Kazakhstan-Russia relations

since 2022:

New opportunities in a changing geopolitical climate?

Aselia Orozova

Introduction

Kazakhstan is geographically largest and materially most powerful of the five post-Soviet Central Asian republics. With its abundant natural resources, Astana has sought to craft a “multi-vector” foreign policy balancing between Russia and the West (Yuneman, 2023). Though Kazakhstan is a member of Russia-led regional organizations such as the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), it also collaborates with NATO within and beyond the scope of the Partnership for Peace (PfP) program since the 1990s (NATO, 2022) and signed an Enhanced Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (EPCA) with the EU in 2015. (European Union, 2023)

Since February 2022, Astana has sought to continue maintaining this balancing act, though some have argued that Astana “turns [its] eyes to the West” (Mikovic, 2023). This article interrogates these claims from political, economic and societal/cultural perspectives and shows that Kazakhstan’s “neutrality” is leaning toward Russia, similar to those of Global South states such as China, India, Brazil and South Africa. Moreover, the record of diplomatic interactions, trade statistics and opinion polls on Kazakh-Russian relations indicate that the fundamentals of bilateral relations remain largely intact following 2022. In fact, the available evidence suggests that Western sanctions against Russia contributed to a steady expansion of Kazakh-Russian economic interaction, involving a multitude of actors such as subregional governments and joint ventures.

Political relations

Since the 2010s, the government of Kazakhstan has released two Foreign Policy Concepts: one under Nazarbayev (for 2014-20) (Nazarbayev, 2014) and another under Tokayev (for 2020-30) (Tokayev, 2020). Unlike the previous version, the latest Foreign Policy Concept names Russia an ally (Chapter 5. Paragraph 4. Clause 4.2). While the previous Concept refers to the EU as an important economic partner and makes no explicit mention of the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), the new Concept devotes an entire paragraph emphasizing the EAEU’s importance for Kazakhstan (Chapter 5. Paragraph 4. Clause 4.3). These policy documents set the scene for the maintenance of political relations between Kazakhstan and Russia after 2022.

It is also important to note that several members of the Tokayev administration (Erzhan Kazykhanov, assistant to the president on international affairs; Bauyrzhan Zhumakhanuly Omarov, presidential advisor; Ernar Zhenisovich Baspaev, presidential advisor; Murat Kalibekovich Baimukashev, a deputy secretary of Kazakhstan’s Security Council; Nurzhan Khazhimuratuly Kadzhiakbarov, another deputy secretary of Kazakhstan’s Security Council) graduated from key Russian higher education institutions such as the Diplomatic Academy, the Presidential Academy and St Petersburg State University. President Tokayev himself is an alumnus of the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO) of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Struktura Administracii — Oficial'nyj sajt Prezidenta Respubliki Kazahstan, 2024).

In the domain of military cooperation, Moscow and Astana signed a military agreement in October 2020 to conduct consultations and joint drills (Gosudarstvennaja Duma, 2021). Russian exports of military equipment to Kazakhstan increased to $35.6 million (January-August 2021) (Sidorkova, 2021) in the aftermath of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. In January 2022, their military ties were tested by the domestic upheaval in Kazakhstan. Under Russia’s leadership, the CSTO (Collective Security Treaty Organization) promptly dispatched peacekeepers to put down the unrest (Hadano, 2023). These events led to the downfall of Nazarbayev and resulted in the rise of Tokayev as an autonomous political leader.

Since February 2022, Kazakhstan has maintained its commitment to a multi-vector foreign policy and sought to balance consideration for Russia and the West. The Tokayev administration refused to recognize the unilateral declaration of independence by the Donetsk People’s Republic or the Luhansk People’s Republic, which was supported by Russia. At first glance, this appeared to have signaled Astana’s efforts to craft an independent foreign policy and distance itself from Russia’s position; however,
“A closer look reveals that Kazakhstan sought to maintain a neutral stance by criticizing all attempts at separatism, including those supported by Western powers.”
In June 2022, President Tokayev was one of the few heads of state who attended the St Petersburg Economic Forum held in Russia, where he noted that “Kazakhstan will not recognize quasi-states such as Taiwan, Kosovo, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, or the Luhansk and Donetsk People’s republics” (Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Kazakhstan, 2022).

