Lord Wharton is a former MP and Minister for International Development. He visited Kazakhstan last December shortly before a wave a protests sparked political reforms in the country.
Kazakhstan has a border with Russia three times longer than Ukraine. It is the longest land border in the world at over 4,500 miles. For many years this country of nomads was effectively a Russian satellite Nursultan Nazarbayev, the former President. Indeed Nazarbayev was President from the time of the fall of the Soviet Union, and Kazakhstan’s subsequent declaration as a sovereign state, until 2019.
However, after the arrival of a new President in 2019, many Western observers believe that the overall political direction of travel in Kazakhstan has been improving incrementally and will continue to do so. Under this new leadership, Kazakhstan is a country to watch.
Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, the current President, is self-evidently not Vladimir Putin’s best friend and has been edging Kazakhstan away from a longstanding and overbearing Russian influence. His approach became even more apparent following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. This new positioning is potentially hugely significant for the West as we witness the apparent dawn of a new age of diplomatic international engagement from Tokayev.
Hearteningly, thus far, we have not seen the allegations of political corruption or scandals that dogged some of the former political elites in Kazakhstan. This may well be because President Tokayev was formerly a well-heeled diplomat with international experience and is fluent in English, Chinese, French, Russian, and Kazakh. He previously served as the head of the Kazakh Foreign Ministry since the independence of Kazakhstan in 1991, and served as Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations.
After Tokayev came to power, Kazakhstan appeared to soften the its strong reliance on ties with Russia and instead began to establish a more balanced foreign policy. The aim of President Tokayev is seemingly to protect his country’s national interests whilst simultaneously developing new mechanisms for regional security.
In so doing, he has proactively pursued enhanced relations with China, Turkey and Europe, thereby striving to create a more balanced relationship between his Northern and Western neighbours. He appears to have been successful in his efforts by seemingly securing guarantees from both China and Turkey regarding the territorial integrity for Kazakhstan.
There appears little doubt that Vladimir Putin has been progressively losing his influence in Central Asia. He now appears to be trying to regain it in the wake of the invasion of Ukraine by exerting diplomatic pressure and overt misinformation and propaganda. The north of Kazakhstan shares many similarities with Crimea, Luhansk, and Donetsk, with many Russian Kazakhs in the north potentially subject to attempted Russian influence.
However, many Kazakhs actually support Ukraine and view Putin’s assault of Ukraine extremely negatively, especially after the countless Russian missile bombardments of Ukrainian cities and civilians. Many in Kazakhstan who previously considered Russia a valued partner, and viewed its influence as relatively benign, are now perhaps beginning to understand the true extent of Russian malevolence.
Kazakhstan’s diplomatic approach has been to try and maintain a careful balance with an increasingly aggressive Russia. Tokayev does not appear to want to break off all relations with Putin and has met him regularly. However, at the St Petersburg International Economic Forum this summer, Tokayev explicitly insisted that Kazakhstan does not recognise the seizure of Ukrainian territory.
Despite this public defiance, Tokayev still invited Putin to Astana for three consecutive summits. However, he has thus far always made it clear that the Kazakh position on Ukraine would not change.
There appear to be diplomatic similarities between the position of Tokayev and that of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the President of Turkey. Both are offering their services as intermediaries in the current Ukrainian conflict. After the start of the recent mobilisation in Russia, thousands of potential young conscripts left Russia and entered Kazakhstan, a potential future domestic nucleus of Russian opposition. Tokayev opened his border, and, eventually, about 200,000 Russians sought sanctuary in Kazakhstan.
Kazakh foreign policy is closely linked to strengthening economic co-operation, attracting inward investment and establishing transport corridors. The invasion of Ukraine has seen many countries thought previously to be firmly in the Russian sphere of influence reach out to the West, given the understandable nervousness about the readiness of Russia to intervene militarily in what it considers to be its orbital domains.
Given the current threats to energy security, Kazakhstan is a significant potential future ally of the West. The diplomatic indicators indicate that Kazakhstan and other Central Asian frontline states are increasingly open to overtures and would welcome greater engagement from that part of the world in Central Asia. We must be ready to respond willingly, openly, and positively.