Kazakhstan and Russia: A Changing Relationship?

Among the post Soviet states Kazakhstan, together with Belarus, holds the status of the closest ally to Russia. It is one of the few countries that supports Russian actions in the international arena and is a member of the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU).

Even given Russia’s recent aggressive actions in Ukraine, Kazakhstani foreign minister Yerlan Idrisov has stated that Russia remains Kazakhstan’s ally and strategic partner in politics, economics and security affairs. In 2014, Kazakhstan and Russia ratified the ‘Treaty on Good-Neighborliness and Allied Relations in the 21st Century’, which entered into force in 2015. Upon signing the treaty, Idrisov stated that Russia: “is a very important market for us and an important transit space that allows us to enter international markets”, and went on to acknowledge the changing relationship with Russia through the new Eurasian Union: “Of course, the context of our relations fills with a new phenomenon — the Eurasian Economic Union. The Treaty on the Eurasian Economic Union was signed in Astana in May.” The treaty of the Eurasian Economic Union came into force in January 2015.

Kazakhstani leaders have actively supported the creation of the EEU, with Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev stating that he considered the creation of the EEU as one of the most important events of the year.

A large part of this enthusiasm can be attributed to the fact that a Kazakh president was the first to put forward the idea of such a union in 1994, and is significant in the context of Kazakhstani-Russian relationship. However, Kazakhstan’s interest in the EEU is also an economic one; with the union offering access to a market of over 170 million people, it is no surprise that the potential for vastly increased trade attracts Kazakhstani officials.

However, not one year after the signing of the EEU treaty, the union is already at great risk of failure due to the current economic crisis in Russia. The wider population in Kazakhstan also does not universally share their government’s enthusiasm for the EEU. The signing of the EEU agreement brought a number of protests and anti-Eurasian sentiments in the country, with the opposition calling for a referendum on the issue – calls that were largely ignored.

There is a large Russian minority in North of Kazakhstan, of over 3 million people, and it is interesting, although perhaps not surprising, to note that the EEU is more popular among ethnic Russian citizens of Kazakhstan rather than ethnic Kazakh citizens (Satpaev, 2015) But more importantly for Kazakh officials is the fact that having such a large ethnic Russian community brings fears that similar events such as those of Eastern Ukraine could also take place in Kazakhstan.

Many commentators are speculating that this fear, combined with the anti-EEU sentiment voiced by many Kazakhs, could be a sign of a change in the country’s close relations with Russia.

This is especially so since the relationship has become a more frequently discussed topic in the context of the crisis in Ukraine in which Kazakhstan has called for both countries to work towards peace and has stated that it is willing to play the role of mediator (Peerson, 2015). Nazarbaev has been quoted as saying: “I ask Russia and Ukraine to think about finding a compromise to end the crisis and to maintain Ukraine’s territorial integrity, since the situation in Donbass (eastern Ukraine) is senseless.” (Klimenko, 2014)

Kazakhstan is cooperating with Ukraine and supports its territorial integrity despite opposition from Russia. Kazakhstan has also recently announced plans to export coal to Ukraine since most Ukrainian coalmines are now under the control of pro-Russian separatists, further straining relations over the crisis,

The ongoing economic crisis in Russia and conflict in Ukraine have been directly affecting the Kazakh economy, and with the Rouble in freefall and the current drop in oil prices, there may yet be further devaluation of the Kazakh currency.

And if Putin’s actions have not helped to make matters better, neither have his words, as he recently famously stated that Kazakhs never enjoyed statehood until collapse of Soviet Union, causing outrage among many Kazakhs.

As a result, and despite the Kazakhstani foreign minister’s claims, 2014 has almost certainly been the most difficult year in Kazakh-Russian relationship history. It remains to be seen if 2015, and the EEU, will bring any improvement. Perhaps the analysis by The Diplomat’s Casey Michel sums up the situation best:

‘Kazakhstan has long been one of Russia’s closest partners, both economically and geopolitically. And in certain rhetorical ventures – photo-ops for the Eurasian Union’s unveiling; discussions at the United Nations – it will likely continue to do so. But just beyond those superficialities, relations have soured to a greater extent than any seen since the Soviet Union’s collapse. As Putin’s recent press conference illustrated, the Kremlin’s political and policy choices driving this strain won’t change anytime soon – meaning 2015 will likely accelerate the pressures this once-tight relationship now knows’ (Michel, 2014).

About the Author

Giorgi Shengelia is a graduate of University College Dublin (UCD) with a bachelor’s degree in Politics and International Relations, and a master’s degree in Geopolitics and Global Economics. He has completed an internship in the Georgian Embassy to Ireland and is currently working in the Human Rights Committee in the Parliament of Georgia. His fields of interests include Geopolitics, Human Rights, European Union and Middle East Politics. Giorgi is part of GPPW’s internship programme.

You can find him on Facebook and Linkedin 

*Cover image ‘Expedition 39 Soyuz Rollout (201403230023HQ)‘ by NASA adapted from Flickr by the author

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