Just as Kazakhstan has launched far-reaching domestic political reforms despite the economic impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it’s ambitious multi-vector foreign policy will continue. Addressing a conference in Brussels, Deputy Foreign Minister Roman Vassilenko (pictured) spoke of his country’s determination to use its economic and diplomatic weight to achieve goals shared by the EU and many countries around the world, writes Political Editor Nick Powell.
Kazakhstan is a country that continues to surprise many in the EU and elsewhere in the West, in large part because they haven’t been paying enough attention to the country. The conference entitled ‘Kazakhstan’s Emerging Geopolitical Role’, held at the Press Club Brussels Europe, brought together a powerful team of experts to help the audience catch up.
It saw the launch of a new report, Kazakhstan offers the West a Strategic Opportunity, by John Hulsman, a board member of the Aspen Institute Europe. He argues that the country, having just emerged from an internal crisis, had “answered the world’s wake-up call” over the global risk crisis precipitated by its traditional ally Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“Everyone assumed that Kazakhstan would broadly fall in behind Russia”, he said. Instead it had neutrally offered to broker a peace deal, refused to recognise the breakaway republics in the Donbas and abstained in the UN General Assembly vote condemning the Russian invasion. It was also giving humanitarian aid to Ukraine and President Tokayev had urged President Putin to consider an immediate ceasefire.
Speaking by video link from Nur-Sultan, Deputy Foreign Minister Roman Vassilenko also referenced the crisis known as Tragic January, the civil unrest and political violence at the start of the year. Lessons had been learnt and far-reaching domestic political reforms were being implemented. Internationally, President Tokayev’s government was similarly stepping up to the geopolitical challenges now faced by the world.
Kazakhstan stood ready to help end the conflict in Ukraine and was willing to host peace talks when the parties were ready. It was similarly prepared to use its good offices to facilitate international agreement on Afghanistan when the opportunity arose.
In the meantime, it could assist with pressing trade and economic issues. The Deputy Foreign Minister said his country would continue to be a reliable supplier of uranium for nuclear energy; its vast arable lands could produce far more of the world’s food if there was enough international investment.
The “next big thing” was the Trans-Caspian or Middle Corridor trade route, linking Asia and Europe via Kazakhstan and the Caucasus. 70% of Kazakh oil production is sent to Europe, 90% via a pipeline to the Russian Black Sea port of Novorossiysk. But reported technical problems had reduced capacity and although sanctions against Russia did not affect Kazakh oil directly, they had affected the availability of tankers for onward shipment to Europe.
Not that the Middle Corridor could fully supplant the Russian oil route and Kazakh diplomacy would continue to be akin to walking along an ever-narrower tightrope. That image was Roman Vassilenko’s picking up on a theme of Kazakhstan’s Ambassador Extraordinary, Kairat Abusseitov, from the Nursultan Nazarbayev Institute. He had likened the role of a Kazakh diplomat to that of an Olympic gymnast.
He said that his country’s multi-lateral foreign policy wasn’t a response to geopolitics but rather came from its political journey. He said Kazakhstan was tired of being described as a bridge between Europe and Asia. “We shouldn’t be bridging a gap but be a railway of ideas”. The way to close that gap, he suggested, was to adopt Central Asia’s ‘continental thinking’. The Eurasian continent needed to be viewed as a whole.
Ariel Cohen, from the International Tax and Investment Centre in Washington DC, said that in economic reform, Kazakhstan was surpassed among the post-Soviet states only by Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. He said the whole post-Soviet model was now in question, with Russia likely to remain under “crushing sanctions” until it had a fundamental foreign policy rethink.
The event was moderated by James Wilson, founding director of the International Foundation for Better Governance.