BACKGROUND: The foreign policy of post-independence Kazakhstan began with several seemingly contradictory measures. On the one hand, Kazakhstan immediately joined the Commonwealth of Independent States and has been at the forefront of its integration efforts. Simultaneously, it reached out to the West with its renunciation of nuclear arms, and to the East with the establishment, at the end of 1992, of a Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia.
Kazakhstan’s government was quick to claim that these initiatives were complementary, not conflicting. Another round of apparent contradictions followed. It was President Nazarbayev who, during a speech at Moscow University in 1994, proposed the creation of a regional trade block with Russia and even spoke of integration in the area of security. But within three years, the Kazakh government was also moving to embrace Kassym –Jomart Tokayev’s concept, set forth in his Pod Stulagom Nezavissimosti, of a “multi-vectored” or “balanced” foreign policy. Again, the Kazakh government insisted that these were in fact complementary, and intended to boost rather than erode Kazakhstan’s sovereignty and self-government. Tokayev later served twice as Foreign Minister, and is now Chairman of the Senate.
This pattern of seemingly contradictory moves that are in fact intended to be complementary and to undergird rather than undermine Kazakhstan’s sovereignty has been played out in recent months. On the one hand, President Nazarbayev signed papers committing the country to join Vladimir Putin’s Eurasian Economic Union at its opening on January 1, 2015. Defending this move, again at Moscow University, Nazarbayev stated that “...some experts and politicians scare the world community with talk of a mythical ‘reincarnation’ of the Soviet Union. I believe that arguments in this regard are ... baseless.” As if seeking to underscore Nazarbayev’s argument, by October 2014, Kazakhstan was signing a new “partnership and cooperation” pact with its biggest trading partner, the European Union.
Meanwhile, beginning with Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008, and extending through Putin’s unsuccessful effort to gain a military base in the Kyrgyz sector of the Ferghana Valley, there were disturbing indications that Putin and Nazarbayev were not on the same page. These culminated in the spring and summer of 2014 with Russia’s conquest of Crimea and its proxy war in Ukraine. On August 14, speaking at the summer camp at Lake Seliger, Putin declared bluntly (while praising Nazarbayev) that “the Kazakhs never had statehood,” and that most Kazakhs “want to be part of the big Russian world.” The clear implication was that Kazakhstan’s independent statehood could not and would not survive President Nazarbayev. A number of even more grossly inflammatory statements were made at the same time by prominent Russian politicians, including Almaty-born Vladimir Zhirinovsky.
How can Kazakhstan – and by implication, other Central Asian states feeling similar pressures – deal with this? Astana has faced a choice of abandoning, qualifying, or reaffirming the notion of balance. It has clearly chosen reaffirmation.
Even though it may not have had an alternative to joining the Eurasian Union, Kazakhstan proposed nonetheless to reaffirm and preserve its principle of a balanced foreign policy by simultaneously strengthening its ties with its other three partners, China, Europe and the U.S..
In practice, this policy had always been mainly political, and had barely been extended into either the economic or security realms. By reaffirming it in the summer of 2014, Kazakhstan in effect announced that it intends to broaden it to include these critically important spheres. Indeed, it is clear that anything short of this would have the effect of weakening Kazakhstan’s sovereignty and self-determination.
IMPLICATIONS: Kazakhstan’s bold yet utterly rational strategy remains, for the time being, a statement of aspiration rather than a concrete reality. Beyond doubt, its cooperation pact with the EU is a first victory for this approach, as is the web of agreements and investments that today link China and Kazakhstan. Yet the reality is that the EU agreement deals mainly with economics, touches on governance only in the sensitive area of democratization, and pertains not at all to security. The Chinese relationship, by contrast, is heavy on economics, light on security, and nonexistent in the political sphere.
Kazakhstan’s reaffirmed and expanded strategy implies that it must somehow engage Europe more actively in the security sphere and China more actively in the political sphere, and also security. Stated in the converse, if China, the EU and the U.S. do not step up and deepen their links with Kazakhstan in the areas identified above, they will face the reality of a geopolitically strengthened Russia and a Kazakhstan that aspires to sovereignty and self-government under the new regional realities but lacks the international support necessary for their maintenance on a sustained basis.
How, then, does this affect the future of U.S.-Kazakhstan relations? The central reality, pointed out by the recent publication Looking Forward: Kazakhstan and the United States, is that Kazakhstan nurtures expanded expectations of the U.S. in the economic and security spheres at the very time when the U.S. appears to many to be disengaging from Central Asia as part of its shift away from Afghanistan in favor of East Asia. The authors qualify this oft-heard claim, offering evidence of continuing engagement and even deepening engagement in some areas. Yet in the end they find much evidence of U.S. disengagement or, more precisely, of continuing engagement that is vitiated by the absence of any clear, long-term, and firm strategic underpinnings.
Looking Forward concludes with a series of recommendations for both Kazakhstan and the US. These steps, in the spheres of economics, politics, and security, are not financially onerous for either party but cannot be advanced by either side without reciprocal steps from the other. Such measures include the abolition of the Jackson-Vanick Amendment, the opening of U.S. markets to key Kazakh products, the removal of existing impediments to American investments beyond the energy sector; a willingness of the U.S. to advance its concern for democratization, human rights, and religious freedom by working with Kazakhstan rather than on it; a willingness by Kazakhstan to work out practical solutions in these areas; and the expansion of military-to-military ties. Finally, the authors from both countries believe that a presidential visit to Kazakhstan and the region is an essential response to those fearing a U.S. withdrawal.
In setting forth these proposals, the experts from Kazakhstan and the U.S. agreed that both countries should nest their bi-lateral relationship in a regional approach. This means that Kazakhstan must strengthen its links with its Central Asian neighbors and the U.S. should avoid treating Central Asia as a series of differentiated bilateral relationships. Both countries, and their neighbors as well, have an interest in stabilizing and developing Afghanistan, and both can together set a useful example by undertaking practical, private sector initiatives in Afghanistan and 2014.
CONCLUSIONS: Elements of this analysis have been set forth by others (see the 03/20/2013 and 11/27/2013 issues of the CACI Analyst). Its implications are sobering. If Kazakhstan’s approach is vindicated, it will strengthen the entire region, and in a manner compatible with the legitimate concerns of all neighbors, including Russia. If it is not vindicated in practice, the U.S. must be prepared to face a situation in which what is today Central Asia’s most successful economy is hampered and destabilized by eroding sovereignty, a process that is bound to spread to the region as a whole. Any realistic approach by the U.S. must be mindful not only of the potential gains of action along the lines set forth above, but of the potential losses and heightened instability if such actions are not taken.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Dr. S. Frederick Starr is Chairman of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center.
(Image Attribution: European External Action Service, via Flickr, CC 2.0)