Kazakhstan’s Delicate Balancing Act

by Aigerim Zikibayeva on April 12, 2013

Since its independence in 1991, Kazakhstan has become a symbol of stability in Central Asia. However, the road to economic prosperity and political modernization has not been easy for the country of 16.5 million, whose territory spans from Eastern Europe to East Asia. In early 2012, President Nursultan Nazarbayev stated that “the geographical location and geopolitical position of our country, with no access to open waters, requires us to develop markets with neighboring countries…without it, our aspirations to develop the economy, to build new enterprises, will fail.” Kazakhstan’s rich energy supplies, which make it the world’s leading uranium producer and a reliable exporter of oil and gas, have defined the country’s geostrategic importance.

Both Russia and China are trying to pull Kazakhstan into their spheres of influence; Moscow to dominate energy routes to European markets, and Beijing to fuel its ever-hungry economy through increased trade. Nazarbayev’s administration has so far maintained a delicate balancing act between the two by entering into Russian-dominated multilateral organizations such as the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) while expanding commercial links with China. However, booming trade with Beijing could potentially strain political relations between Astana and Moscow.

Russia is currently Kazakhstan’s most important geopolitical partner. A simple glance at the map shows how crucial both countries are for each other: the two share the longest land border in the world. The Russian community in Kazakhstan is the largest Russian diaspora group in Central Asia. With its rich reserves of natural resources, Kazakhstan is a major economic player in—and Russia’s gateway to—the region. Kazakh participation in Russian-dominated regional economic bodies is therefore vital to Moscow; Kazakhstan is a member of the Eurasian Economic Community (EurAsEC) and the Customs Union, both of which are integration projects led by Russia. Deeper regional integration between former Soviet Union states could occur with the establishment of the so-called Eurasian Union. While some foreign observers view these integration projects as a new attempt to restore the Soviet Union, certain Russian experts have argued that Moscow is attempting to block Chinese economic expansion into Central Asia.

Despite its strong political and economic ties to Russia and the other former Soviet states, Kazakhstan has also found itself increasingly drawn into China’s orbit. Kazakhstan’s strategic relations with China have picked up steam since formal diplomatic relations were established in January 1992. The current relationship is defined by regular high-level dialogues, which culminated in 2005, when Chinese president Hu Jintao signed a “strategic partnership” agreement with the Kazakh president. Furthermore, in 2004 the two countries established the China-Kazakhstan Cooperation Committee, the primary purpose of which is to coordinate economic and cultural cooperation between the two countries. China has only established comparable committees with the U.S., Russia, and the EU.

Kazakhstan’s increasingly close alignment with China could potentially be a catalyst for worsening Russo-Sino relations. Kazakhstan is Russia’s window into Central Asia, and without its political and economic loyalty, Putin cannot fulfill the Eurasian integration project or maintain Russia’s sphere of influence in the region. Meanwhile, “China is playing a 1,000-year game,” says Dosym Satpayev, a Kazakh political scientist. Recently, one of China’s most influential political scholars, Wang Jisi, articulated a rebalancing strategy for China branded “March West.” The strategy would center on enhancing China’s presence, resources, diplomatic efforts and engagement in Central Asia, South Asia, and the Middle East.

Although Wang’s vision is not official doctrine, Beijing has demonstrated its pivot west through its participation in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), a regional body composed of China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. Formed in 2001 to facilitate military cooperation, intelligence sharing, and counterterrorism drills, SCO is a showcase for Chinese regional leadership. China does not seem to be pursuing the status of sole security provider in Central Asia, but nevertheless its role in Central Asian security matters is growing. Beijing could agitate Moscow by impinging on traditional Russian domination over Central Asian security arrangements and enhancing Chinese influence over regional economic and energy spheres.

For now, Kazakhstan has a good grasp on keeping Russia and China satisfied, and is reaping the benefits from its relations with both. But President Nazarbayev—who has ruled Kazakhstan since the fall of the Soviet Union and managed the current balancing act with the two aspiring regional hegemons—will not be around forever. Whenever Kazakhstan does go through political transition, the new leadership will have to continue to balance the interests of its powerful neighbors. As relations with China grow deeper, and integration with Russia continues, Kazakh leaders will need to maintain an independent point of view on policymaking while balancing relations with the two great powers.

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