BALANCING ROLE

Kazakhstan 2016 | DIPLOMACY | FOCUS: BILATERAL RELATIONS

The country is in the midst of a dynamic yet uncertain period of regional international relations and will need to carefully evaluate its foreign polices to maintain its historically neutral position.

Kazakhstan's geographic position between Europe and Asia means the country is almost endlessly involved in all aspects of the region's active international relations scene. Since its independence in 1992, the landlocked, oil-rich country has pursued an efficient and peaceful foreign policy: apart from excellent relations with the countries on its southern border (Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan), it has established strong ties with the three larger powers of Russia, the US, and China.

On the one hand, the country supplies natural gas to Putin's government at low prices and has had a longstanding friendship with the country, with which it shares its longest land border. On the other, it has partnered with the US to tackle global terrorism and achieve international peace. In fact, since its cooperation with Washington after independence, Kazakhstan has been praised for its commitment to this objective; the country renounced its nuclear arsenal (fourth-largest in the world) when it signed the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons in 1994, and has since encouraged others to do the same. In particular, it contributed to Iran's shipment of uranium to Russia as part of Iran's agreement to reduce its stockpile of uranium.

Sino-Kazakh relations are based primarily on mutual economic benefits: Kazakhstan supplies China with raw resources that the superpower needs to sustain its rapid growth, while Kazakhstan is one of the top destinations of Chinese investments in the World.

Kazakhstan also enjoys robust relations with the EU, its main trading partner, and with Turkey, which was the first country to recognize Kazakhstan's independence, and with which it shares its Turkic identity.

Thus, the country finds itself geographically and diplomatically at the heart of the current global arena. However, the international relations scene is now undergoing important transformations that may affect Kazakhstan's successful foreign policy and place the country in the position of mediator between superpowers.
As Kazakhstan continues to play a crucial role in the difficult and evolving relationship between the US and Iran, as part of the country's commitment to non-proliferation, it is also involved in Europe's ongoing transformation, as the world's biggest single market deals with a migrant crisis and a confused Britain, Kazakhstan's third-largest investor, which is doubting its membership in the EU.

Kazakhstan is also witnessing the rise of China as a rapidly growing presence in Central Asia. In light of tensions with the West, Russia is intensifying its partnership with China, with which it shares many political views. Politics, however, is not the only thing the two superpowers share: both have competing economic interests in Central Asia, and Russia's influence in the area is undermined by China's huge FDIs in Kazakhstan, whose foreign policy toward the two countries might be reshaped in the near future.

The main issue concerning Kazakhstan's foreign relations, however, is the ongoing tension between Russia and Turkey. Kazakhstan now finds itself stuck in an awkward position between its two long-term allies. The country's president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, who wishes to maintain as neutral a position as possible, has encouraged the two countries to restore their relationship, saying both countries are important partners, and tensions between the two are a challenge for Astana. Turkey's friendship with Kazakhstan is vital to its economy, which has been deeply affected by Russia's recently imposed sanctions, which are forcing the country to seek access to alternative markets. One objective is entering the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), to which Kazakhstan can provide access. Turkey's friendship is vital to Kazakhstan, too, as it grants access to the European and Middle Eastern markets, helping to revive an economy damaged by the global decline in oil prices. Negotiations over Turkey potentially joining the EEU and Kazakhstan strengthening trade ties with Turkey could, however, cause resentment in Russia.

Kazakhstan does not wish to take sides in this delicate matter, but its role as a balancing act seems inevitable, and the country's Ministry of Foreign Affairs will be as meticulous and cautious as ever.