Exploring Kazakhstan’s Foreign Policy and Future Scenarios: a Meeting with Roman Vassilenko

Astana International Forum and the interview with Roman Vassilenko
An image of the Astana International Forum (AIF), where SpecialEurasia met Roman Vassilenko, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Kazakhstan (Credits: SpeciaEurasia)

The Astana International Forum (AIF) has brought significant attention to Kazakhstan, a Central Asian republic that holds strategic importance due to its geographical location and abundant natural resources. Given the recent geopolitical events that have had an impact on the global stage, it is essential to delve into Kazakhstan’s foreign and domestic policies in order to gain a better understanding of the potential future scenarios for the country.

During the forum, SpecialEurasia met with Roman Vassilenko, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Kazakhstan, to deepen our knowledge about the country’s foreign politics and assess national and regional dynamics.

Can you give us an overview of Kazakhstan’s political and economic performance over the past year, and how would you assess it?

This has been a changing year for Kazakhstan. We implemented socio-economic reforms which transformed the government system. Our government never forgets also our international obligation: indeed, since the launch of the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative’s (also known as the New Silk Road), Kazakhstan has been the bridge between the east and the west, a role that has given us recently geopolitical prominence considering the recent contingence of the international arena.

Kazakhstan is committed to international peace, security and stability. Our multi-vectorial foreign policy has been indispensable. Kazakhstan does not have bad or tense relations with any country. One of the main objectives of the Astana International Forum is to amplify the voices of the countries, seeking a west-polarised international order and the greatest cooperation.

We have been promoting diplomacy for several decades, establishing several international dialogue platforms. The OSCE’s decision to grant Kazakhstan as chair of the organisation in 2010 was a recognition of the country’s regional and continental importance. We provided a platform for negotiation for the Syrian conflict, the Astana process, and negotiations about the Iranian nuclear program.  

We are a transcontinental transport hub connecting markets from the west to the east, and from the north to the south. The visionary trans-Caspian transport route is critical news. It’s the restoration of the ancient silk routes in the modern era.

In the forum, we will discuss how to strengthen the Eurasian economy, since the Kazakh economy has proven resilience through the geopolitical upheavals. Our country is not immune to current globally economic challenges, including inflation and a decrease in investor confidence.

Within the framework of Kazakhstan’s foreign policy, does the Organisation of Turkic States (OTS) hold significant importance? How do you foresee the role of this organisation evolving for Kazakhstan in the future?

Kazakhstan was one initiator of the establishment of the Turkish Council as, of course, we are a Turkic speaking country. We were in favour of transform this organisation just council in a fully flagged organisation of Turkic states. We are pleased that it has grown from 4 to 5 countries, including Uzbekistan, and there are observer states such as Hungary.

For Kazakhstan, cooperation within the Turkic world is important, in the sense that we prioritise cooperation in the cultural and economic domains. Within the organisation, there is a document called Vision 2040 which prioritises future development.

We look forward to hosting this October the summit of the OTS in Turkistan, which is a historic city of Kazakhstan built over 1500 years ago. We have a vision of our challenges, which we will undertake with this summit. It will focus on cultural cooperation and education, greater collaboration in economy and logistic.

So, for Kazakhstan to be part of the OTS is a natural approach. We believe that cooperation within the Turkic world has a great future. Several countries of the OTS lie along the Middle Corridor, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and Turkey. The Middle Corridor is an extremely important project for our country and cooperation with Ankara and Baku will be vital for the success of this project.

We have noticed Astana’s recent interest in BRICS. Could you provide insights into Kazakhstan’s willingness to be part of this organisation and any potential roadmap? Additionally, do you believe BRICS can contribute to addressing global challenges?

The first Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Kairat Umarov, was in South Africa last week. Kazakhstan was invited to attend the event organised by member states, as we are interested in cooperating with BRICS.

We believe forums like BRICS are of great value because they force cooperation between its members. Generally, Kazakhstan, with its strong commitment to multilateralism, is interested in participating in the work of institutions that promote economic cooperation.

Kazakhstan is a founding member of the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) for example, and we are members of other organisations which have an economic component as we prioritise economic cooperation within OTS, the EAEU, and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. So, we will be interested in joining BRICS if we are invited.

