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30 years of Nazarbayev’s foreign policy: What Kazakhstan can teach the world in the new era

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The COVID-19 pandemic has completely shaken the very foundations of the world order that we were all accustomed to. The world is entering a qualitatively new stage of development, which is characterized by increased conflicts and intense competition in international relations.

Over the past months, we have seen how the relations between the two largest powers in the world, the United States and China, have dramatically escalated.

The aftershocks of the coronavirus crisis are felt in almost all regions of the world, especially in the so-called “transit zones”, where the interests of key players intersect. The South China Sea, the Korean Peninsula, the Taiwan Strait – this is the incomplete list of tension points, which can violate global stability at any moment.

Against this backdrop, Kazakhstan looks like a kind of “positive anomaly” – a post-Soviet state with rich natural resources, the world’s ninth largest country by area, and located in the very geographical center of Eurasia. Despite the extremely unfavorable geopolitical context and its own position at the junction of the interests of global players, Kazakhstan, to this day, confidently maintains both domestic political stability and constructive relations with all the main actors of the global game.

The case of Kazakhstan is of particular interest since historically the region of Central Asia, located at the intersection of Europe and Asia, has been a hostage to the Great Game between world powers. The strategically important geographical location, rich natural resources practically doom the region to the inevitable fate of being “geopolitically torn” between the interests of world powers.

However, Kazakhstan, which shares one of the longest land borders with two world powers, Russia and China, manages to masterfully manoeuvre in the dark waters of world politics.

In the current geopolitical situation, Kazakhstan’s external positioning is of particular interest to many countries that have faced the problem of worsening geopolitical conditions amid growing new global bipolarity.

The Kazakh “success story” is based on the foreign policy strategy of Nursultan Nazarbayev, the First President of the country, which gained independence in 1991. Nazarbayev, like Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore, is the de facto architect of modern Kazakhstan. He ruled the country for almost 30 years, and voluntarily resigned in 2019. Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, Nazarbayev’s successor and the former Deputy Secretary General of the United Nations, won the national elections in 2019, and continued the line of his predecessor.

I would like to briefly outline several key components of this strategy.

The first one is a system of “hedging” foreign policy risks through the balanced development of external relations in all strategic areas. This strategy is based on the “multi-vector” principle, which has doctrinal significance for Kazakhstani diplomacy.

Obviously, Kazakhstan’s multi-vector foreign policy is not a unique case, because a number of other post-Soviet governments de facto apply this principle too. However, what distinguishes Kazakhstan is a combination of consistency and flexibility in the implementation of this principle.

The basis of this approach is not “unscrupulousness” but reasonable pragmatism and the desire “not to put all eggs in one basket”. For Kazakhstan, the “multi-vector” principle has a cross-cutting nature, penetrating almost all spheres of its international cooperation.

One example is the sphere of security, the area of crucial interest for the Central Asian region.

Of course, many observers, who monitor the processes in the region, may note that Kazakhstan remains under Moscow’s ‘umbrella’ in the security sphere.

However, to understand the full picture, it is necessary to take into account the whole system of partnerships that Kazakhstan has built over the past years. It is impossible not to mention the Shanghai Cooperation Organization(SCO). Today, it is represented not only by China, but also by another Asian nuclear giant – India, which joined the organization in 2017 along with Pakistan.

Kazakhstan is also an active participant in the NATO Partnership for Peace program, and maintains close cooperation with the United States, which, despite irritation in Moscow and Beijing, plays an important stabilizing role in the region from the point of view of Kazakhstan’s interests

On top of this, Nazarbayev sought to expand the orbit of his interests, intentionally associating himself with a broader international agenda. So, in the Asian direction, Kazakhstan initiated the creation of the CICA (Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building measures in Asia)- the only international platform providing a stable dialogue on security issues in Asia as a whole. Through chairmanship in the OSCE in 2010, Kazakhstan was able to identify its presence in the European security architecture too.

The second aspect of the Kazakhstani path is the principle of economic pragmatism, which was the main criteria for all strategic decisions made by Nursultan Nazarbayev.“Economy first, then politics”, the catchy phrase coined by Nazarbayev, is the quintessence of this approach.

This message has been intended not only to block political radicalism within the country, but also in the external arena, in relations with strategic partners.

A typical example is the position of Kazakhstan in the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), where Kazakhstan invariably emphasizes the purely economic nature of this organization. Of course, Russia aims to create a deeper form of political integration, but it was Nazarbayev’s principled position in favor of economic pragmatism that blocked all attempts to politicize the union.

