Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Economic Union Challenges Kazak Foreign Policy

Now it's committed to Moscow's regional project, Kazakstan may find it hard to maintain other relationships.

Kazakstan’s move towards closer economic integration with Moscow could hamper its efforts to maintain parallel relationships with other global powers, analysts say.

The Kazak government has long pursued what it calls a “multi-vector” foreign policy, pursuing strong ties with Russia, China and the West, without excessive reliance on any individual power.

Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March and its subsequent international isolation, as well as China’s growing economic influence, are making this balancing act more difficult.

The creation of the Eurasian Economic Union in an agreement signed on May 29 is the latest sign of Moscow’s eagerness to project more influence in the former Soviet Union. Signed by the presidents of Russia, Belarus and Kazakstan at a summit in Astana, the agreement will broaden the Customs Union, of which the three countries are members, into a more economically integrated grouping. The new bloc will come into being next year.

Russia originally proposed far closer political integration, as well, encompassing foreign policy and security, but the other two states were unenthusiastic.

The economic grouping could gain new members in future, as Kyrgyzstan and Armenia are already committed to joining the Customs Union and Tajikistan has also expressed an interest.

In Kazakstan, there has been some opposition to accession, on the grounds that economic integration could be a step towards political domination by Moscow. (See Appeal of Russian Embrace Fades in Kazakstan on this.)

Some experts warn that entering the Eurasian Economic Union will reduce the scope for engagement with the rest of the international community.

Economist expert Toktar Esirkepov says membership contradicts the pursuit of a balanced foreign policy, and is likely to obstruct trade with states outside the bloc.

“Our main partners, China and the European Union, are aware that the [Eurasian Economic Union’s] common trade tariffs contradict their interests,” Esirpekov said.

The EU was Kazakstan's main trading partner last year, accounting for 41 per cent of its total trade. It was followed by Russia with 18 per cent and China 17 per cent.

Galym Ageleuov, head of the human rights organisation Liberty, stressed that Moscow viewed the Eurasian Economic Union as a political project from the outset. He suggested that President Nursultan Nazarbaev had been pressured into joining, and warned of the threat to Kazakstan’s sovereignty if forces advocating the restoration of Soviet-style domination became more powerful.

Nationalist politicians in Russia have proposed annexing Kazakstan’s northern territories, home to a substantial Russian population, forcing Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to state that this was not official policy.

Political analyst Viktor Kovtunovsky says that Nazarbaev is all too aware of the dangers of cosying up to Moscow, but that he had little choice in the matter.

“At the moment, he does not have anyone to turn to if he has problems with the Kremlin,” Kovtunovsky said.

According to Yerkin Irgaliev, the head of the Aspandau Foundation, an academic think-tank, prospects for a possible post-Nazarbaev era make Moscow’s role all the more pivotal. The next presidential election is due in 2016, and the question is whether Nazarbaev will decide to run again and win, or to step aside. Some fear Russia will do all it can to ensure that whoever replaces him is a friendly face.

One way of forestalling Russian advances might be a greater focus on building ties with Beijing. On a state visit to China on May 19-22, Nazarbaev signed a number of investment deals worth more than eight billion US dollars, including projects to modernise Kazak oil refineries and coal processing plants.

This approach carries its own geopolitical risks – China is already a major player in Central Asian energy market. In addition, Kazaks have always harboured nagging fears of being swamped by Chinese labour. A government plan to lease land to Chinese farmers in southern Kazakstan led to protests, and was eventually ditched.

Opposition activist Janbolat Mamai says Chinese political influence is already in evidence.

“The local elite lobby Chinese interests in this country because of corruption,” he said.

Beyond its two big neighbours, Kazakstan’s leaders have made efforts to forge strong relationships with the United States and European states. Aside from a long-held desire to be treated as equals rather than as Russian vassals, they will want to minimise the indirect effects of any futher sanctions imposed on Moscow.

Despite an invitation to attend the Victory Day celebration in Moscow on May 9, Nazarbaev opted to stay in Astana to receive US Deputy Secretary of State William Burns.

Overall, through Irgaliev argues that the “multi-vector” approach can no longer be effective.

“What lies ahead is unpredictability and turbulence, and the previous strategies won’t work,” he said.

Dauren Altynov is a pseudonym for a journalist in Kazakstan.