We think this organisation can help to develop cooperation between its members because it reunites some countries in the so-called global south, but not necessarily because China and Russia are also members of BRICS.

Roman Vassilenko, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Kazakhstan
Roman Vassilenko, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Kazakhstan

How did Kazakhstan approach the recent shifts and developments in geopolitical dynamics?

Kazakhstan multi-vectorial foreign policy has proven to be successful for us during the 30 years of our independence. But it was in the last year, with the beginning of the major conflict of Ukraine, that something changed because of geopolitical tensions increasing between the West and Russia.

Russia is our biggest neighbour and we share 7500 km borders. Kazakhstan is not a small country, but it is also a country of only 20 million people, a ‘middle power’, which borders with Russia and China. We promoted a diplomatic solution exploiting this multilateral approach, so since the beginning we said that we will adopt a normal mutual beneficial and mutual respectful relation with Russia, China, other Central Asian nations, but also with the West.

And this policy has proven to be successful. Not just because Kazakhstan has no tense relation with no countries in the world but also in the economic sense: for example, if you look at the structure of the foreign direct investments (FDIs) in Kazakhstan, around 410 billion dollars, the largest share of investments came from the European Union (117 billion dollars). The United States invested 60 billion dollars so far. There are other big investors, China, Russia, the United Kingdom, Japan, South Korea and Turkey.

So this openness, this multi-vectorial approach, this credibility of Kazakhstan have attracted investments, developed our economy and become what we are, a resilient economy, larger than the other countries in Central Asia combined, but also a country that is respected in the world and it can host event such as the OIC summit or the Astana Export.

In the situation of global heightening tensions, and the major shocks that the global system experienced, including the UN Security Council and the OIC, Kazakhstan believes that only by going back to the fundamentals fundings principles on which these organisations were founded we will restore global dialogue on the international arena, which is not working as it should in the interest of humanity, because of course besides wars  and conflicts around the world, there are other huge challenges that face the entire humankind such as climate change, poverty, sustainable economic growth not only in the so-called global north but also in the south.

Kazakhstan remains committed to this multi-vectorial foreign policy. It needs some adaptations, but the fundamentals are the same. In the recent months and weeks, you can see how this diplomacy works in practice: our President attended the China-Central Asia Summit in Xi’an and paid a state visit in May to China, signing 47 agreements worth 22 billion dollars, not only economic agreements but also interministerial, interparliamentary, intergovernmental agreements. Also, China and Kazakhstan focused on important aspects of our cooperation such as transportation.

In the same period the President attended in Moscow the Eurasian Economic Union Summit where he addressed the gathering with his remarks in which he recalled the fundamental on which the organisation is based, the economic cooperation between member states. And he was in Kyrgyzstan where he attended the Central Asian high-level leaders meeting in the presence of the European Union President, Charles Michelle. A week before, in Almaty, executive vice president of the European commission attended an EU-Central Asia Economic forum. I can also recall the visit of U.S. secretary of State Blinken to Kazakhstan in February.

Thus, this multi-vectorial foreign policy of Kazakhstan is alive and kicking and is very active and is going to remain our approach. As far as sanctions and G7 decisions, Kazakhstan is of the opinion that military solutions to the problems are not viable solutions and that sanctions are not a workable answer. That is why we have not joined the sanctions against Russia.

Of course, we are a member of the EAEU with Russia, so it is practical for us impossible to impose any sanctions on Russia. At the same time, we have made our decision clear that Kazakhstan will not allow its territory to be used for intentional circumvention of sanctions. All our trading partners know this position, including the EU, the United States, and Russia.

This decision is because we do not want our economy to feel any additional pressure or negative influence of the so-called secondary sanctions that may be imposed on Kazakh companies. Therefore, we maintain very close contacts with our partners in the West. We track sanctioned companies and individual so economic actors in Kazakhstan do not risk dealing with these entities. On April 1st, we introduced a tracking on imported goods to monitor the situation. On the other side, we do our best to minimise the impact of the sanctions on Russia and the reflection on our economy, as we have important ties.

What impact did the conflict in Ukraine have on Kazakhstan?

The impact of the war in Ukraine has been deep because of economic and geopolitical factors, and domestic political developments. When I talk about economic impact, primarily I am referring to the destruction of the established supply chain and transportation rules, between Kazakhstan, Central Asia and our major trading partners which are in Europe.

