When President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev announced the Astana International Forum in February, he said it was an opportunity for global cooperation and progress in a polarized world. Kazakhstan was continuing its long-time role as a bridge between east and west, he wrote, a policy “which has served us well.”
The forum, set for June 8-9, will bring together middle-ranking powers, such as Turkey and Singapore, for discussions and panels on pressing challenges, including climate change, energy, food supply, and global security. What’s the role of smaller nations when “major world powers” lock horns? It’s a critical question for a country so huge that it occupies land from close to the River Volga in Russia all the way to China, and yet has a population of only 20 million. Its geographic position makes it important to larger neighbors, and so do its oil and gas resources, which are enormous and have led to a sixfold rise in GDP in the last two decades.
The gathering comes against the backdrop of recent domestic turmoil in Kazakhstan — just over a year after at least 238 people were killed as Tokayev, with Kremlin support, crushed an uprising. Russia’s continued war in Ukraine has now reduced its influence even as the Kazakh president tackles domestic economic reform and energy security.
Tokayev, keen on maintaining his strategic and multilateral approach to the major powers on his border, has seized the opportunity to position his country as a leader in Central Asia. While his aims for the forum are expressed as optimism for cooperation among middling powers, there is little doubt he sees a chance to promote his country, himself, and his freedom to maneuver.
Mukhtar Tileuberdi, Kazakhstan’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, emphasized in January that his plans for the year included a bigger role in global and regional politics, and made clear Tokayev’s government would adapt to current realities “without deviating from a proactive, pragmatic, and balanced foreign policy course.”
“Balanced” does not mean pro-Western and indeed that would be impossible. The reality is that while relations with the West can help the government, they can never replace the sheer scale — and sometimes menace — of the great powers on either side. Two days after Kazakhstan’s July pledge of more oil exports to the EU, Russia shut down a major export pipeline. So although the bloc supplies 60% of foreign direct investment, its hard power is close to non-existent.
This explains why Kazakh policy sometimes seems to have at least two audiences. The country has made anti-war statements and has responded to Western criticism of widespread sanctions-busting, while also standing accused of turning a blind eye to sanctions-busting (which it denies) and benefitting from hugely increased trade with Russia — trade was up 25% last year, including a 22-fold rise in electronic exports.
Even before the May 18-19 Xi’an Summit between China and Central Asian leaders, it has been ever-clearer that China was the preeminent power in the region.
Kazakh foreign policy quite reasonably seeks a balance of powers to avoid dominance from any one country and to take a greater hand in its own destiny. Economic reforms, domestic growth, and becoming a “listening state” are crucial to Tokayev’s 10-year plan.
Despite the geographic realities, the West can still hope to form part of Tokayev’s balancing act and reap some rewards. Kazakh prosperity relies on trade and investment from foreign partners; the most prominent investor countries are the Netherlands and the United States.
China is a top five foreign investor, but its ambitions are greater than that. Kazakhstan has been referred to as the buckle in the Belt and Road Initiative, and while that scheme has suffered some setbacks in Europe, it is still very much relevant for Central Asian countries offering natural resources and a route to markets. Kazakh-China trade is booming, rising by more than a third to $24bn last year.
According to Chinese-Central Asian relations expert, Niva Yau, Tokayev’s main aim is to secure longevity in office and support for him as president; this is done through the balancing of strategic relationships with both partners in Europe and China.
Yau noted that both relationships hold different weights, making them in different ways key to Tokayev’s foreign policy. China appears as a straightforward, economic and trade ally while the West appears to be a disconnected investor that thereby offers a potential political safety net.
President Tokayev will have to work hard to keep everyone happy and to maintain his country’s freedom of maneuver. As the 2022 Kazakh protests and the Ukraine war have shown, maintaining stability can be a juggling act requiring advanced levels of skill.
Reese Phillips is a Program Assistant for Operations at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA). Before joining CEPA, Reese worked with the Global Language Network as a classroom volunteer and operations intern. He graduated from American University in December 2021 with a BA in International Studies and a minor in Russian language and area studies.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.