Are We Witnessing The Demise of Kazakhstan’s Multi-Vectored Foreign Policy?

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by Reid Standish on 5/13/2014

Despite the slow progression and many obstacles, it appears that the Eurasian Union (Eurasian Economic Union/ EEC) is on course to come into existence. But even with general agreement among the Customs Union’s big three (Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan), there are some unresolved issues that could plague the union’s future and alter the region’s political landscape. Most notably, are differences between Russia and Kazakhstan on what form the union will ultimately comprise.

Meanwhile, events in Ukraine have brought into question the sustainability of Kazakhstan’s multi-vectored foreign policy, which has sought to balance the competing interests of Russia, China and the U.S. in Central Asia.

“I think that we have witnessed the death of multi-vectorism as a foreign policy for Kazakhstan,” says Dr. Luca Anceschi, Lecturer at the University of Glasgow and freshly returned from a research trip to Kazakhstan.

According to Dr. Anceschi, Kazakhstan still might have some economic and political space in the short and even medium term to maneuver with China and the West. And there are signs that this already underway. As reported by Joanna Illis of

“Unfazed by Nazarbayev’s pro-Kremlin stance, Western leaders including US President Barack Obama, UK Prime Minister David Cameron, and French President Francois Hollande lined up to meet him in The Hague [on March 25]. This suggests that Kazakhstan still retains lots of diplomatic wiggle room to get back squarely on a multi-vector track. As well as eyeing Kazakhstan’s oil and gas reserves, Western leaders may be hoping the veteran Kazakhstani leader can exert a behind-the-scenes, calming influence on the irascible Putin.”

However, the shift away from the multi-vectored approach could be more gradual. Should Russia continue to use regional organizations like the Customs Union, CSTO and the Eurasian Union to keep Kazakhstan into exclusive relations within Moscow’s orbit, the viability of a multi-vectored foreign policy could shrink exponentially. Especially when taking into account President Nazarbayev’s advanced age, it’s unknown what a post-Nazarbayev foreign policy would look like.

“The balancing of the multi-vector foreign policy was part of the pre-Ukraine crisis world. Ukraine has affected all relations in the CIS,” argues Dr. Anceschi. “It is very likely that Moscow will not tolerate the balancing of the past.”

Kazakhstan has been one of Russia’s closest allies since the collapse of the Soviet Union and President Nazarbayev and President Putin enjoy a strong working and personal relationship. However, Kazakhstan has been left in dire diplomatic straits since events in Crimea and Ukraine escalated.

“Crimea’s annexation was a sign of Moscow going clearly imperial and announcing to the world that it does not respect the sovereignty of post-Soviet states,” says Dr. Nargis Kassenova of KIMEP University’s Central Asian Studies Center.

Eventually, Kazakhstan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs moved to endorse the outcome of the controversial Crimea referendum by offering support for President Putin at the Nuclear Security Summit on March 25. Following this, Kazakhstan abstained from voting on a recent resolution that called on the international community to not recognize any change in the status of Crimea.

“While it would be improper to view Kazakhstan’s foreign policy through an outdated, with us or against us Cold War-type lens,” added Dr. Anceschi, “the vote to abstain in the UN was a sign that when push comes to shove, Astana will always side with Moscow”

Yet, despite Kazakhstan’s backing of Russia, Astana is still seen dragging its feet when it comes to setting the Eurasian Union firmly in stone. There are two possible reasons for this. First, ascension into the Customs Union has been a bane for many Kazakhstanis, especially those involved in regional trade, who have been hurt by imposed tariffs. This has led to some uncharacteristic episodes of dissent in Kazakhstan (both creative and not). However, there are no signs that this has affected Astana’s decision-making process at all. Moreover, President Nazarbayev has personally invested a great deal of personal capital into the Eurasian project and he was the one who first proposed a EU-style supranational union of Eurasian states. Furthermore, Russia is Kazakhstan’s largest trading partner. In 2013, trade with Russia accounted for 36 percent of imports ($17.6 billion) and 7 percent of exports ($5.8 billion). This trade balance is certainly skewed in Russia’s favor, but the economic relationship is especially important for Kazakhstan because Russia is a major consumer of non-oil exports.

The second, and more salient reason is that Moscow is aiming to turn the Eurasian Union into a political, as well as economic, merger. Taking into account Russia’s recent actions in Ukraine, this has definitely unsettled Astana and led to weariness about Moscow’s overall designs.

This weariness was on display May 8, when the presidents of Armenia, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan met in Moscow under the auspices of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). Notably absent from the summit was President Nazarbayev, who was meeting with U.S. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns. The meeting was designed to assure President Nazarbayev of America’s commitment to Kazakhstan and Central Asia in the aftermath of the Ukraine crisis.

Furthermore, the CSTO meeting in Moscow came in the wake of a Custom Union in Minsk on April 29, which failed to finalize the treaty due to differences over wording. “It’s a very uncertain future still for the Eurasian Union,” says Dr. Kassenova. “There are still so many moving pieces, it is hard to predict exactly how things will work out.”

Yet, despite the numerous obstacles, the Eurasian Union continues to limp towards fruition. Kyrgyzstan has approved a draft version of a roadmap towards joining the Customs Union, which could then lead to Eurasian Union membership. Also, Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has said that he will not block the deal creating the Eurasian Union. This places the ball firmly in Kazakhstan’s court as Belarus, Russia and Kazakhstan are set to meet once again on May 29 in Astana. Kazakhstan has not been shy about voicing its concerns about the Eurasian Union in the past and this has not prevented Astana from moving towards integration with Moscow. An eventual agreement seems likely come May 29 and with it, a change in Kazakhstan’s foreign policy.

“The European Union also began under the banner of economic integration. But economic integration will lead to political integration and in turn, a more coordinated foreign policy,” states Dr. Anceschi. “It is inevitable.”


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This post was written by...

– author of 7 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Reid Standish is a freelance journalist and grad student at the University of Glasgow in the Erasmus Mundus International Master's in Russian, Central and Eastern European Studies programme. Reid has travelled extensively throughout Central Asia and is a longtime student of the region's politics. Currently, he is researching his thesis on counternarcotics and foreign assistance in Kyrgyzstan and is a visiting student at Kazakhstan's KIMEP University. Reid currently lives in Almaty, Kazakhstan.

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