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

Kazakstan's Balancing Act Over Ukraine Ties

Government aims to strengthen links with Kiev while avoiding alienating strategic partner Moscow.
By Saule Mukhametrakhimova

Kazakstan is taking steps to build a working relationship with the new Ukrainian government, but given its closeness to Russia it is focusing on economic ties and avoiding politics.

Although Kazak president Nursultan Nazarbaev did not himself travel to Kiev for the inauguration of new president Petro Poroshenko on June 7, he sent one of his most trusted officials, Prime Minister Karim Masimov.

In a visit interpreted as a sign Kazakstan was keen to normalise relations with Ukraine, Masimov met his counterpart Arseny Yatsenyuk, and both agreed to restore a joint commission on economic cooperation.

Experts say Kazakstan has only a limited amount to gain from improving economic ties with Ukraine. Official statistics for the first six months of last year show that Ukraine ranked only seventh among Kazakstan’s trade partners, after Russia, China and four European countries.

As for Ukraine, some analysts say it is interested in Kazakstan’s markets and in its oil, although the constraint on the latter is the need to use the Russian pipeline network.

Instead, the revival of relations is being seen as more of an attempt by Kazakstan to demonstrate that despite its close ties with Russia, it is able to pursue an independent foreign policy.

In addition, it is keen to reach out to the West, and Nazarbaev would like to boost his reputation as a statesman and position Kazakstan as a country able to bridge international divisions.

“Nazarbaev is trying to hang on to the multi-vector foreign policy, which is proving more difficult than before,” said Pyotr Svoik, an Almaty-based political analyst.

Experts note that Kazakstan initially struggled to identify a clear position on the ousting of authoritarian president Viktor Yanukovych and then Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

Two days after Russia’s parliament approved the troop deployment in Crimea, the Kazak foreign ministry called for a “responsible approach” and the avoidance of actions liable to “provoke a further escalation of the crisis”.

As events gathered pace, with a referendum held in Crimea on March 16 and formal annexation by Russia swiftly following, Kazakstan changed its position. Its foreign ministry said the referendum was a true expression of Crimeans’ wishes, and expressed “understanding” for Russia’s actions. But Kazakstan subsequently abstained from voting on a United Nations General Assembly resolution condemning the Crimean referendum – a bold move given that Moscow was seeking a no vote from its allies.

Although Astana counts Moscow as a strategic partner, there are clear and unsettling implications to be drawn from the annexation of Crimea under the pretext of protecting Russian-speakers there.

Northern Kazakstan is home to a substantial Slav community, and recent statements by nationalists in Moscow that these lands are rightfully part of Russia led to the government in Astana issuing a protest note.

Nonetheless, Kazakstan’s relations with Russia remain a strategic priority. Last month, it signed an agreement to join the Moscow-dominated Eurasian Economic Union, which takes the Customs Union to which Russia, Kazakstan and Belarus belong towards closer economic integration.

“Even before, Kazakstan was not able to pursue an independent policy towards the new Ukrainian government. Now it is even less able to,” Svoik said. (See Economic Union Challenges Kazak Foreign Policy.)

Tolganay Umbetalieva, director of the Central Asia Foundation for Democracy, agreed that Kazakstan’s tactical partnership with Russia was an important factor in its delayed acceptance of the new Ukrainian government.

But she believes there is also another reason – a fear of Kiev-style popular protests in Kazakstan.

“Of course there’s the danger of losing the northern regions if relations with the Kremlin worsen. But in terms of importance, the first factor [unrest] is much more important to the Kazak elite,” Umbetalieva said.

Analysts say the authorities’ reactions to different forms of dissent reveal where their true fears lie.

“For example, a protest in front of the Ukrainian embassy proceeds without any problems,” said Andrei Grishin, a member of staff with the Kazakstan International Bureau of Human Rights and Rule of Law. “But those who picket the Russian embassy get detained.”

Grishin recalled how the head of the state-funded Ukrainian Cultural Centre was dismissed after organising a trip for a group of Kazakstan journalists to Ukraine.

While anti-Russian protests are not encouraged so as to avoid antagonising Moscow, nor are efforts by some pro-Russian groups to collect humanitarian aid for south-eastern Ukraine.

A campaign, which follows similar action in Russia, was widely advertised on social networking sites in early June. There were reports of fundraising operations in northern cities like Kostanay and northwestern localities such as Aktobe, and even in Shymkent in the south.

RFE/RL’s Kazak service quoted Shymkent resident Timofei Zaitsev who said he was collecting food, clothes and medical supplies out of compassion for those “fighting against fascism” in Ukraine.

In the city of Karagandy in central Kazakstan, the campaign was stopped by the local authorities.

Murat Abenov, a well-known former member of parliament, wrote on his Facebook page that this kind of fundraising must be avoided so as not to give Kiev the impression that Kazakstan was taking sides in the conflict.

Some members of the public were clear that this supposedly humanitarian drive supported separatism, while others felt that there was no problem as long as it helped civilians.

Mahambet Abjan, who works with the Shanyrak NGO, told IWPR that he favoured helping ordinary people in Ukraine but would oppose donations of a clearly military nature.

Analysts note that opinions on Ukraine are not necessarily divided along ethnic lines, as one might expect them to be.

According to official figures, Kazaks constitute just over than 65 per cent of the 17 million-strong population. About one-fifth is Russian and slightly less than two per cent Ukrainian.

“What is interesting is that support for one or the other side is not determined by one’s ethnic origin,” said Grishin.

Umbetalieva said this could be due to the influence of pro-Kremlin Russian media, which are popular in Kazakstan. Coverage has dominated by reports of civilian suffering in eastern Ukraine.

“In the absence of a clearly-defined [official] position, the majority of the Kazakstan public is exposed to Russia’s view,” she said.

Grishin said the authorities seemed to be tolerating a range of views on the issue as long as debate was confined to online discussion.

Abjan added that there was nothing wrong with discussion, “but it is important that the war of words on Facebook doesn’t spill out into the streets”.

He noted that social networking sites had seen a shift away from discussions on Ukraine towards debates with a distinctly nationalist flavour. This extended to making hostile declarations about other ethnic groups, a trend he saw as worrying.

More and more people seemed to be open about their extreme views, said.

“Some express provocative views openly calling for the occupation of Kazak lands, whereas those on the other side of the extreme are describing people from non-Kazak ethnic groups as ‘diasporas’,” Abjan said.

Saule Mukhametrakhimova is IWPR Central Asia editor in London.