Kazakhstan is concerned about the state of the relations between the West and Russia. The country is home to some 4 million Russians, who mainly live in the North and the major cities (Astana and Almaty). It shares a 7,000 km border with Russia, and, together with Russia and Belarus, is one the founding members of the EEU (Eurasian Economic Union).
Its ties with Russia are strong and deep, and Russian trade and investment are in general welcomed. Yet, Kazakhstan intends to defend its sovereignty and choices in economic and foreign policy. In this sense, its most important regional interlocutor is Uzbekistan.
Uzbekistan has constantly refused to join international organisations, and followed a course of relative isolation: in 2012 it pulled away from the CSTO (Collective Security Treaty Organisation) and has so far refrained from any involvement with the EEU. While its economic conditions cannot be compared to Kazakhstan’s –according to the World Bank, 2013, Uzbekistan’s per capita GDP would be around $2,000 (versus $13,000 for Kazakhstan) – Uzbekistan remains Central Asia’s largest country (with more than 30 million inhabitants) and the one with the largest armed forces.
An agreement between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan could be crucial to the region’s autonomy. The 25th November meeting between their long-term presidents, Nazarbayev and Karimov, should be read in this light. Stability and relative autonomy of Central Asia strongly depend on ties and co-operation between these two countries.
Both countries could benefit from investing more in water energy and the construction of new hydroelectric facilities along the Syr Darya and Amu Darya was a key issue during the meeting.
Still, Karimov’s visit to Astana seems to point to a broader political issue: Kazakhstan and even isolated Uzbekistan feel the necessity to debate and find common positions in a difficult moment for Eurasia and the world economy.
In addition to the meeting with Karimov, Nazarbayev also met the presidents of Turkmenistan, Mr Berdimuhamedow, and Iran, Mr Rouhani, on 3rd December for the launch of a 928-km long Kazakhstan-Turkmenistan-Iran railway. The railway will connect Uzen (Kazakhstan) with Gorgan in Iran, and will contribute to raising trade and exchange of goods. In particular, wheat and other grains will more easily reach Iran and the Gulf region. The new railway has supported ‘The New Silk Road’ linking Kazakhstan to China, it has allowed Kazakhstan to increase its independence from Moscow and has better defined Kazahkstan’s position within Eurasia.
Kazakhstan has engaged in intense diplomacy with European countries in the last few weeks. On 24th November, Astana was visited by Czech president Milos Zeman, head of a state which, despite historical grievances, has recently expressed pro-Russia leanings. Zeman and Nazarbayev talked about economic co-operation, particularly in sectors such as transport and industry, and Kazakhstan offered fiscal and financial incentives to Czech firms.
The other top European guests of Nazarbayev in recent weeks have included Switzerland’s president Didier Burkhalter and France’s François Hollande. Switzerland is one of Kazakhstan’s major trade partners and investors, and this has certainly been a key issue in the meeting between the two presidents. At the same time, Switzerland is currently chairing the OSCE (Kazakhstan did in 2010) and Nazarbayev had the chance to talk about the Ukraine situation. Kazakhstan, which is home to a large Russian minority, has not recognised Crimea’s annexation; however, it has strongly spoken against the sanctions and is trying to mediate between the West and Moscow.
Dr. Gallo has lectured in several British universities and is currently based at the Kaplan International College London and The Open University. He has published in English and Italian on international relations and political theory. He has also published (with Giovanni Biava) political commentaries on Open Democracy, and is currently engaged in a research project on Central Asia, with a specific focus on Kazakhstan between two great powers, China and Russia. Dr. Gallo received his PhD from the University of Turin.
First appeared in Global Risk Insights.