Kazakhstan, it seems, has a very clear and coherent idea of what kind of image does it want to project on the international stage and more so, what kind it does not.
After the infamous movie Borat, which once again showed how powerful of a tool branding can be, Kazakhstan was left to a PR disaster, significantly fuelled with the public`s educational deficiency. The unfolding events were interesting because the movie itself was actually targeting the stereotyping and ignorance of (mainly) American audience, but had a different effect, especially in the western countries, for precisely the same reasons. That resulted in a branding fiasco for Kazakhstan, for many were left convinced that there were leaving and breathing Borats all over the place. This was a warning sign for all those countries who did not yet establish a powerful image of themselves in the international community, for these so called unbranded countries always run the risk of not being in full control of their image and reputation (and, as in the case of Borat, someone else can quickly do that for them).
In reality, Kazakhstan has been trying since the early years of independence to introduce the country to the awareness of the global community. Although reluctantly declaring independence from the Soviet Union, it has become vital for the country to differentiate itself from Russia to gain significantly in its soft power repertoire of tools. This process, along with the strategic positioning of the country, gave rise to the well- known Kazakhstan image of being able to balance the interests of many great powers, intersecting in the Central Asia, including Russia, China, US, EU, Turkey and Iran. Thus, Kazakhstan developed the approach of multi- vector foreign policy, enabling the country to fruitfully cooperate with various international players. Many of its sustained efforts on the image building go into the promotion of constructing bridges between the East and the West, which is becoming ever more important in the light of the recent Ukrainian crisis. By positioning itself as the sort of regional mediator, Kazakhstan is asserting that it could be able to some degree defuse the simmering conflict between Kremlin and the West. The process of winning the hearts and minds is especially focused on evading the possibility of Kazakhstan being dragged down by Western sanctions imposed on Russia. The balancing of the powerful interests on the axis East- West is surely not easy, but beneficial for the world striving to break from such black and white divisions.
The country therefore seeks its external legitimization and is pursuing its aim via variety of different avenues. It is already represented in the UN Human Rights Council and has successfully bid for chairmanship of OSCE in 2010. In addition to that, Kazakhstan is bidding for the non- permanent seat in the UN Security Council for 2017 and hoping to host the Winter Olympics in 2022. All these efforts are concerned with presenting a good role model for the former Soviet republics, other countries with similar backgrounds and developing nations in general. The fruits of Kazakhstan multi- vector foreign policy and successful engagement in the international affairs are definitely one of the images Kazakhstan wants to be renowned for.
“Kazakhstan- the honest broker” is therefore surely one of the loudest mantras in the country PR machine. In addition to prolific regional and global involvement, Kazakhstan also has a long track-record of promoting nuclear non- proliferation and supporting peaceful resolutions and dialogue. Last year, Astana co- founded the launch of a Brussels- based think- tank, Eurasian Council of Foreign Affairs and is also preparing for the imminent launch of an official development aid program called KazAID, initially intended to focus on the immediate neighborhood with the help of the UN Development Program.
KazAID does not mark the first time that the country has decided to embark upon providing development aid, but it is the first organized attempt to do so. Kazakhstan has provided millions of dollars worth of medicines, fuel, seeds and other basic supplies for Kyrgyzstan during its political and humanitarian crisis in 2010 and has funded a scholarship program for Afghan students for several years now. The new agency, KazAID, will therefore provide organization and systematization on a higher level for upcoming projects of such nature and align them with the country`s other foreign policy and economic goals. Since Kazakhstan is commonly referred to as the most developed and economically stable nation of the Central Asia and Caucasus it might be, combined with its rising international profile, optimally enabled to provide such help in order to assist in securing a broader regional stability and development.
In addition to widening the regional and global involvement, Kazakhstan Is looking into another tool for introducing the country to the wider population and boost the soft power strength; tourism. The country supposedly intents to invest some 10 billion $ to develop its tourism sector by 2020 and has dropped the strict visa regime to introduce a temporary visa- free regime for 10 selected countries, including United States, Britain, Japan, the U.A.E., Germany, and Malaysia. It has been said that if nothing else, Borat sparked the interest for the country among the travelling souls, putting the country on the map for the go- to places and Kazakhstan has been trying ever since to capitalize on this.
Similar to other Central Asian states, but rather other developing countries of the world, too, Kazakhstan does not rely on its hard power. Its military is focused on regional common security structures and peacekeeping support operations and is domestically under reforms to become capable of handling low- intensity conflicts, therefore establishing smaller, more specialized and more mobile units. Rather, Kazakhstan focuses on achieving external legitimization as a cooperative, developed and reliable actor on the international stage.
Being an authoritarian country on the slow path towards democratization, internal legitimization is a different story than that of external. Like in many other similar regimes, the regime`s success lies in the capability to build a plausible narrative on the outlined development path for the country and consequently gain substantial support from the overall population. For now, the economic growth, substantial FDIs, multi- vector foreign policy, successful regional and international engagement, good neighborhood policy, border delimitation treaties with all neighboring countries as well as the celebration of multinational character of the population, equal rights to different religions and strict prohibition of voicing overly radical views, be it religious or political, have kept the population in consent with the regime, even though the latter has a track record of human rights violations and oppression of democratic values.
Many analysts agree that the current economic crisis, combined with the Western sanctions on Russian economy, could harm the social contract between the people of Kazakhstan and the regime in Astana. Clearly, this reality has not escaped its leadership for there have been many incentives and initiatives to boost the economy that found itself at a standstill. Holding early presidential elections this year was therefore a logical step for the country`s president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, who won yet another term in the office. His victory (although not meeting all the requirements for free and fair elections) has reassured him on his position, immobilize any attempts from outsiders to instrumentalize internal political dissent and strengthen the social trust of the population. Henceforth, everything depends on the regime`s capability to meet the promised ends. Accordingly, Kazakhstan might have to reconsider the strategy of attracting the attention from the international community through costly, big and ambitious events.
Another issues Kazakhstan may have in the future is the fact that much of the approval the country receives for its work and attitude in the international community can be turned into a PR campaign of its leadership. Consequently, it is not the country that gets promoted, but the president. That might not be a step into the right direction, especially since it is largely seen as a diversion from the topics of human rights abuses inside the country, although the recently signed Enhanced Partnership and Cooperation Agreement with the EU brings about hopes for improvement. Or, as Kazakhstan Minister of Foreign Affairs Erlan Idrissov said: “Rare among Eastern countries, Kazakhstan is a secular state that is making progress towards creating our own distinct and culturally attuned democracy. As with all young countries, we may sometimes falter, but I have no doubt that we are on the right road”.