Last year, we witnessed the decline in overland transportation along the Northern Corridor, which runs from China, through Kazakhstan cross Russia and Belarus, into Poland. For the first time in 30 years of this connection, this Corridor experienced a decreased of over 35% of its functions because of the concerns of the companies which keep this link to become unsustainable. Therefore, we are so keen to develop alternative routes, including the Middle Corridor, which will provide at least some additional capacity for the transportations of goods from China to Europe across Central Asia.

The second impact was on our economy. I am discussing inflation, which continues at a very high rate, besides the consequences of the pandemic, which affected every Kazakh citizen.

Kazakhstan is a country with over 130 ethnic groups. We had a very tragic history. Particularly in the 20th century, when Kazakhstan was used by the Soviet Union under the Stalin government to damp entire ethnic groups in punishment for their suppose collaboration with the Nazis: the Chechens for example, the Georgians or the Koreans from the far east.

Previously, Kazakhstan suffered great famine in the early 1930, which reduced the number of ethnic Kazakhs from 4 million to 2 million because of mass death and migration. The Soviet Union also used our country as testing grounds for Soviet nuclear weapons: Moscow conducted 450 tests in the country’s east impacting the life of 1.5 million people resulting in premature death because of radiation.

Kazakhstan was the place of the so-called ‘virgin land program’ during the times of Nikita Khrushchev. Hundreds of thousand ethnic Russians, Belarussians, Ukrainians were sent by the Soviet Union to our land to develop these virgin lands. So, as a result, when Kazakhstan became independent, we had an amazing mix of ethnicity and a society that has been educated in the tradition of tolerance. Many of these people were sent to Kazakhstan for internal exile and they could survive thanks to the Kazakhs, who welcomed them and shared the last piece of their bread.

Therefore, when the conflict in Ukraine worsened in 2022, you can imagine how close it feels in our country. 15 % of the population, around 3 million people, are ethnic Russians. 300.000 are ethnic Ukrainians. For decades, people paid very little attention by distinguishing themselves between Russians, Ukrainians, Belarusians, as there were mixed marriages. Thus, this conflict is very tragic but also closely felt in Kazakhstan. And it makes us realise the paramount importance of mantaining peace and harmony in our society. 

In our country, since 1995, we have an institution called ‘the extraordinary people of Kazakhstan’. It brings together all the ethnic groups. We do not say ethnic minorities. This assembly is important because it brings together the leaders of these ethnic groups for talks, but also deals with preserving harmony. Germans, Polish, Armenians, Romanians, etc. are present in this vital institution. We have realised how important it is to maintain internal peace among different groups based on our constitution which says: ‘We the people of Kazakhstan’ ”.

Western media interpreted the China-Central Asia summit as a sign of increased Chinese involvement in the Kazakh economy. Considering NATO’s official statement declaring China a systemic threat, how reliant is the Chinese economy on Chinese investments? In a worst-case scenario such as a war in Taiwan, how might sanctions on Beijing affect Kazakhstan’s economy?

We neighbour with China and we share 1800 km borders. The People’s Republic of China is our second largest trading partner, and it looks like it will be even a greater partner considering the agreements signed during President Tokayev’s recent visit.

For Kazakhstan, cooperation with China is a given. China is the second largest economy in the world right now. It has a market of 1.5 billion people and is the source of goods needed by Europe. Our government has maintained positive relations with Beijing and we upgraded this relation in 2019 when our President visited the Chinese capital to a level of an ‘eternal strategic partnership’.

Xi Jinping made its first visit after the pandemic. In addition, our President will visit China for the 10th anniversary of the Belt and Road Initiative. For Kazakhstan, relations with China are extremely important. We will continue preserving these relations, developing them as much as we can.

We do not subscribe to this notion of zero-sum game, or one superpower pushing another superpower, or substituting a power with another. Kazakhstan is not in favour of the resumption of the Great Game of the past. We stand of what I would call the Great Game for all, meaning that the opportunities of cooperation with Central Asia are so much that there is enough room for everybody for successful economic cooperation and, of course, our country should benefit from this competition.

Author: Silvia Boltuc

For further information, analyses, and reports about Kazakhstan, please contact us at info@specialeurasia.com.

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