Председатель Комитета по международным делам, обороне и безопасности Мажилиса Парламента Республики Казахстан
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Kazakhstan behind the scenes – what pundits say – EURACTIV.com

This article is part of our special report Promoting dialogue and peace.

Kazakhstan welcomed an official visit of Pope Francis, a Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions and a state visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping on Wednesday and Thursday (14 and 15 September). EURACTIV met with politicians, diplomats and pundits, and offers a behind-the-scenes reading of these and other developments.

It is interesting to note that the off-the-record comments of foreign diplomats and of Kazakh pundits largely coincide. Kazakhstan is a country in the heart of Central Asia with powerful neighbours – Russia and China.

Aigul Kuspan, the former Kazakh ambassador to Brussels, who is now chair of the Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Security of the Parliament, told EURACTIV that the formulation of an ‘Eternal all-round strategic partnership’ used by Xi Jinping to describe the relations of his country with Kazakhstan was “absolutely unprecedented”.

She said that for the Chinese, every word counted and such a formulation shouldn’t be seen as merely a compliment, especially given the fact that Xi chose Kazakhstan for his first visit since the pandemic.

As Adil Kaukenov, chief expert on China at the Kazakhstan Institute for Strategic Studies explained, good relations between Moscow and Beijing were good for Kazakhstan, because “if these relations would turn into competition, this would be damaging for a small country.” Kazakhstan has a huge territory, but a population of only 19 million.

Kazakhstan is in an almost unique situation of having a trade surplus with China, as an exporter of energy – mostly oil, gas and uranium – and wheat.

While EURACTIV spoke with Kaukenov on Thursday, Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev was on his way to Samarkand, where a summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) is taking place, gathering Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, as well as the leaders of India, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, and host country Uzbekistan.

Number one news

Asked about the news to be expected from Samarkand, Kaukenov mentioned that the “number one news” was that Iran was joining the SCO, while Saudi Arabia and Qatar were due to become observers.

Questioned on whether the idea at the SCO to initiate an alternative to SWIFT, the Belgium-based organisation in charge of international money transfers, was a good thing, he said that a parallel system was needed, because “global systems can change very suddenly”. For Kazakhstan, this would be a form of insurance, he said.

According to Kaukenov, China’s interest in Kazakhstan has grown since the January unrest in the country, which has had a positive fallout by boosting reforms, modernisation and “changing our political system”.

Diplomats agree that under Tokayev, the country is changing its political system, with the upcoming introduction of a 7-year term for the President, which cannot be renewed.

According to diplomats and Kazakh pundits, the parliamentary elections are more interesting than the presidential polls because new political parties are likely to emerge. It is generally accepted that Tokayev initiated the constitutional changes on short notice, to prevent the still powerful – and very rich – allies of former President Nursultan Nazarbayev to get organised for the elections.

A clear signal of the end of Nazarbayev’s power is the upcoming renaming of the capital as Astana, as it was known before Tokayev himself proposed to rename it Nur-Sultan.

Kazakhstan is worried about the economic fallout of the expected crisis in Russia, as the result of the Western sanctions and the invasion of Ukraine, which the Kazakh leadership doesn’t approve of, although it cannot express it. Kazakhstan doesn’t want to offend Russia, be it only because Moscow has the capacity to stop completely Kazakhstan’s oil exports to the Western markets.

Former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev wrote a long post on the Russian version of Facebook in which he called Kazakhstan “an artificial state”. Given the fact that Russia officially considers Ukraine an artificial state, such a statement could loom large. The post was deleted, and Russia explained that Medvedev’s account had been hacked. But diplomats said this was a clear message to Kazakhstan to watch its moves.

Relations with Russia were pushed into the spotlight over a decision by Kazakhstan to completely halt the exports of arms. Diplomats and pundits believe that this came as a consequence of a meeting between Putin and Tokayev, in which the Russian leader might have asked his Kazakh colleague to make sure that such weapons don’t end up in Ukraine. But Kazakhstan also exports military equipment to Russia, and some believe that Russia has more to lose from such a move.

Kazakhstan will host Putin in mid-October, on the occasion of the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia (CICA). CICA is an initiative of Kazakhstan dating from 2002.

Belt and Road

“I know that in the EU, they have their own strategy for connectivity and they don’t like very much the Belt-and-Road initiative, but for us, it is very important”, Kuspan said.

But with the war in Ukraine, the tables have turned. EURACTIV heard opinions from diplomats and pundits suggesting that the EU, Kazakhstan and China were getting close to prioritising the so-called Central Corridor.

Reportedly, Western institutions such as the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development are working on identifying the bottlenecks of this corridor crossing the Caspian Sea, ahead of an EU-favoured meeting on connectivity in November in Uzbekistan.

It has also been reported that European Council President Charles Michel will visit Kazakhstan by the end of October, possibly to catch up with the diplomatic activity of other global players.

Asked about the role of the EU in Central Asia, the most candid answer came from Kaukenov. In his words, the EU is an “amorph entity” representing the “golden billion”, and a “good customer”. He said that it was difficult to figure out who the EU players were, except for Germany, but only in the economic field.

“They don’t know about our potential. The EU media don’t see us”, the analysts said, adding that journalists from the EU “don’t listen” and “think they know everything”.

This correspondent begged to differ, but thanked his interlocutor for being straightforward.

[Edited by Benjamin Fox/Nathalie Weatherald]