At a press conference after the forum, the Kazakh president emphasized: “as for bilateral cooperation, there is no reason to be concerned, everything is going fine. Both countries are working on projects in the field of industry, agriculture and investment cooperation” (Prezident Rossii, 2022a). This remark signaled Astana’s resolve to resist diplomatic pressure imposed by powerful Western actors and to maintain the same level of political and diplomatic relations with Russia. By the same token, though Tokayev declined to attend Moscow’s Victory Day Parade in May 2022, this stance was reversed in May 2023. Indeed, the presidents of all five of the Central Asian “stans” attended (along with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko and Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan) (President of Russia, 2023), showcasing their willingness to maintain diplomatic ties with Russia amid Western criticism.

Throughout 2022, Kazakhstan adopted a policy stance similar to that of “pro-Russian neutrality” advanced by China (Mirovalev, 2023). In the UNGA, Astana abstained on a resolution that called on Moscow to halt its military advancements and withdraw its troops from Ukraine (March, 2022) (United Nations, 2022b); a resolution that demanded Russia pay reparations to Ukraine (November, 2022) (United Nations, 2022d); and a resolution that called for an immediate cessation to military advancements in Ukraine (February 2023) (United Nations, 2022a). In a similar vein, Kazakhstan also voted against the resolution to suspend Russia’s membership at the Human Rights Council in April 2022 (United Nations, 2022c).

To summarize, the political relationship between Kazakhstan and Russia experienced several moments of disagreement, but it withstood the test of time and the immense Western pressure to isolate Russia. As noted above, the willingness of Kazakh leaders to participate in major political events in 2022 and especially the 2023 Moscow Victory Day Parade indicates that Astana’s supposed “neutrality” is generally more pro-Russian, just like the stances taken by other non-Western states such as China (and India, Brazil, South Africa and so on).
Table 1. Bilateral trade between Kazakhstan and Russia. Trade Representation of the Republic of Kazakhstan, URL: https://kazembassy.ru/rus/sotrudnichestvo/dvustoronnee_sotrudnichestvo/ekonom_sotrudnichestvo/
Economic relations

In the domain of economic cooperation, trade volumes saw sustained growth despite the global economic slump and inflation caused by the pandemic in 2020 and later by developments since February 2022. Following the fallout from the pandemic, Russia and Kazakhstan cooperated closely in the health sector to provide an effective and rapid response to Covid-19, supply medical gear and produce vaccines. Due to the global economic slowdown caused by the pandemic, bilateral trade subsequently decreased before bouncing back in 2021, with Kazakhstan remaining among Russia’s top 10 trading partners and accounting for 3.2% of Russia’s foreign trade turnover.

Amid the destabilizing effects of Western sanctions on Russia (especially in the areas of advanced electronics, rare earth metals, raw materials, etc.), bilateral economic engagement continued and even intensified. The framework for cooperation provided by the EAEU facilitated ministerial working visits on industrial integration, logistics, food supply and the use of cross-border water resources. Just in 2022, Kazakhstan and Russia signed new cooperation programs on 29 industrial projects worth $9 billion, with 12,500 new jobs expected to be created in the following years (Kramarenko, 2023). As shown in the chart below, trade turnover rose 5% to $18.4 billion in January-October 2022, with exports from Kazakhstan to Russia up 15.1% to $5.9 billion, while imports from Russia to Kazakhstan inched up 0.8% to $12.4 billion (Ministerstvo Nacional'noj Jekonomiki Respubliki Kazahstan, 2022).

