Kazakhstan breaks its dependency on Russia

As Russians fled to the country’s borders in fear of conscription, Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev welcomed more than 200,000 of them and sympathized with their “hopeless” plight.

“We have to take care of them and ensure their safety. This is a political and humanitarian issue,” Tokayev said late last month after President Vladimir Putin’s mobilization law triggered the exodus.

The warm reception for the Russians was a signal of a new reality for Moscow: countries across Central Asia and the Caucasus are trying to distance themselves from its all-out invasion of Ukraine.

Kazakhstan, traditionally one of Russia’s closest partners — Tokayev attended Putin’s 70th birthday celebration last week and welcomed Putin to a regional conference in Astana on Thursday — has refused to support the invasion or recognize annexations of Ukrainian territory.

Russia’s ebbing war in Ukraine has given countries like Kazakhstan an opportunity to reduce their dependence on Moscow “wherever possible,” said Temur Umarov, a fellow of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Government officials, Western diplomats and business leaders in the capital, Astana, describe the “recalibration” as a cautious watering down of ties rather than a complete departure from Moscow, and insist the landlocked country has no choice but to maintain good ties with its larger neighbor . Forcing Kazakhstan to choose between Russia and the West would be “a very damaging move,” one that “leads to possible conflict,” an official said.

“We’re not Baron Munchausen, we can’t just pull ourselves up from this region by our hair,” he added, referring to a fictional character who used this unlikely technique to free himself from a swamp.

Tokayev will play table tennis with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Astana on Thursday

Tokayev plays table tennis with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Astana on Thursday © Press Service of the President of Kazakhstan via Reuters

Tokayev has launched a diplomatic offensive to increase the number of world leaders invested in Kazakhstan’s stability and security. In August he signed an intelligence agreement with NATO member Turkey.

If Kazakhstan had signed this agreement before the war, “it would have been considered a major blow by Moscow,” Umarov said. “But at the moment we don’t see anything that Russia can do to stop Kazakhstan.”

When Chinese leader Xi Jinping visited Kazakhstan last month, he vowed to support Kazakhstan’s “territorial integrity,” a concern for any country in the region with a large ethnic Russian population after the invasion of Ukraine was launched in part under the guise of “protecting “ the Russians began spokesman.

Xi Jinping, China's President, meets with Tokayev in Kazakhstan in September

Xi Jinping, China’s President, vowed to support Kazakhstan’s “territorial integrity” in a meeting with Tokayev in September © President of Kazakhstan/Handout via Reuters

Throughout the former Soviet region, with the exception of Moscow-loyal Belarus, Russia’s role as police officer and power broker seems to be eroding. The CSTO’s six-man security bloc unit, Moscow’s answer to NATO, has taken a hit in recent weeks.

It’s a marked change from January, a month before the invasion of Ukraine, when Russian-led CSTO forces invaded Kazakhstan to help quell protests that Tokayev described as a “coup attempt.”

When Armenia, a CSTO member, appealed to the bloc for help after renewed fighting with Azerbaijan last month, no military aid was sent. Instead of Russia, France and the EU stepped in to mediate and host peace talks.

Violent border fights also broke out between CSTO members Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Last week, Kyrgyzstan withdrew from hosting the alliance’s joint exercises involving Russia and Tajikistan. The “Indivisible Brotherhood” exercises were canceled.

The Kyrgyz President did not attend Putin’s birthday celebration and was late for a forum last month, keeping Putin awkwardly waiting, a move the Russian president is more used to attracting other leaders.

Kazakhstan signaled its newfound assertiveness this month when it dismissed a call from Moscow to expel Ukraine’s ambassador from the country over his comments about the killing of Russians.

Russia’s tone, a Kazakh government official said, is not the kind that should be used between “equal strategic partners.”

Soldiers search for duds near the Kyrgyz-Tajik border
Violent clashes erupted at the border between CSTO members Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan © Vyacheslav Oseledko/AFP/Getty Images

Russia’s growing isolation is also causing the countries to diversify their economic ties. Kazakhstan has been actively exploring alternative energy export routes, several officials said, as the vast majority of Kazakh oil is channeled through Russia.

In July, a Russian regional court found problems with the pipeline’s records and decided to suspend them. The issue was quickly resolved, but the incident exposed the risks of dependence on Russia.

Economic diversification is “not against anyone,” said Yerkin Tukumov, director of the Kazakh Institute for Strategic Studies. Kazakhstan needs a broad pool of partners to achieve stronger growth, which is a bulwark against political instability, he added.

“All [in the region] is interested in a stable Kazakhstan. . . The social causes of the January riots have not gone away,” he added, citing the widespread protests that preceded the alleged coup.

Others noted that political distance from Russia — especially with Astana’s pledge not to help Moscow circumvent sanctions — is good for business.

“If Kazakhstan is to continue to attract private investment, and in particular foreign direct investment, it is very important that they are not put in the same pocket as Russia,” a Western official said. “That’s why they’ve been trying hard since the beginning of the war . . . to differentiate themselves.”

Astana is pursuing reforms to make elections more competitive, limit presidential terms and reduce corruption. The government has also taken steps to weaken the hold of vested interests in the economy, particularly that of the family of former longtime leader Nursultan Nazarbayev, whose supporters in an attempt to thwart the reform process may have played a role in the January uprising.

Kazakh officials have balked at the idea that they owe Moscow for sending troops to quell the unrest. Moscow is also acting in its own interest, an analyst said, fearing that images of protests in neighboring states could lead to unrest at home.

Now that Russia is being absorbed by its attack on Ukraine, Kazakhstan and other countries across the region are taking a more independent line, but remaining cautious not to anger their belligerent neighbor.

“We will continue to work with Russia, but our negotiating position will be strengthened,” said a political analyst close to Kazakh decision-makers. “The rules of the game have changed.”

https://www.ft.com/content/3af8f2a5-b527-4fd1-8efe-fe2f259cbfb5 Kazakhstan breaks its dependency on Russia

Adam Bradshaw

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