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The West should treat Kazakhstan’s political shift with caution

Kazakhstan is interested in bolstering cooperation with the West. However, it would be naïve to place high hopes on the Kazakh government.

September 4, 2023 - Aleksandra Klitina Lesia Dubenko - Articles and Commentary

President of Kazakhstan Kassym-Jomart Tokayev meeting with representatives of business in Almaty. Photo: Vladimir Tretyakov / Shutterstock

Russia’s war against Ukraine is pushing Kazakhstan, traditionally seen as a key friend of Russia in Central Asia, to reconsider its key policies. 

Despite Russia’s help in suppressing anti-governmental protests in the early days of 2022, the countries’ relations have been strained ever since Moscow launched a full-scale war against Ukraine on February 24th, 2022.

Kazakhstan refused to recognise the DNR and LNR as independent republics, citing international law as a reason for its decision. It also rejected Russia’s offer to join its war as part of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation, Moscow’s answer to NATO. This was subsequently met with praise from the White House.

These actions led to several fiery public exchanges, with Russia’s ambassador in Kazakhstan Alexey Borodavkin claiming that there has been a rise in “radical nationalist trends” in the country. In response, the Chairman of the Mäjilis of the Parliament of Kazakhstan Erlan Qoşanov labelled Borodavkin’s statements as unprofessional. A more emotional answer came from the Kazakh activist Arman Shuraev, who warned Borodavkin that if Russia attempts to “denazify” Kazakhstan, then the fields “will be covered in Russian “mobiks” (a derogatory terms for mobilised men)”.

Astana’s frosty relations with Moscow also spilled over into the military domain, with Kazakhstan gradually bolstering its cooperation with Turkey, a NATO member state. 

In May 2022, during the visit of a delegation led by Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev to Ankara, a memorandum on military and technical cooperation was signed, with Kazakhstan poised to begin the assembly and maintenance of the Turkish ANKA drones on a licence.

Meanwhile, the chairman of Kazakhstan’s Association of Defence Industry Enterprises, Aibek Barysov, said that he wants to further develop cooperation with Ankara and Turkish companies. He noted that NATO’s standards are more modern and safer and thus more attractive.

Kazakhstan’s endeavour to bolster cooperation with NATO is also exemplified by Astana’s attempt to purchase over 800 ARMA cars from the Turkish company Otokar. These are worth two trillion tenge (4,347,060,000 US dollars).

In August, Kazakhstan’s Ministry of Defence tested the ARMA 8×8 armoured wheeled vehicle – but it did not go seamlessly. The vehicle failed to perform a manoeuvre and almost sank in the Ili River in the Almaty region.

While no one was harmed, the accident, according to some sources who preferred to stay anonymous, showed several signs that technical errors, possibly deliberate, took place. 

This possibility plays into the interests of some Kazakh military commanders, who adhere to Russian military doctrine and are only being forced to bolster cooperation with NATO due to the West’s sanctions on Russia. The media have repeatedly reported that President Tokayev is allegedly surrounded by corrupt security officials and government members from the team of the previous head of state, Nursultan Nazarbayev, and is often simply unable to manage the processes.

While it is unknown whether Kazakhstan will agree to purchase these armoured vehicles – especially since Kazakhstan also manufactures its own – a host of different factors show that Astana is interested in rapprochement with the West.

This spells good news, as Kazakhstan is a major Central Asian economy with large natural reserves and a waning Russian influence among its society. A survey carried out by DEMOSCOPE in May 2023 showed that 21.1 per cent of Kazakhs support Ukraine. The respective number for Russia is 12.8 per cent, with almost 60 per cent preferring to stay neutral. 

Its decision to not participate in Russia’s war against Ukraine or recognise the rogue entities in the Luhansk and Donetsk regions is likewise encouraging. 

Despite these positives, the West should still not place high hopes on Kazakhstan’s government. This is due to the continued violent suppression of anti-governmental protests since 2018, the general ill state of freedoms and rights in the country (recorded by key organisations like Human Rights Watch), and rife corruption.

Kazakhstan is also helping Russia to circumvent western sanctions, with a recent investigation showing that Moscow is purchasing drones and microchips via the country and receiving them through the customs-free regime. This is despite the fact that Astana has vowed to curtail this trade through the electronic monitoring system for goods exports.

Rather, Kazakhstan’s shift should be viewed as part of its decades-old multi-vector foreign policy of pragmatism, fleshed out by Nazarbayev, and treated accordingly. This is more so since Astana is mainly interested in reaping the economic benefits of cooperation with the West, and to much a lesser degree any political ones.

Kazakhstan is now supplying the third-largest volume of oil to Germany after Norway and the UK and is increasing its trade with the EU, which reached a record high of 40 billion US dollars in 2022.

This gives the West, and the EU in particular, room for manoeuvre, especially since Astana is floating the possibility of EU membership in the future, according to its officials. Even though this endeavour may sound unrealistic given that it still closely cooperates with Russia, Brussels can use this to its advantage. It can gain influence in the country and keep it away from Moscow, both economically and politically.

Increasing cooperation on a human level through a variety of programmes for students and professionals is likewise advisable. This is especially true as most people supporting Ukraine are between the ages of 18 and 29, according to the aforementioned survey by DEMOSCOPE.

While it is almost certain that Astana will continue to maintain close ties with Moscow in the near future, the momentum to build better relations with the country is arguably there. As a result, this chance should be capitalised on.

Aleksandra Klitina is a Ukraine-based economist and journalist. She is currently working as the senior economic correspondent at Ukrinform.

Lesia Dubenko is a Ukraine-based analyst and journalist who has written for the Financial TimesNew Eastern EuropeEuropean Pravda, the Atlantic Council and the Kyiv Post.

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