Another case is Turkic integration, which is often regarded by external observers exclusively from the perspective of issues of pan-Turkic identity and “big politics” in the region.

The “Astana process” on Syria, as well Nazarbayev’s successful mission to reconcile Putin with Erdogan in 2016became possible in particular because of special relations with Turkey. In the latter case, Nazarbayev’s personal trusting relationship with both leaders played a special role: as a result, the tensions between Moscow and Ankara were resolved in the spirit of classical old diplomacy, transmitting the letter from hand to hand.

The third point that deserves attention is related to Nazarbayev’s anti-crisis diplomacy, thanks to which Kazakhstan was able to avoid the risk of being drawn into contradictions between world powers.

The Russian-Georgian conflict of August 2008 became a certain test for the multi-vector policy of the country. Refusing to openly accuse the Kremlin at the start of the conflict, Nazarbayev, at the same time, was able to withstand the pressure from Moscow to recognize South Ossetia’s independence. Then, the Kazakh side actively supported the resolution calling “for preserving the territorial integrity of states.” at the SCO summit.

However, a more significant “balancing” step was the decision of Kazakhstan to begin exporting oil to the West through the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline in the fall of the same year, which was aimed at partially reducing the dependence on the transport and communication systems of Russia.

The Kazakhstani experience shows the importance of proactive actions in moments of international crisis, when the country does not try to “sit out and wait” for the end of the conflict, but seeks to independently create favorable external conditions.

For example, against the backdrop of aggravation in relations between the West and Russia, as well as deepening contradictions between the US and China, Kazakhstan has created the Astana International Financial Center (AIFC), operating under the norms and principles of English common law.

Kazakhstan’s strategic calculation, not to a small degree, boils down to the fact that Western capital, which has become a hostage to geopolitical friction, can receive a strategic springboard for entering the Russian and Chinese markets through the AIFC.

This approach perfectly demonstrates Kazakhstan’s ability to skillfully integrate itself into the dynamics of relations between different poles of power, effectively capitalizing its competitive advantages as a transit zone.

Finally, the fourth component of the “Kazakhstani recipe” is bonded with Nazarbayev’s systematic efforts to integrate Kazakhstan’s foreign policy initiatives into the very center of international politics. In addition to the image dividends, this policy pursues a number of specific tasks, such as preventing a peripheralization of Kazakhstan, as well as the Central Asian region in the international arena.

One of the most important steps in this direction was the unilateral rejection of nuclear weapons arsenal by Kazakhstan at the very dawn of its independence. It should be mentioned that back then Kazakhstan possessed the 4th largest nuclear capability in the world, which was more than what China, the UK, and France had combined.

Voluntary rejection of WMD initiated by Nazarbayev himself, first of all, was the strongest political move. This immediately served to increase the country’s credibility in the West and among the international community in general.

Besides, the abandonment of nuclear potential has also brought quite tangible dividends. Since 1991, Kazakhstan has attracted more than $300 billion of foreign direct investment, accounting for 75% of all investments in Central Asia as a whole.

Another classic example is Nazarbayev’s initiative to create “Greater Eurasia”, based on the unification of the Eurasian Economic Union, the Silk Road Economic Belt, and the European Union into a single mega-project (announced at the 70th session of the UN General Assembly in 2015).

The idea of Greater Eurasia is exactly where the emerging contours of a fundamentally new, non-bloc policy for the future world can be spotted. The stability of the new architecture will be reliably ensured, first of all, by the deep and objective interdependence of the interests for all players.

In such a world, along with the great powers, a significant role will be played by the active position of small and medium-sized countries, which constitute the absolute majority of the modern world. Its architecture will be based on the principle of “indivisibility of security”, first voiced in the framework of the CICA.

In a word, for small or medium-sized countries, proactive politics is now the best way to stay “afloat”, which makes it possible not to become a passive hostage of a steadily escalating rivalry between major powers.

In a wider context, we have every reason to believe that Kazakhstan’s peacekeeping potential is far from being exhausted. This potential is based on the already accumulated political baggage of trusting relationships with various centers of power.

It should be remembered that the capital of Kazakhstan has already played the role of a mediating platform, thanks to which an agreement on the Iranian nuclear program was reached.

Furthermore, a new format for meetings of political and business elites in the capital of Kazakhstan – Astana club – was launched on the initiative of Nazarbayev. This is a unique forum where the most influential representatives of the USA, Russia, China, Iran, Turkey, and 30 other, mainly Eurasian, countries gather at the same table.

