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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

Shanghai Cooperation Organization Summit and Later Developments: The Politics Analyzed

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The summit’s mood was a somber one, toned down by Ukraine war, mounting global economic and environmental crises.

Important developments are:

  1. Strengthening Economic Ties

New initiatives planned to develop economic and transport corridors, tourism and services trade and expansion of the Belt and Road Initiative. Trade within SCO grew 12 percent annually. China aims $2.3 trillion trade with SCO within next 5 years.

Today, China and Russia conducted $140 billion in trade, which will reach around $200 billion by yearend. India also increased purchases of Russian oil, coal, and fertilizer and became one of its largest fuel customers since the Ukraine invasion.

Pakistan plans to import Russian gas and Putin offered building a pipeline to supply it. Pakistan desperately needs Russian gas because of its energy crisis.

Meanwhile, economic developments in Central Asian resulting from Russian and Chinese investments have exceeding $61 billion.

  •  Strengthening Collective Security Mechanisms

There has been some success in collective security cooperation. The Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure is functioning, and several new independent security mechanisms planned.

China and Russia had steadily built economic and strategic ties. Russia plans further strengthening them.

  • Expansion of the SCO

Iran has now become SCO’s ninth member. Belarus seeks full membership. Egypt, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia will become dialogue partners. Turkey’s received observer status. Eight countries are expected to become members.

5. Voice of Developing Nations

Joint statement on climate change called for balance between reducing carbon emissions and allowing poorer states to catch up with developed countries. SCO called for a balanced approach between emissions reduction and development.

  • Divisions within the SCO

Summit was expected to provide chance for Russia and China to make a case for new world order. However, the war sowed divisions, as no government favored Putin’s actions. Clinched in confrontation with the West, Putin denied isolation, but the summit proved otherwise.

Given the war, some Central Asian leaders worry about Russian behavior. Kazakhstan and Pakistan refuse to toe Moscow’s line. Kazakhstan has aided Ukraine. China’s refusal to condemn Russia has caused unease among some countries, hindering efforts building regional ties. Also complicating picture is India, which like China had not outrightly condemned Russia, nor participated in Western sanctions on it. India has strong military ties with Russia but is changing tone. Both China and India have mildly criticized Russia. On September 21 Putin raised the threat of nuclear response in the war and ordered reservists mobilization. He was widely condemned. America said threats were nothing new. So far, Putin seems undaunted by criticism.

Economic cooperation between China and Russia likely to grow being mutually beneficial. However, China trying to stay out of Ukraine mess and its danger. While Putin’s war has yet to spread beyond Ukraine, it could trigger larger war between Russia and NATO. Therefore, China has wisely urged Russia to de-escalate and called for a cease-fire. China continues balancing positions as the goal of Xi’s foreign policy is to put country first.

Since Biden supports India as permanent member of UNSC, it will also call Russia not to escalate conflict. Earlier, India had repeatedly called for diplomacy. Modi’s recent criticism of Russia is setback for Putin as war drives a wedge in relations.

  • Failures

Firstly, Modi did not meet Xi. The two have not met since the border conflict more than two years ago. Delhi is wary of Beijing’s growing regional influence, especially in Pakistan.

Also, the leaders of rivals Pakistan and India did not meet.

Two failed opportunities.

Secondly, the summit failed to take any meaningful action on the current global food and energy crisis linked to the war. Resultantly, the regional food supply may face even bigger challenges in the future.

Thirdly, region requires massive investment in climate resilience development. Though requested by Pakistan, climate action framework not discussed.

Fourthly, China and Russia failed committing needed financing of institutions because of their own economic weaknesses.

Fifthly, Russia’s Ukraine actions not condemned by members. Only Turkey’s President Erdogan urged Putin to return occupied territory to Ukraine.

Sixthly, there was leadership failure. For Putin, the summit was a chance to show that Russia was not isolated. For Xi it was an opportunity to shore up credentials as global political leader. Both failed.

Lastly, summit did not focus on regional challenges: war in Ukraine; rippling impact of rising regional food prices; energy crisis roiling economies; and climate emergency in Pakistan.

