will stay mindful of Russia’s concerns and interests but will follow an independent and autonomous foreign policy. Under such circumstances, Kazakhstan will definitely not be an adversary of Russia, but it would be far removed from being an all-weather ally.
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