Furthermore, economic cooperation was boosted not only at the national but also subregional and municipal levels. In November 2022, the 28th Forum of Interregional Cooperation between Russia and Kazakhstan was held in Orenburg, focusing on the development of joint transport and logistics infrastructure to up the transit potential of both states, such as the East-West and North-South transport routes, cargo shipping on the Caspian Sea and the Irtysh River, and the Eurasian Rail Alliance to ensure safe shipment across the EAEU (Prezident Rossii, 2022b). In September 2023, Kazakhstan hosted the international industrial exhibition Innoprom, which was attended by over 150 Russian companies representing 10 Russian regions. Thirteen bilateral commercial documents were signed for $30 million (Oficial'nyj informacionnyj resurs Prem'er-Ministra Respubliki Kazahstan, 2023).

Lastly, Western sanctions spurred the relocation of Russian companies to sanction-free zones in Kazakhstan (and elsewhere).
“The number of relocated Russian enterprises increased to 1,500 just within the period of January-May 2022 (Finprom, 2022), including major Russian economic players such as Tinkoff Bank, the ride service inDrive, the retailer Ekonikaand the online marketplace Ozon.”
Figure 2. Registered branches of foreign legal entities in the Republic of Kazakhstan for the period January-May 2022. URL: https://kapital.kz/business/106788/rossiyskiye-kompanii-aktivno-migriruyut-v-kazakhstan.html
Wildberries also established warehouses in Astana and Almaty to deliver various products from Central Asia to Russia and vice versa (Ozon, 2023). As of December 2022, the number of registered legal entities with Russian participation and Kazakh-Russian joint ventures was up 41.7% to 23,179 in total (Posol'stvo Respubliki Kazahstan v Rossijskoj Federacii, 2023).

Overall, the available data shows that economic relations between Kazakhstan and Russia have remained resilient against the external shocks caused by Western sanctions. Ironically, it even appears that sanctions opened new opportunities for interregional and business-to-business cooperation that goes beyond state-centric cooperation schemes. It is also important to note here that the net-positive impact on bilateral relations described above is based on official statistics. This means that the intensification of Kazakh-Russian economic cooperation is likely to be much greater when we take into account informal ties and business collaboration born out of the need to circumvent sanctions, often driven by spontaneous initiatives of non-state actors.
Table 2. Foreign students at Russian higher education institutions, 2023. Vedomosti. URL: https://www.vedomosti.ru/society/articles/2023/03/13/966139-rossiya-zanyala-6-e-mesto-po-chislu-inostrannih-studentov
Societal/cultural relations

Similar to political and economic relations, societal/cultural ties have remained mostly unchanged. Bilateral cooperation continued and expanded in cinema, theater and education. The two countries conducted “Days of Russian Culture in Kazakhstan” in 2020 and “Days of Kazakh Culture in Russia” in 2021. They also boosted Kazakh-Russian educational cooperation through increased academic exchanges. In 2023, Russia ranked sixth globally in terms of foreign students studying at its higher education institutions, after the US, the UK, Canada, France and Australia (Vedomosti, 2023), with around 351,000 foreign students. In recent years, Russia dramatically expanded the national quota of free higher education for foreign students from 18,000 in 2021 to 30,000 in 2023 (ICEF Monitor, 2023). As shown in the figure below, Kazakhstan has by far the largest number of international student enrollment at Russian universities.

After February 2022, most Western countries wound down or cancelled societal and cultural engagement with Russia. In contrast, Kazakhstan celebrated the 30th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations with Russia with several large-scale cultural events such as the festival “Russia-Kazakhstan: Cultural Heritage” (held from September 28 to October 8, 2022) (Festival' «Rossija – Kazahstan, 2022), the second meeting of the Subcommittee on Cultural and Humanitarian Cooperation of the Intergovernmental Commission between Kazakhstan and Russia, and an official reception at the Kazakh Embassy in honor of the Day of the Republic of Kazakhstan, attended by Russian officials from the Presidential Administration, government, Duma and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, among others (General'noe konsul'stvo Respubliki Kazahstan v Kazani, 2022). These events signaled deepening bilateral ties between the two states despite Western sanctions.

