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.