Russia – Kazakhstan Relations

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Western media has talked up differences – but bilateral trade is up 4x on 2021

By Chris Devonshire-Ellis

Kazakhstan President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev has been targeted by Western media in light of comments he made at the recent St. Petersburg International Economic Forum (SPIEF). Several Western commentators have suggested a pro-Western bias is emerging from Tokayev, as they look for signs of weakness amongst Russia’s allies.

Kazakhstan and Russia share a 7,644km border, while Kazakhstan is a major rail trade conduit between Russia and China. During the SPIEF session, Tokayev was asked about the UN Charter and the basis of International Law when it comes to sovereignty, an issue he is familiar with as he has previously served as Secretary-General of the United Nations office in Geneva.

In replying, he mentioned that for Kazakhstan, the UN Charter is the basis of international law, even if two of its principles are at odds: the right of countries to territorial integrity and the right of nations to self-determination. That is a key issue when he described the next piece of his answer “For this reason we do not recognize Taiwan, or Kosovo, or South Ossetia, or Abkhazia. And in all likelihood, this principle will be applied to quasi-state entities, which, in our opinion, include Luhansk and Donetsk (Donbass).”

There has been some mischief sent around by erstwhile Russia commentators (such as – not actually based in Russia) suggesting that relations between Moscow and Nur-Sultan are not what they should be and that Tokayev is ‘against’ Russia in the Ukraine conflict. This is erroneous. In fact, all Tokayev did was quote the UN legal position – and point out its conflicting elements.

In presenting Tokayev to be pro-Western, analysts conveniently forget that Kazakhstan is sited between Russia and China, and that he has to make a balance between them. Accepting that Luhansk and Donetsk were ‘quasi-states’ meant he could state that Taiwan was as well – and therefore not be dragged into a conflict about this with China. Also not mentioned is that should the status of the two Donbass republics be changed – and their full sovereignty shifts to Russia (as Henry Kissinger has suggested) then the question over their status is rendered irrelevant – they would be Russian, and Kazakhstan would support that.

Russian President Putin may have wished the question hadn’t been asked, as it showed up a legal anomaly with the UN that is not currently in Russia’s favour. However, this does not mean that Russian-Kazakh relations are weak, despite what some are trying to expose as a faux pas that Tokayev’s opinion on UN laws suggest they are.

It should not be forgotten that Tokayev, a UN man, was responsible for turning to Russia when the country exploded into violence at the beginning of the year – he called on Putin to send in military support, which happened and quelled the violence. Peace was restored to Kazakhstan and the Russian military left the country, having assisted with bolstering Kazakhstan’s own internal security, in February. These are not the actions of a Russian President with designs on recreating the USSR.

Instead, and away from the Ukraine situation, Russian investment into Kazakhstan has reached US$S17 billion while bilateral trade is up at rates to nearly 30% over 2021’s figures. Kazakh-Russian bilateral trade reached US$25 billion that year and had already exceeded US$12 billion in the first three months of 2022. As Russian President Putin mentioned to Tokayev on stage at SPIEF “If it continues like this, we will set a new record.”

In fact, Russia and Kazakhstan are working on significant infrastructure projects, not least the proposed Irtysh Rover Port with the potential to assist facilitate both Russia-Kazakh-China trade but also offer Kazakhstan a route to the Arctic Ocean and Northern Sea Passage. Apart from the Caspian Sea, Kazakhstan is landlocked and the route would be of immense strategic use.

Critics of Kazakhstan’s relationship with Russia point to cancellation of certain energy shipments and related issues as being proof of stress between the two countries – but in reality, Tokayev, new to the role, and doused in UN politics, is wary of his country being subjected to secondary sanctions by the United States, and he is wise to be, especially as to a large degree, the country relies on both Russian and Chinese trade and investment. Accordingly, he is managing the Russia risk in order not to be cut off from China, Kazakhstan’s largest trade partner. At the same time, Tokayev is managing the EU relationship, with whom bilateral trade volumes were up 25.6% in 2021. However, Kazakhstan’s energy supplies are still greatly dependent on existing Russian pipelines and operators (Kazakhstan is the regions second largest oil exporter after Russia and relies on Russian operated pipelines to export its own energy) and this is not a situation easily changed.

Kazakhstan is also a member of the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), a free trade bloc that includes Russia in addition to Armenia, Belarus, and Kyrgyzstan, and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) which Ukraine has just passed laws to leave. So much for Ukraine-Kazakh trade potential and solidarity from Kiev.

Far from being cool on Russia, Tokayev, a highly experienced diplomat and politician, is managing a difficult situation being caught between Moscow, Beijing, and Brussels, and having to listen to US rhetoric from the UN as well. It cannot be easy. But opinions that express relations with Russia are in trouble are wide of the mark when viewed under the reality that Kazakh-Russian bilateral trade is currently running at 4x the 2021 rate. As always, the reality is in the statistics, not the rhetoric.

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