At a meeting with Putin, Kazakhstan's President Tokayev refuses to recognize the so-called People's Republics in eastern Ukraine. But the Central Asian country has no plans to break away from Russia. Its alliances are more complex.
One could have known that. When asked by Kremlin propagandist and head of the Russian state broadcaster RT, Margarita Simonyan, about his stance on the Ukraine issue, Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev replied: There are good reasons why his country does not recognize Taiwan, Kosovo, Abkhazia or South Ossetia. "And this principle obviously also applies to such quasi-state areas as Donetsk and Luhansk," said Tokayev, while Vladimir Putin sat next to him on the podium. This is an open answer to an open question, remarked the guest of honor at the SPIEF international economic forum in Saint Petersburg a week ago.
The unexpectedly confident appearance of the Kazakh head of state sparked enthusiasm among some observers in the West. There can be no question of an ideological departure from Moscow or even a "slap in the face for Putin". But Tokayev could use the gain in political legitimacy and international reputation.
For the second president of the country, which has been independent since 1991, dealing with the war in Ukraine is a balancing act. The Russian Federation, with which Kazakhstan - a country without access to the open sea - shares a border of almost 7000 kilometers, is a historically grown, indispensable trading partner. Given this dependency, Kazakhstan is also indirectly affected by the sanctions against Russia. From Kazakhstan's point of view, the new geopolitical reality makes it necessary to search for a new formula for cooperation with Russia. Tokayev's statement in Saint Petersburg should also be seen in this context.
Tokayev, President of Kazakhstan since 2019, narrowly escaped a coup after the unrest in early January. At his request, a Russian-led peacekeeping mission moved in and ended the protests. The violent action, especially an order to shoot at the demonstrators, brought Tokayev a loss of reputation at home and abroad. In the meantime, it has been proven that the protests were not only an expression of the population's displeasure, but were also fueled by internal power struggles.
As a result of the events, there was a break with his predecessor Nursultan Nazarbayev, who had ruled the country increasingly autocratically for 30 years. Since then, the Kazakh media have regularly reported on corrupt networks that were uncovered and spectacular dismissals, for example of Nazarbayev's nephew Kayrat Satybaldy, who held high state posts several times during his uncle's reign. Some prominent associates, such as the former head of the National Security Committee, Karim Massimov, are in prison.
Meanwhile, Tokayev is practicing the role of a great reformer and promoting a "new Kazakhstan". At the initiative of the president, a constitutional referendum was held in early June, which was designed more as a vote on Tokayev himself, as the Kazakh political scientist Dosym Satpayev told the exiled Russian news portal Meduza. The majority agreed to the changes. This has not changed the president's powers, but the legitimacy that had suffered after the use of force in January appears to have been restored. Still, the challenges have not gone away. Social peace remains fragile.
The dependency on Russia is all the greater. Around a fifth of foreign trade is with Moscow - largely duty-free thanks to its membership in the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), which is dominated by Russia. The EAEU started in 2015 - without Ukraine, which, after the popular uprising on the Maidan, took a European instead of a pro-Russian path.
The participation in the EAEU and also its membership in the Russian-led military alliance, the "Organization of the Treaty on Collective Security" (CSTO), date back to the government of Nazarbayev. Today, the foreign policy legacy of Kazakhstan's first president is viewed ambivalently. At the same time, after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, concerns about an intervention are growing among the population. Memories of the colonial ruler's earlier campaigns and the time of great hunger among the Bolsheviks are awakened. In the multi-ethnic Republic of Kazakhstan, Russians make up the second largest population group at 18 percent. Is there a guarantee that Putin will one day refrain from enforcing his claim to the protection of the "Russian world" here as well? And if so, could China possibly be a guarantee of the country's integrity?
Because the ties to China are also close: For Kazakhstan, the People's Republic is the most important buyer of crude oil, natural gas and copper. Conversely, Kazakhstan is an important link in the New Silk Road for China. The railway line to Western Europe passes through here. When many Asian ports closed and the Suez Canal was blocked during the corona pandemic, transport by rail and road via Kazakhstan proved all the more important. Only recently, China put into operation a new railway line for transporting goods to Germany via Azerbaijan, Romania, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic.
However, Kazakhstan is not only oriented towards Russia and China, but also towards the West. Mineral resources make the oil-producing country an important partner for EU countries looking for alternative sources of supply for Russian supply shortages. Petroleum, metals and metal ores are Kazakhstan's most important export goods, accounting for almost 80 percent of all export earnings. Around 40 percent of exports go to the EU. Italy alone buys around a quarter of all Kazakh oil. The Netherlands also purchases a significant amount of oil. Kazakhstan also has the largest uranium ore reserves in the world after Australia.
For Germany, Kazakhstan is the third most important trading partner in the post-Soviet space, after Russia and Ukraine. Around nine percent of German oil imports come from there. Kazakhstan also has other raw materials, including rare earths, which are important for the energy transition and high technology, and has great potential for renewable energies, says Viktor Ebel, Central Asia expert at the state-owned Germany Trade and Invest (GTAI), which promotes Germany internationally as a business location , the ARD. The investment climate is also favorable: Kazakhstan ranks 25th out of 190 countries in the World Bank's "Ease of Doing Business" ranking. However, this is offset by the political risks of an authoritarian country.
If the country succeeds in diversifying delivery routes for its export goods and finding alternatives to Russian routes, it has a good chance of benefiting from the trend towards Western decoupling from Russia. The process has already started. Since June, the oil produced in Kazakhstan has had its own type label (KEBCO) for the first time in order to avoid mixing with the sanctioned Russian oil during loading in the Russian port of Novorossiysk on the Black Sea. With regard to the Western sanctions against Russia and Belarus, representatives of Kazakhstan always emphasize that they must comply with international regulations.
The geographical location and the economic ties make Kazakhstan's foreign policy between Russia, China and Europe a ride on a razor blade. Whether the Kremlin will moderate its imperial ambitions out of consideration for China is by no means certain. So the question remains: How to break away from the Russian sphere of influence to some extent without becoming overly dependent on China? It won't be easy. The country is not resilient enough for that.
Kazakhstan has no choice but to stick to its current "multi-vector course", i.e. to build new partnerships without alienating old partners. In St. Petersburg, he also made it clear that Tokayev is by no means considering completely decoupling himself from Russia: The first thrust of his country's development is the Eurasian Economic Union, which he wants to link more closely to the New Silk Road, and thus to China.
The second direction could be a Eurasian partnership. But in contrast to Russia's power-politically motivated idea of a "Greater Eurasia", Kazakhstan believes that the said partnership should be placed on a broader basis, together with regional associations such as the CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States), ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) and the SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organization). This was the real essence of Tokayev's speech in St. Petersburg, which was lost because of the uproar surrounding his refusal to recognize the separatist republics.