Today, SCO is not suitable for China to push any world order. As a multilateral organization, it is much weaker than EU or ASEAN. Fortification of SCO remains daunting challenge.

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Central Asia

Kyrgyz-Tajik Conflict: Small States Becoming Victim In Games Of The Great Powers

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Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan sign protocol on regulation of armed conflict in border areas. Photo: © AKIpress News Agency

The Military conflict on September 14th 2022, on the border of two post-soviet countries- Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan took lives of more than 90 people from both sides. “The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Kyrgyzstan considers that the events which took place on September 14-17, 2022 necessary to state as a pre-planned armed act of aggression by Tajikistan against the sovereign state Kyrgyzstan. As a result of the inhuman actions of the Tajik side 59 citizens of Kyrgyzstan were killed and 140 were injured, about 140,000 people were forced to evacuate. But the Tajik officials and mass media actively accusing Kyrgyzstan of aggression and violation of non-attack agreements. Both sides blame each other for the outbreak of violence. As the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Kyrgyzstan declared that the information of the Ministry of Foreign affairs and other authorities of Tajikistan did not correspond to reality. The Kyrgyz side has all the evidences (photo and video materials) that recorded the beginning of the aggression, as well as all the crimes committed by the Tajik military on the territory of Kyrgyzstan. If necessary, the Kyrgyz side is ready to provide this evidence.

Main Reasons.

The Kyrgyz-Tajik border 950 kilometers long. At the moment, Bishkek and Dushanbe have recognized only 520 kilometers of a common border, the rest of the sections since the collapse of the USSR are considered controversial and run along villages and roads.

The conflict has many aspects: here are territorial disputes, competition for the possession of water resources, and inter-ethnic problems. It is also associated with activities on the border of criminal structures, with smuggling, with drug trafficking. Radical religious organizations may also be involved in it. Therefore, all relations in the conflict zone between the Kyrgyz and Tajik sides are extremely aggravated. And the reason for the next clashes can be anything, any petty domestic situation.

In spring 2021 a similar bloody conflict took place on the border of two republics. As it turned out later, this escalation had domestic reasons. It was provoked by a dispute over the sharing of a water distribution point located between Kyrgyz and Tajik villages, which ended with a fight afterwards by killing each other by weapons. The state border between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan is 950 kilometers, and 520 km of it has not yet passed the demarcation procedures. Despite that the Central Asian states gained independence more than thirty years ago.

The reasons of the latest invasion of Tajikistan to the territory of Kyrgyzstan still not clear. What could be the reason of breaking the Agreement of non invasion? Why it started the same day of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization Summit? Why its happening after the Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict? Why Post-Soviet countries are in war with each other? Scholars and some officials have various assumptions about the latest bloody clash. “There are provocateurs and third forces.” – says the head of the government of Kyrgyzstan Akylbek Zhaparov.

The military conflict started the same date of the summit of the SCO in Samarkand. On September 14, the governments of China, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan signed a long-anticipated  agreement to push ahead with construction of a railroad linking these countries that will  establish a shorter route to Europe bypassing sanctions-hit Russia. So according to some Kyrgyz officials the clashes on Tajik and Kyrgyz borders started after the signing of the agreement about the construction of the railway-plausibly as a warning about the discontent of Russia, which throughout the history of the Central Asian countries has tried to make the region as economically dependent as possible. Moreover the President of Tadjikistan Emomali Rahmon wouldn’t invade into territory of Kyrgyzstan without Putin’s support.

If the first group of people considering that two countries are in this battle because of Russian tactics, the second group of people like the Deputy of the State Duma of the Russian Federation Alexei Chepa noting that the cause of this conflict lies not only in unresolved disputes between the two countries. They suppose the external forces, primarily enemies of Russia, have decided to take advantage of the situation and create conflicts in the region. As they use the internal problems of Tajikistan and the conflict situation with Afghanistan, where the United States left a huge amount of weapons and a certain contingent of troops. And all this are aimed at using conflicts to further discredit Russia. We see this in the example of conflicts arising in Kazakhstan, Armenia and Azerbaijan and in some countries of the Caucasus.

