How Russia’s neighbours are falling out of love with the Kremlin

The Daily Retina

Putin’s illegal war in Ukraine has united the West. Nato has been strengthened and there has been much support for the sanctions against the Kremlin and its supporters. Public opinion in the UK is firmly behind the Ukrainian people in their suffering, even if many remain wary of direct military entanglement. For the countries bordering Russia, however, the calculations are different, and nowhere can more ambivalence be seen than in Kazakhstan, the leading economy in Central Asia. Although it is the ninth largest country in the world, Kazakh foreign policy has long been dominated by the need to carefully manage relations with its two even bigger neighbours: Russia and China. Its border with Russia stretches for 4,750 miles – longer than the distance from London to Florida. Russia is its third largest trading partner and 16 per cent of its people are ethnic Russians. There are deep historical and cultural links, shaping each country’s view of the other.

All this means that the Kazakh government has no choice but to maintain close relations with its northern neighbour. The relationship extends beyond trade to security: when mass protests turned nasty in January 2022, leading to over 200 deaths, president Kassym-Jomart Tokayev called in Russian troops to keep the peace.

There has always been an element of wariness, or caution, in Kazakhstan’s policy towards Moscow, stemming in part from the two countries’ shared history of Gulags, famine and nuclear tests on Kazakh territory in the Soviet era. Since its independence in 1991, Kazakhstan has put a lot of effort in establishing and defining itself as an independent sovereign state. In practice, that has often meant distinguishing itself carefully from Russia in the eyes of the world.

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Sovereignty is precious to Kazakhs, so the sight of Ukraine’s sovereignty being violated by Russia’s invasion alarmed Kazakhs, who saw it as destabilising and unnecessary, with unpredictable consequences for Central Asia.

There has always been an element of wariness in Kazakhstan’s policy towards Moscow, stemming in part from the two countries’ shared history of Gulags, famine and nuclear tests

Tokayev has openly refused to support Russia. He was quick to stress that Kazakhstan would apply UN principles, which included not recognising the Russian-occupied republics in the Donbas. But given the close ties between the Kazakh and Russian economies, sanctions against Russia have posed a particular dilemma for Kazakhstan. Kazakhstan is in a customs union with Russia (and Kyrgyzstan, Belarus and Armenia) and relies on Russian imports for a range of daily goods and services. But the government knows it cannot act as a back door for sanctions-breaking; to do so would risk the foreign investment which is the lifeblood of the economy. The regional energy infrastructure is closely connected too, and Kazakhstan has been searching for alternative energy export routes which bypass Russian territory.

Kazakhstan’s unwillingness to be Putin’s cheerleader has meant that the relationship between Astana and Moscow has shifted – and in the long term, probably in Kazakhstan’s favour. Across Central Asia and the Caucasus the loosening of ties with Russia – call it a recalibration if you will – is a developing trend. It is not a wholesale dilution of ties, but it has allowed Kazakhstan, with its regional economic weight, the most room to adopt a more independent line.

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A good example is Kazakhstan’s willingness last year to give sanctuary to 200,000 or so young Russian men desperately fleeing conscription – a humanitarian gesture which cannot have gone down well in Moscow. This came at some cost, given that many of those fleeing were economically active young men who were competing for jobs with young Kazakhs.

Kazakhstan sees itself as still working with Russia on many issues, but with a stronger negotiating position. It has more scope to create its own path and make progress on consolidating and promoting its own sovereignty. Its future economic development cannot rely on Russia, and it will need to continue to diversify its trade and investment partners as much as possible, as well as continue to reform economically and politically.

Tokayev has responded well to Russia’s war against Ukraine. Indeed, during his visit last week to Astana, the Foreign Secretary James Cleverly praised Kazakhstan’s ‘consistent and principled position in supporting Ukraine’s territorial integrity, and a resolution to end the war in line with the principles of the UN Charter. Kazakhstan has also made clear it will respect sanctions and will not be a back door to sanctions circumvention.’

But there are three key risks for Kazakhstan. First, that as the country’s links with Russia weaken and remaining dependency declines, China seeks to fill the gap – so you swap one autocracy in Moscow for another, larger one, in Beijing with far more resources.

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Second, that Kazakhstan is unable to achieve full democracy or a complete market economy. An aggressive and cornered Russia could seek to put constraints on Kazakhstan’s democratic and economic development.

Third, how to respond to younger Kazakhs, who are starting to ask more searching questions of their leaders. Can Kazakhstan achieve full democracy when its neighbours are autocrats who see Central Asia as their back yard? Should Kazakhstan measure each and every policy by what Russia and China will think?

Finally, Putin’s willingness to change international borders by force has made some Kazakhs – at least in private – contemplate their ‘nightmare scenario’: that the Kremlin would use similar excuses to target part of Kazakhstan’s northern regions, where more ethnic Russians live than elsewhere.  Would Russia ever intervene, perhaps claiming the need to protect the interests of Russian speakers over the border?

Even for Kazakhs long wary of Russia’s misdeeds, such a question might have seemed unthinkable eighteen months ago. It now feels less so. Things may not come to that – but continued management of this complex relationship will be needed for some time yet.

Source: World – The Spectator Australia