There is very weird stuff going on lately with the relations between Russia and Belarus, on the one hand, and Kazakhstan, on the other, within the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) which also includes Kyrgyzstan and Armenia.
Speaking at the summit of the EAEU, held on May 24-25, 2023, in Moscow, Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev talked about the undesirability of promoting political integration under the auspices of this international economic alliance. From the outside, one can only guess about why such an issue was quite suddenly raised. In view of the foregoing, it seems obvious that the possibility of turning the EAEU into a political organization has been and is being negotiated behind closed doors.
If what the Kremlin and its Belarusian partner really want is to reform the EAEU into something that would be more in line with the political zeitgeist of the period after February 24, 2022, it would be enough for them to secure Astana’s agreement to this. Since Kyrgyzstan and Armenia are far more economically dependent on Russia than is Kazakhstan, and their choice set would be much smaller should they turn their backs on Moscow. Besides, even if they refuse such a bargain, things will work out, should Kazakhstan give consent to it. Till now much of what was considered and discussed in this context by the parties, however, has apparently been left outside the field of view. This is probably the reason why some of actions and statements publicly made by Kazakh, Belarusian and Russian top officials, metaphorically speaking, give off an impression of putting the cart before the horse.
Here are illustrations of it. On May 25, Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, in the presence of the EAEU leaders, suggested that it was undesirable to turn the Eurasian Economic Union into a political alliance. Vladimir Putin, who was sitting nearby on stage while the Kazakh president said that, raised his eyebrows and smirked at the comment, according to footage from the event shared on social media. His Belarusian counterpart Alexander Lukashenko who was sitting right next to the Kremlin master, laughed, exchanged meaningful glances with him, and appeared to say something under his breath. And one would think it had all ended there.
But there was a new development, and a rather odd one. On May 28, Alexander Lukashenko, in his interview to Russian propagandist Pavel Zarubin, actually proposed the Kazakh leader to do what the latter was up against just three days earlier. In other words, the Belarusian president clearly and publicly offered Kazakhstan to join the Union State of Russia and Belarus. As a result, when it has viewed from aside, the following picture emerges: the proposal was voiced in public three days later than there was an answer given publicly to it. To be realistic, such a sequence of events is not only extremely unlikely, it is impossible in principle. It doesn’t happen like that in life.
Therefore one can just assume that in reality, such an issue had begun to be discussed behind closed doors before Kazakh President Tokayev, speaking at the summit of the Eurasian Economic Union on May 25, warned against political integration within Russia-led EAEU – that is, kind of expressed the position of Astana with regard to the suspected attempts by Moscow and Minsk to transform this economic grouping into a new, expanded version of the Union State of Russia and Belarus, with the inclusion of Kazakhstan into it. There was no immediate reaction to this statement by Kassym-Jomart Tokayev from the Putin-Lukashenko tandem. The easiest way to explain it would be that the latter two may not have been ready to deal instantaneously with such a move by the Kazakh leader. Such an explanation does not seem to be convincing, however, if one takes into account the conditions in which all this has occurred. It’s not like Kassym-Jomart Tokayev to give unpleasant surprises to people like Putin, and even in public. The current Kazakh president, being a career diplomat rather than a public politician tending to indulge in the rhetoric and to make spectacular gestures, would have likely preferred to discuss contentious issues with Russia and Belarus at personal meeting with their leaders, or through diplomatic channels.
From here appears another guess, a more probable one, about what all that rhetoric around the issue of the EAEU politicization could mean. It suggests that in this case, there may have been some kind of political technology staging with the aim to take to the masses the idea of creating the tripartite political alliance of Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan within the Eurasian Economic Union, that could subsequently convert into an expanded version of the Union State of Russia and Belarus with the addition of Kazakhstan.
The latter is exactly what Alexander Lukashenko offered Kassym-Jomart Tokayev to do during a television appearance on the air of the channel ‘Russia-1’ on May 28. The Kazakh president responded to the proposal at a meeting with agricultural producers while visiting the North Kazakhstan region on May 29, saying that his country was already a member of a broader Russian-led trade bloc, the Eurasian Economic Union. “One of these days, the President of the Republic of Belarus Alexander Grigoryevich Lukashenko offered Kazakhstan to join the Union State”, the Kazakh president said. “I appreciated his joke. I think that there is no need for this since there are other integration associations, first of all, the EAEU”.
There are two points in this statement to which reference should be made. First, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev tries to present the matter as if the offer by Alexander Lukashenko was just a joke. But how on earth does one make jokes about such a serious matter in the middle of something as sinister as a full-scale war by Russia against Ukraine?! Even if the offer was given as like a joke, it is hardly worth deluding oneself about what is behind it. Second, the Kazakh president didn’t clearly reject the proposal to join the Union State of Russia and Belarus. He just said, “I think that there is no need for this since there are other integration associations, first of all, the EAEU”. It kind of sounds like, “Mr. Lukashenko, anyway we’re all on the same side here”.
Such Kazakhstani positioning can hardly be considered satisfactory by the Putin-Lukashenko tandem, in which the Belarusian president seems to be the one to take on the task of persuading top officials of Kazakhstan and other EAEU/СSTO countries to back Russia over Ukraine. So, in February Alexander Lukashenko, as he met with Secretary General of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) Imangali Tasmagambetov, a Kazakhstani representative, said that all members of the CSTO should unite and act together, because it is always easier and simpler to act this way. “If someone thinks that the conflict between Ukraine and Russia is not our conflict, that we will sit quietly somewhere – nothing of the kind, it will not be like that. The time will come (it is not far away, literally tomorrow) and it will require us to define ourselves, to take a certain position. I am not saying that this should be done to the detriment of national interests. Despite all the shortcomings in the union we will have to clearly define our policy, our line in order to act together. It is always simpler and easier to act together”, the Belarusian president added.
This time Alexander Lukashenko went further and offered Kazakhstan to join the Union State of Russia and Belarus, which is unlikely to have been just a joke. And besides, he clearly is not in a position to joke about things like that. The reality is probably that the Putin-Lukashenko tandem is increasingly seeking to induce Tokayev to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with them in ‘their struggle against the collective West for survival’.
And it is quite likely that a rather intense amount of pressure is being exerted on Astana with the aim of inducing it to begin getting Kazakhstani public opinion accustomed to the idea of the necessity of adopting the relevant decision. There probably lies the main reason why such sensitive subjects as the EAEU politicization and an invitation for Kazakhstan to join the Union State of Russia and Belarus have begun to be discussed in public.
Akhas Tazhutov, a political analyst