On the last day of 2014, the Pentagon confirmed that five inmates from Guantanamo Bay prison had been transferred to Kazakhstan. By securing the consent of the Central Asian state, the White House, given President Obama’s commitment to closing the prison, had found an outlet to lessen its Guantanamo human burden.
Still, the Kazakh gesture was not a one-off. They have persistently sought to make a case in Washington as the optimal Eurasian mediator. The Kazakhs say they are in this mission of international mediation for the long run, and Astana’s record speaks well about Kazakh intentions and the role they can play as a credible American partner. And yet, in these turbulent geopolitical days, geography alone makes the Kazakh fondness of multi-vector foreign policy an arduous task.
A long-term commitment
On 16 December, on the occasion of Kazakhstan’s independence day, President Barack Obama sent a congratulatory message to President Nursultan Nazarbayev. Obama thanked the Kazakh leader “for the outstanding leadership that Kazakhstan continues to exercise in promoting peace and prosperity among nations.”
Meanwhile, for a moment in late 2014 it looked as if Kazakhstan was about to once again host the nuclear talks between the P5+1 (US, Russia, China, UK, France and Germany) and Iran. One round of nuclear talks had successfully been held in the Kazakh city of Almaty back in February 2013. In a joint statement on 10 December, Kazakh Foreign Minister Yerlan Idrissov and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry signaled Kazakhstan’s willingness to act as a host yet again, a prospect that the Iranian side welcomed as well.
In the end, Geneva was selected as the venue but Kazakhstan had in the meantime demonstrated its knack to be a top contender as an international mediator. The role of a global peacemaker is one that is dear to President Nazarbayev who over the course of 23-years of Kazakh independence has invested considerably in the quest for a multi-vector foreign policy. Still, given its location, sandwiched between Russia and China but also with a keen eye to maintain close ties to the US, the Kazakh formula is not without its challenges.
Most importantly, the U.S.-Russia fallout over the crisis in Ukraine, and the high probability of greater Chinese-American rivalry in years to come, forces some tough choices on Astana. Still, Kazakh officials remain adamant that they have no choice but to remain committed to a multi-vector policy. As they point out, it is not just geopolitical realities that dictate such an approach but that a policy of constructive neutrality is rooted in the pluralistic nature of Kazakhstan as a country.
The fact that John Kerry made the joint announcement with Yerlan Idrissov is a product of painstaking Kazakh commitment to anti-proliferation since its independence in 1991. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan became the first country in the world to voluntarily renounce its arsenal of nuclear weapons, which was at the time the fourth largest in the world.
Six months after gaining independence, Nazarbayev signed the Lisbon Protocol to the “Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty” and opted to surrender the nuclear arsenal it had inherited from the Soviet Union. Astana has since become a champion of the anti-proliferation movement, a cause dear to a country where one million Kazakh people had been exposed to radiation thanks to 456 nuclear weapon tests that the Soviets carried out from 1949 to 1989.
Striving for harmony at home
Kazakhstan, the ninth largest country in the world by size but with a population of only 18 million, was always considered the breadbasket of the Soviet Union. On top of agricultural riches, it has plenty of oil and natural gas reserves. Soon after independence, companies such as Chevron, Eni, Agip, BG and many others arrived and began multi-billion dollar exploration projects.
The availability of reserves was important but political stability at home and Astana’s ability to maintain cordial ties with all its neighbors, was no less of an factor. This has been true particularly for Astana’s balancing act with Moscow and Beijing.
President Nazarbayev, given that Kazakhstan has a large Russian minority and is otherwise home to some 140 ethnic groups, has also prioritized domestic harmony and the country has experienced no ethnic unrest. Meanwhile, in an effort to build on its reputation as a mediator, Astana in 2003 launched Congress of World and Traditional Religions, an initiative aimed at inter-religious dialogue. As a moderate Muslim-majority country, the Kazakhs are well placed to lead such increasingly important initiatives.
Between Russia and China
But continued economic growth is vitally critical as Kazakhstan stays the course of development and the pursuit of constructive neutrality. In October, Astana formed a new growth strategy that is heavily aimed at developing the country’s physical infrastructure. As a large land-locked country in the heart of Eurasia, the Kazakhs want to become the principal hub for trade between Europe and Russia and China and the rest of East Asia. The massive 3-year plan to build new roads and railway is expected to result in job creation but also better link the country to its neighbors.
Elsewhere in recent months the Kazakhs have been busy consolidating trade relations with China, the EU and Russia. On 14 December, Astana and Beijing signed a number of deals amounting to $14 billions in value. Energy and mineral exploration and the infrastructure needed to bring it to the Chinese market was key in the accords. Meanwhile, in October President Nazarbayev was in Brussels to push ahead with talks on an “Enhanced Partnership and Cooperation Agreement” with the EU. The agreement is said to deepen trade and security ties between the two sides.
From Brussels, Nazarbayev flew to Minsk to attend the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) summit, a new economic bloc between Kazakhstan, Russia, Belarus and Armenia, launched in May 2014. The EEU was the brainchild of Nazarbayev who has long argued that Astana should pursue a multilateral approach to foreign policy and evidently believes that this approach is not contradictory but essential for any country that aspires to act as a vested arbiter.
It is a difficult course but one that facilitates much needed economic integration, and also gives the Kazakhs the requisite neutrality to be able to perform a convincing role as a Eurasian mediator that Washington can continue to resort to when times call for it.
Alex Vatanka is a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute and The Jamestown Foundation in Washington D.C.