In the near future, the “Asian Vienna” might be of considerable interest, first of all, for resolving contradictions along the USA-Russia, USA-China, USA-Iran lines. It should be emphasized that in all three cases we are talking not only about a conflict of interests, but also about the deep-rooted distrust between the parties. And this is the main aspect, in which Nazarbayev himself and Kazakhstan’s diplomatic and mediating experience may turn out to be very valuable assets, worthy of being examined more closely.

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Central Asia

Greater Eurasia: New Great Game formulate abundant possibilities for Central Asia

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The title “New Great Game” became the most conversed topic in the contemporary realm of global politics. The heart of the Eurasian continent, the Central Asian region, already witnessed a colonial battle between Russian and Britain. The position of Geopolitical status more fueled up the conflict. The Great Game furnished an unpleasant impact on the entire Central Asian region; it grasps by the Russian empire. Russia’s century-long predominance over the Central Asia region concluded with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. However, it nevertheless has a massive impact over the countries of Central Asian states Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan. Following centuries, they were preceding reappeared different New Grete Game, where the foremost global power countries have engaged. The internal scenario of central Asian states is struggling over hegemonic power. Subsequently, the central Asian nations are well equipped with natural resources like oil, gas like Kazakhstan’s largest uranium producer, that attracts all major countries to penetrate in Central Asia.

The New Great Game impacted both as constraint and opportunity in Central Asia. The central Asian states are adopted the multi-vector approach to the foreign policy due to landlocked country. So, the developed countries are offered various development schemes in the region. Currently, three major powers are Russia, US and China compete with each other to become a prominent player in Central Asia. Every nation is looking for their interest through the region. Nowadays, Washington mostly engaged in the New Great Game, after the US entered in Afghanistan, and it required Central Asian states cooperation to expand the authority of NATO in Eurasian land. Although, following the attack on 9/11, the US mostly keep eyes on terrorism activities and central Asian states are becoming significant for security purpose. Moscow always indeed to the presence in Central Asian internal politics and seems to maintain its status quo. Russia always considered the Central Asian states as his campaign, with the significant military, economic and political influence. Moscow consistently rated Central Asian nations as “soft underbelly”. Russian culture, music, food highly incorporated with Central Asian states, but Moscow seems fallen the economic competition with Beijing. China is somewhat successful in pushing Russian influence in Central Asia.

China expands its control over in the pecuniary sector, Dragon becoming larger trade partner and investor in that region. China’s visionary project ‘Belt and Road initiative’ and China’s strategy to influence and grow its economic power over the Eurasian continent required Central Asian states linear involvement. China shared more than 3000 k.m of the direct border with CA, this is an opportunity for China to enhance its strength and became more dominant rather than other countries. Central Asia is a crucial component in the Geopolitical puzzle. The abundant of natural resource in CA is the primary purpose behind for more intense of New Great Game. The Caspian Sea contains a large amount of natural resource. The superpower countries followed up the pathway of the dependency model, and they create opportunity with precisely inside their acquisition. The new Great Game change the notion of Geopolitics on a broader level. China is steadily expanding its influence over the Eurasian mainland with hegemonic expansion over the south china sea. There is an appearance of another cold war (economic domain) between China and the US; both countries headed for intense competition for global supremacy. That’s why central Asia states played an essential function to determine immense superiority over the Eurasian landmass. All these countries participated in New Great Game implemented the soft power and made an effort to pull Central Asian nations through proffering opportunities. The central Asian States compensated relishes the possibility, although faced reluctance from significant players.  The potential development of the Central Asian Region endures the growth of the Eurasian continent.

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Territorial Disputes in Central Asia: Myths and Reality

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One of the focal points of any state foreign policy is the issue of territorial disputes, irrespective of its geographical size, economic opportunities or geopolitical ambitions. At the same time, in the modern world, the scenario of the use of force as a possible option for China to resolve territorial disputes in Central Asia is hardly probable. None of the parties, including neighboring countries, are interested in intensifying territorial claims and initiating a real conflict. Despite the apparent advantages, a guaranteed response from the international community jeopardizes all benefits for the potential aggressor (for example, Beijing) from possible territorial acquisitions. In addition, the system of control and monitoring has been formed in the region with the direct participation of Russia. The guarantors of the system are, in particular, the SCO and the CSTO; the latter one has a sufficiently deterrent effect on the capacity of regional players to demonstrate invasive intentions.