This conflict would repeatedly escalate and next time would lead more death of civilians until the demarcation and delimitation of Kyrgyz-Tajik borders process would be finished and signed. This kind of military battles can lead to the unleashing of a large-scale interstate conflict, as well as to the destabilization of the situation in the Central Asian region as well.

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Shanghai Cooperation Organization: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

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On September 15 and 16, 2022, the extended format of participants of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) are scheduled to meet in Samarkand, the ancient Silk Road Karavansarai in Uzbekistan. SCO —founded in 2001— is the first international organization founded by Beijing. It started as the Shanghai Five with the task of demarcating borders between China and its Central Asian neighbors: Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz Republic, Russia, and Tajikistan, following the breakup of the Soviet Union. The meeting in Samarkand marks the 21st Head of State summit of this organization, which is growing in international importance. All Heads of member states have confirmed their attendance.

SCO came to the attention of Washington policy makers, when Vladimir Putin used it as a vehicle to set a timeline on U.S. bases in Central Asia there to support operations in Afghanistan. Through direct engagement of President Bush with Chinese President Hu Jintao, this deadline was not repeated in the communique of the following year. This demonstrated Beijing’s unwillingness to have an open rift with Washington and made clear China’s leadership of the organization. Beijing’s interest in preventing anti-American statements has changed in the last 17 years. With the return of Great Power Competition in the Washington-Beijing relationship, who leads the SCO and what is on its agenda should be of considerable interest in Washington.

The SCO is no longer just a talk-shop between Russia and China with its Central Asian neighbors, but is now expanding to the Gulf, South Asia, South East Asia, and the Caucasus. The expanded membership of the SCO makes up 24% of the global GDP, more than half that of the G7 and more than that of the European Union in 2020. SCO’s expanded participant list accounts for 44% of the global population.

If those seeking membership status at the upcoming meeting in Samarkand achieve their goal, the SCO will include in its ranks: Azerbaijan and Armenia who recently fought a war in Nagorno-Karabakh; Saudi Arabia and Iran, competitors over the direction of the Gulf; and current members India and Pakistan, historic adversaries. Afghanistan and Mongolia are currently observer states in the organization. Partner countries of the organization are Azerbaijan, Armenia, Cambodia, Nepal, Turkey, and Sri Lanka. The status of dialogue partner state will likely be granted to Egypt, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia in September. Bahrain and Maldives are next in line for the latter status.

In 2005, the US had an opportunity to pursue observer status with the SCO. Those who supported it, saw it as opportunity for the US to shape this organization and for Afghanistan to reconnect with its neighbors with American support. Others thought our being an observer of the SCO would lend legitimacy to this nascent organization. Yet, overtime, flaws in the latter stance surfaced and was repeated by the Obama Administration’s failed attempt to isolate China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.

In a vote on April 7 for the suspension of Russia’s membership in the UN Human Rights Council, Turkey was the only participant in the expanded SCO out of 18 countries that voted in favor of the resolution. Of the member states, all voted against the resolution, with India and Pakistan abstaining.

For members of the SCO, energy highlights their importance on the global stage and is a tool used in their foreign policy. Following the 2022 summit, SCO states, including Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iran, among others, will account for over half of the world’s oil production annually.

Until 2020, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization played a largely regional role for China, the heart of which was Central Asia. Initially reluctant, the recent rapid expansion of the SCO shows that China realigned the organization from a regional one, to one capable of implementing its global ambitions.

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization gained greater significance with the outbreak of hostilities in Ukraine, where an economically weaker Russia can turn to China, a partner with no limits and its leadership over the SCO.

At the 2022 Boao Forum, President Xi restated the goal of the 2021 SCO Dushanbe Declaration, where he articulated a world order not directed by the West. At this same summit, SCO members approved Iran’s membership despite international sanctions after a 15 year waiting period. Xi articulated in a flourish, calling it a community of a common destiny of mankind.

This has echoes of Chairman Mao’s vision of world relations, dating back to the 1970s. In meetings with Dr. Kissinger, Mao posited that imperialism and hegemony violate the world order. Instead, China should expand into what is now known as the Global South, including countries in the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and Central Asia. China’s mission lives on and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization is becoming its vehicle.

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