BACKGROUND: The forced resignation of President Viktor Yanukovych by the Euromaidan protests, Moscow’s annexation of the Crimea in a controversial referendum rejected by Ukraine and most other world countries, and the fighting in eastern Ukraine between the Kiev government and Russian-backed separatists based in the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic and Lugansk People’s Republic prompted Kazakhstan to launch a sustained crisis management effort directed at Ukraine. The undertaking has involved government declarations, phone calls, and bilateral as well as multilateral meetings led by President Nursultan Nazarbayev and Foreign Minister Erlan Idrissov.
Kazakhstan’s concern has been deepened by the Western sanctions on Russia, Kazakhstan’s main partner in many economic sectors, and the Russian countersanctions, which have banned imports of European Union products. To prevent the illegal entry into the Russian black market of EU products intended for Belarus and Kazakhstan, which have refused to adopt the countersanctions despite their trilateral Customs Union with Russia, Russian officials have responded by restricting the transit of goods from Belarus into Kazakhstan through Russian territory.
The parties to the Ukrainian conflict signed a truce agreement after several weeks of meetings in Minsk in August and September 2014, but that ceasefire has failed to hold. To promote a more enduring peace settlement, President Nazarbayev has proposed convening a meeting of leaders from Russia, Ukraine, Germany, and France in Astana to discuss strengthening implementation of the Minsk agreement, specifically how to bolster the ceasefire and release all Ukrainian prisoners. These so-called “Normandy Four” first met on June 6 on the sidelines of an event marking the 70th anniversary of the Allied D-Day amphibious landings in Normandy. Nazarbayev made the offer after meeting with French President Francois Hollande, Russian President Vladimir Putin, and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, and after speaking with German Chancellor Angela Merkel by phone.
Discussions continue at the expert and diplomat level over the timing, agenda, and participants of such a meeting. A December 30 statement on the Kazakhstan President’s official website said that, “Kazakhstan is ready to host negotiations on … any other date that is convenient for the parties.” Divisions have emerged between the Europeans, with Hollande especially eager to hold the meeting and end the sanctions. In contrast, President Poroshenko would like to discuss the return of Crimea to Ukraine as well as restoring Kiev’s control over eastern Ukraine. Nazarbayev has stated that he hopes the talks could impart sufficient momentum to transform the ceasefire into a more comprehensive and enduring peace agreement. Following any meeting, the countries plan to return to the Geneva format, which would involve the U.S., which has offered general backing for measures to end the fighting in Ukraine, and the UN.
IMPLICATIONS: Holding discussions in Astana offers certain advantages. Kazakhstan has good relations with all the major players. Neither German President Merkel nor French President Hollande attended the earlier talks in Minsk due to tensions with Belarusian President Lukashenko but are open to attending a summit in Astana. Relations between Kazakhstan and Ukraine have been good in recent years regardless of the changes in government in Kiev. The cooperation “Roadmap” signed in 2007 under former pro-Western President Viktor Yushchenko had essentially the same cooperative tone and content as that of the Roadmap signed in 2010 under Moscow-leaning President Yanukovych. Nazarbayev has publicly supported Ukraine’s independence and territorial integrity and right to choose its economic and security partners. Kazakhstan is a co-founder of the new Eurasian Union and a leading member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, and also has close ties with Russia.
Kazakhstan’s motives for pursuing conflict resolution in general are straightforward. It wants to minimize regional conflicts that can threaten its strategic and economic interests as well as raise its national diplomatic profile by promoting international peace and hosting major world conferences. Kazakhstan is also currently seeking to become a member of the UN Security Council and may hope to strengthen its candidacy through successful diplomatic initiatives. The other governments have seemed to welcome Kazakhstan’s mediation efforts due to the limited effectiveness of the UN, the OSCE, and alternative mediation mechanisms.
Kazakhstan has long sought to advance regional economic social integration as well as reduce regional tensions that threaten its vital national interests. Astana’s recent conflict resolution efforts have included hosting several rounds of meetings in 2013 between Iran and its P5+1 partners (all five permanent UN Security Council members and Germany). The sessions helped jump start the stalled talks which, later that year, reached an interim agreement that remains essentially in force. Furthermore, Kazakhstan and its neighbors have had to cope with the absence of an effective regional mechanism for managing Central Asia’s limited water supplies. Therefore, in March 2013, Foreign Minister Idrissov visited Tajikistan and Uzbekistan to help settle their differences over the Rogun Dam, thereby securing some support for the principle that upstream and downstream states enjoy equal rights of access to shared water bodies. In the case of Afghanistan, Kazakhstan has been a leading force in the “Istanbul Process.” These high-level meetings, which began in 2011 in Istanbul, try to further cooperation on concrete projects between Afghanistan and nearby countries located in “the heart of Asia.” The six packages of interrelated confidence-building measures fall in the fields of education, counterterrorism, counternarcotics, disaster management, infrastructure, and commercial and trade engagement.
Along with these general considerations regarding the reasons why Kazakhstan prioritizes conflict resolution in its foreign policy, the conflict in Ukraine has harmed Kazakhstan’s economic and security interests. Kazakhstan does not want to give Russia the right to redraw national borders unilaterally or by force. The government has refused to recognize the independence of the Georgian territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which Russian troops have occupied since the August 2008 Russia-Georgia War.
Kazakhstan’s officials also share the common Eurasian concern that, in trying to punish Russia, the Western governments have inadvertently inflicted much collateral damage on other countries. In accordance with their practice of seeking friendly relations with all important countries, Kazakhstan’s officials have refrained from explicitly criticizing the Russian, Ukrainian, or Western governments or officials for these actions, but they would like to have the various sanctions and other punitive measures removed.
Furthermore, Kazakhstan would like to restore its economic relations with Ukraine. When he met with President Poroshenko in Kyiv on December 22, Nazarbayev lamented the decline in bilateral trade and investment between the two natural economic partners. Foreign Minister Idrissov has observed that. “We are connected to Ukraine by a common history, close economic links and shared priorities,” including some 330,000 ethnic Ukrainians who compose one of Kazakhstan’s largest minorities and act as a “living bridge” between the two nations.
CONCLUSIONS: In seeking to resolve Eurasian conflicts, Kazakhstan’s main challenge is that Astana’s diplomatic and other conflict-resolution resources, though expanding, remain limited. Kazakhstan lacks the means by itself to coerce other countries through pressure, or induce them through side payments, into making major concessions on long-held national principles such as the right to enrich uranium or assured access to water. Furthermore, Kazakhstan cannot bring peace to Afghanistan or Ukraine when key actors, such as the Ukrainian separatists, see advantages in continuing the conflict. At best, Kazakhstan’s mediation can provide a benign mechanism that other parties can use to reach an agreement that they themselves see as promoting their interests—a favorable constellation of forces that is too often fleeting.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Dr. Richard Weitz is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Center for Political-Military Analysis at the Hudson Institute.
(Image Attribution: Presidency of Ukraine)