Meanwhile, the international community developed a civilized way to resolve territorial disputes through diplomatic means such as long-term leasing of land, the creation of joint jurisdictions, etc. China has experience of transferring territories, for example, the 99-year lease of Hong Kong by the United Kingdom or the recognition of Macao as “Chinese territory under Portuguese administration” followed by the signing of the joint Declaration on the question of Macao. Since China became a successful economic power, Beijing has preferred to resolve territorial disputes through diplomatic instruments, rather than from a position of strength.

It should be pointed out that implementing its Belt and Road Initiative, China has never presented it as a charity project. Moreover, the initial goal was the development of the Central and Western regions of China. All foreign countries participating in the initiative expressed their desire to join it on the terms of mutually beneficial development. By accepting China’s offers and agreeing to its loans and investment projects, any of the countries had the opportunity to assess the risks and not participate in them, or to make a choice and develop their own economy on the terms of other financial institutions, such as Western ones. In this case, China acts in the Central Asian region like most major powers interested in strengthening their positions and promoting their political, economic and humanitarian agenda.

Possible allegations of Beijing concluding economic contracts on bonded terms should also be addressed to officials of the “affected” countries who agreed to these proposals from the Chinese side. At the same time, if it appears that one of the parties has not acted in its national interests, this is more a problem of the internal state structure of a particular country and its attitude to the work of its own officials, and to a much lesser extent – a claim to the development of bilateral relations with China.

It is also necessary to distinguish the official position of the state from the statements of individuals who often act in their own interests. For example, an article with the title “Why Kazakhstan seeks to return to China,” which is given as an example in the publication “Land leases and territorial claims of China in Central Asia and the South Caucasus,” was written by an anonymous blogger with just over 80 thousand subscribers (insignificant number according to the Chinese standards). An analysis of how the news was spread geographically by international media, as well as the contents of official statements, confirms the opinion of experts-sinologists that it was an attempt to gain popularity and “collect likes,” and has nothing in common with the official position of Beijing.

Another example of using the foreign policy agenda in the internal political struggle is the statement of the leader of the opposition party of Tajikistan, R. Zoirov, who accused China of moving the borderline 20 kilometers deeper into the territory of Tajikistan.

On the eve of the presidential elections in 2013, Tajikistan’s opposition once again tried to “accuse authorities of surrendering land to China” in the framework of the 2002 border demarcation agreement. China claimed 28 thousand square kilometers of Tajikistan’s territory, but as a result of the negotiations, it received just over 1 thousand square kilometers of high-altitude land unsuitable for life, without proven volumes of large deposits. The results of negotiations can be evaluated in different ways, but each country has the right to seek convenient forms of dispute resolution and debt repayment. In addition, this agreement was ratified by the government of Tajikistan only in 2011. The official representative of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Tajikistan described the statement of the opposition as a provocation, due to the fact that the author acts in his own interest. Later, it was revealed that Zoirov’s statement refers to 2011 and was “made two years ago and published just now.” According to R. Zoirov, he determined the distance to the border based on the statements of local residents. The official authorities of Tajikistan, China, Russia and other regional powers ignored information about China’s occupation of Tajikistan’s territory as unreliable.

Recognizing the high public sensitivity of transferring land from one state to repay credit obligations to another, it is necessary to proceed from the analysis of the contents of specific international agreements, the motives for signing them by current authorities, and the national interests of the parties involved. Otherwise, one is likely to discover a distorted interpretation of key events in line with the populist rhetoric of an unknown blogger or to be the recipient of information propaganda carried out by major powers competing for regional influence.

From our partner RIAC

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From Central Asia to the Black Sea

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(Source: mift.uz)

In early June, China unveiled a new transportation corridor when a rail cargo of 230 tons of electrical appliances worth some $2,6 million arrived in the Uzbek capital of Tashkent. Though distant from the South Caucasus, the development nevertheless has a direct impact on the geopolitics of the South Caucasus energy and transport corridor.

For centuries, Central Asia has been notorious for the lack of connectivity. Highways, railroads and pipelines were solely directed northwards towards Russian heartland. Geography also constrained the development of alternatives, but the problem is that other routes were also purposefully neglected during the Soviet times. Therefore, nowadays breaking these geographical boundaries equals to decreasing Russian influence in Central Asia.

Indeed, over the past 30 years, crucial changes have taken place where newly developed east-west transport links (from China to Central Asia, then South Caucasus) allow the region to be more integrated with the outside world. The primary motivator for this is China. The country strives to involve itself into the region’s economics and politics and, specifically, build ties with arguably the region’s most important geopolitical player – Uzbekistan. Beijing has already taken several important steps. For instance, China has become Uzbekistan’s top economic partner through growing trade and direct investment. Take the most recent example, Beijing-backed Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) will lend $100 million to Uzbekistan to help deal with the coronavirus pandemic and future public health disasters.

