Newly reelected Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev is diligently trying to pave a new foreign policy path for his Central Asian country in a strategic region where Russia, China, Turkey, and the United States are vying for greater dominance.
Tokayev makes overtures to Russia
Fresh off his landslide victory for a second term, Tokayev traveled to Russia last week for a meeting with President Vladimir Putin in Moscow.
It was his first meeting with a foreign leader and came a week after his victory in Kazakhstan’s national election.
“This is my first foreign visit after this event and that in itself has political significance and, of course, a certain symbolism,” Tokayev said, seated next to Putin.
Ties between the former Soviet republic have been strained in the wake of Russia’s invasion of neighboring Ukraine since Kazakhstan has taken a neutral position on the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
“For Kazakhstan, Russia is and has always been a strategic partner.”Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev
"For Kazakhstan, Russia is and has always been a strategic partner," added the 69-year-old Kazakh president during his Moscow visit.
Putin told Tokayev that relations between Moscow and Astana have a “special character.”
The Russian president called for the strengthening of economic ties, saying this is "especially timely now, when international trade is in crisis."
Tokayev also allowed tens of thousands of Russians who were fleeing a military mobilization in Russia to enter Kazakhstan.
Kazakhstan’s ambassador to Israel, Satybaldy Burshakov, told The Media Line that his president wants to carve “an opening of a new political system” domestically and internationally.
“The president made his first visit after his inauguration and after the election to Russia,” he points out.
“This highlights his political strategy on foreign policy. He met with President Putin and the two presidents discussed bilateral relations, economic cooperation, and, of course, regional cooperation,” according to Burshakov.
Formerly part of the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan and Russia share the longest continuous international border in the world. Astana also has close security and economic partnerships with Moscow. For example, moving Kazakh oil is possible only through Russia’s pipelines.
Dr. Pravesh Kumar Gupta, senior associate at the New Delhi-based Vivekananda International Foundation, told The Media Line that Kazakhstan is recognizing its unique geostrategic position.
"Kazakhstan has adopted a multi-vector foreign policy. As a result of this balancing approach in its foreign policy, Astana has successfully maintained good relations with China, Russia, and the West," he said.
Moscow came to Tokayev’s aid at his request during protests in Kazakhstan against steep price increases after the lifting of government price caps on liquefied gas earlier this year, but some say Tokayev has turned on Putin by taking a neutral position on his war on Ukraine. This includes refusing to recognize Russian-annexed Ukrainian territory and allowing the government to continue to sell arms to Ukraine until this past August.
“Relations with Moscow will remain cordial. Tokayev’s visit to Moscow after his reelection confirms deep ties between Astana and Moscow. But still, Russia needs to pay more attention to this region to maintain its position,” said Gupta.
Alexandra Perminova, a researcher at the Institute of China and Contemporary Asian Countries of the Russian Academy of Science, told The Media Line that Moscow’s ties with Astana are deep.
“Russia and Kazakhstan are strategic partners,” she noted. “They have their relationship in view of a strategic partnership that is long term because they have different strategies and different united companies in different frameworks, for example, international organizations and regional organizations. Most of all, these countries are friends in terms of their interactions on different levels,” she said.
Tokayev is a Mandarin-speaking, experienced diplomat and has skillfully maintained relations with Beijing.
"Chinese President Xi chose Astana for his first foreign visit after almost two years, presenting testimony of strong bilateral relations. Post reelection of President Tokayev, Astana-Beijing relations will keep on strengthening. The level of bilateral relations is also expected to grow due to the implications of the Ukraine crisis and its consequences for both China and Kazakhstan," according to Gupta.
And, despite Western criticism of how the presidential elections were handled, French President Emmanuel Macron hosted his Kazakh counterpart at the Elysée Palace one day after the Kazakh leader’s visit with Putin in the Kremlin.
“The president paid an official visit to France, a major strategic partner in the European Union,” Burshakov pointed out.
The United States cares about what happens in Kazakhstan, for it believes that the central Asian country is important to US strategic interests, some experts say.
Kamran Bokhari of Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy in Washington told The Media Line that this election could be the prelude for a new era in Kazakhstan.
“We’re not talking about an established democracy,” he said. “We are talking about a post-Soviet state that’s 31 years old and is just started on the path of transition. The transition started three years ago, and it didn’t finish in terms of President [Nursultan] Nazarbayev having completely stepped down. That happened this year, after the unrest. The next seven years are going to be very crucial and critical for the political and economic development of the largest country in Central Asia.”
Tokayev was elected to a seven-year term as president.
Geographically and geopolitically, Kazakhstan sits in a very important location. It is Central Asia’s largest country, sharing the longest continuous border in the world – 4,750 miles – with its northern neighbor Russia, and it also has a 1,108-mile shared border with China.
The US has a clear interest in counterterrorism in the region, given the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban last year. In addition, Kazakhstan is rich in natural resources and located at the crossroads of important trade routes.
Gupta says that Turkey also has “emerged as a silent and strategic player in Central Asia. Ankara’s role in the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict and the latter’s win in this conflict has strengthened Turkey’s position in the region.”
He said that, with the war in Ukraine resulting in an acute energy shortage, and the disruptions of supply chains running through Russia, “Turkey’s middle corridor is gaining momentum and Kazakhstan-Turkey relations will grow as the current geopolitical situation complements it.”