More importantly, special attention was given to the preservation and advancement of the Russian language in Kazakhstan and other Central Asian states in 2022. For instance, President Tokayev supported an initiative to create an international organization for the promotion of the Russian language under the auspices of the Commonwealth of Independent States at the meeting of the Council of CIS Heads of State in Astana in October 2022 (V SNG uchredili Mezhdunarodnuju organizaciju po russkomu jazyku, 2023). The Russian language was declared a language of interethnic communication for the year 2023 across the CIS (V SNG 2023 god ob"javlen Godom russkogo jazyka kak jazyka mezhnacional'nogo obshhenija, 2023). This declaration entailed an action plan approved by the council that included nine comprehensive cultural activities, 42 scientific and educational conferences and forums, 32 cultural events in literature, music, poetry and theater, and 17 events aimed at providing advanced training to teachers of Russian (V SNG 2023 god ob"javlen Godom russkogo jazyka kak jazyka mezhnacional'nogo obshhenija, 2023).

These developments have been reflected in popular sentiments. According to the British NGO Open Democracy, in 2020 49% of Kazakhs were satisfied with the state of Russia-Kazakhstan bilateral relations, 26% expressed interest in closer cooperation with Moscow and 61% considered Russia’s influence as stabilizing in the region (Laruelle, 2020, Sadeshov, 2021). A
“A Demoscope opinion poll later showed that 51.5% of Kazakh respondents did not change their views about Russia after February 2022, while for a third (32,6%) the perception worsened and 4,7% positively changed their view on the neighbor (Demoscope, 2023).”
In 2022, Kazakh society maintained a generally welcoming attitude toward the rapid influx of Russian emigrants (also related to increased economic cooperation noted above), while the Kazakh government also emphasized the importance of treating Russian citizens arriving in Kazakhstan with respect and hospitality (Forbes Kazakhstan, 2022).

Conclusion

This article concludes that the Kazakh-Russian partnership has endured and even prospered despite the radical change in the geopolitical climate after February 2022. As shown above, top Kazakh leaders still regularly attend high-level events and forums organized by Russia, while the resilience of the Kazakh-Russian political relationship is also maintained through interactions promoted by regional multilateral/intergovernmental platforms such as the CIS, CSTO, EAEU and SCO. In many ways, regional institutionalization appears to have served as an anchor providing additional and complementary venues to maintain and develop bilateral relations in times of crisis. As noted above, Western sanctions seem to entail unintended consequences like incentivizing the relocation of Russian firms to Kazakh cities, supported by new subregional policy initiatives and informal networks.

Despite the rapid and large influx of Russian citizens, Kazakh-Russian societal relations have also remained largely resilient. Before 2022, bilateral societal relations were marked by a relational asymmetry where Russia (especially Moscow) served as a key destination for Kazakhs to pursue education and work, with a much smaller number of Russian citizens relocating to Kazakhstan.
“After 2022, the trend reversed (at least for now) and there appears to be the emergence of a more balanced “give-and-take” with a possible equalizing effect.”
Despite certain disagreements, one can conclude that the changing geopolitical climate since 2022 opened new opportunities for further cooperation between Kazakhstan and Russia, particularly in bilateral economic relations. In many ways, it appears that the developments since 2022 contributed to enhancing Kazakhstan’s foreign policy agency by elevating its importance as a regional partner for Russia and the West.

This article is an enhanced summary of Aselia Orozova’s master dissertation, which explored the changing relations between Russia and three Central Asian states (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan) since 2022. The author thanks Kazushige Kobayashi for his guidance in her master’s dissertation research, in particular his suggestion to disaggregate the analysis into three dimensions of political, economic and societal relations, as well as for his extensive editorial comments that greatly enhanced the quality of this article.
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  • Aselia Orozova

     Independent analyst, MA in international affairs from the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, Switzerland

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