The new China-Uzbekistan corridor is some 295 km shorter and cuts five days off the standard 15 days-corridor which goes through Kazakhstan and Russia to reach Europe. As different forecasts indicate, the Kazakhstan-Russia corridor could lose some 10-15% of Chinese freight per year to the new China-Uzbekistan route – a significant number considering the massive amount of goods that move between between Europe and China.

What is crucial here is that the only viable route to ship freight to Europe from Uzbekistan is across the Caspian to Azerbaijan, Georgia and the Black Sea. Another possibility would be sending goods via the Turkmenistan and Afghanistan, then Iran and Turkey. However general insecurity along this route makes the Caspian option more promising.

These infrastructure changes in distant Central Asia as well as steady growth of shipments from China will further boost the fragile South Caucasus transport and energy corridor, which struggles to compete with enormous trade routes which go through Russia and elsewhere.

What makes the Caspian routes more interesting is the progress made in port development in Azerbaijan and Georgia. The ports of Baku and a small city of Alat have notably improved their infrastructure over the past several years. Located to the south of Baku, Alat is particularly promising as an estimated transshipment of the new port complex is potentially up to 25 million tons of cargo and 1 million TEU per year.

Similar trends of improving infrastructure take place along the rest of the South Caucasus corridor. In March, the Georgian government granted the APM Terminals a permit to start the expansion of Potin port. Essentially the project, which will add more than 1000 local jobs, involves the construction of a separate new deep-water multifunctional port (officially still a part of Poti port).

The project consists of two major phases: first stage of $250 million will take nearly 2-2,5 years to complete and will involve the development of a 1 700-meter-long breakwater and a quay with a depth of 13.5 meters. A 400-meter-long multifunctional quay for processing dry bulk cargo and further 150 000 TEUs will be added; the second stage envisages a 300-meter-long container quay. If all goes as planned, 1 million TEU yearly container capacity could be expected. What is more important for the infrastructure of the eastern Black Sea region and the geopolitics of transcontinental transshipment, the expanded Poti port would have the capacity to receive Panamax vessels.

Expansion of Poti will have regional implications. The port already enjoys the role of the largest gateway in the country and a major outlet for Azerbaijan’s and Armenia’s trade with Europe. For instance, liquids, passenger ferries, dry bulk and container traffic go through Poti. Moreover, Poti port also serves as an alternative route for exporting wheat from Central Asia to the Black Sea and elsewhere.

As the work on the Poti expansion speeds up similar developments are taking place in Batumi. In 2019 Wondernet Express, Trammo and the government of Georgia announced plans to build a new terminal with total investment cap of 17,5 million euros. More importantly, the new facility will store up to 60 000 tons of mineral fertilizers coming from Central Asia through Azerbaijan.

From a wider geopolitical perspective, both port expansions enjoy US government support as American business interests are deeply intertwined. PACE terminals, a company which operates in the port of Poti for almost 30 years, is partially owned by a US-based company. This connection raises a possible longer-term vision of Poti’s and Batumi’s development as gateways not only for Georgia, but generally for the South Caucasus and Central Asia.

Overall, these connectivity trends will reinvigorate Trans-Caspian shipping. Moreover, though considered by many as unrealistic, the dormant Trans-Caspian Pipeline (TCP), could gain traction. There is more to the story. I have mentioned the US support for the Georgian ports. Europe and Turkey share an identical position. All parties are interested in breaking Russia’s grip on gas export routes from Central Asia. Support for the east-west corridor across the South Caucasus has been present since the break-up of the Soviet Union, but rarely there have been such promising trends as there are now: steadily increasing China-Europe shipping; Chinese Belt and Road Initiative’s expansion into Central Asia; gradually improving rail-road and ports infrastructure in Georgia and Azerbaijan.

On a negative side, much still remains to be done. For instance, in Kyrgyzstan, through which the new China-Uzbekistan route goes, Chinese cargo has to be shipped by road which complicates shipment operations. Nearly the entire 400 km of the Kyrgyz section of the railway still needs to be built. So far, no solution is in sight as difficult mountainous landscape and Russian opposition complicate the issue. But the overall picture, nevertheless, is clear. Central Asia is gradually opening up, shipment across the Caspian increases and the expansion of the Georgian ports takes place creating a line of connectivity.

Author’s note: first published in Caucasuswatch

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