Over the past three decades, Eurasia has begun to reconnect for new economic ties, the restoration of transit infrastructure, as well as the integration of regional states into the global economy. Several models of economic integration in the Eurasian region have been established: the Eurasian Economic Union under the leadership of Russia, the “Belt, and Road Initiative” proposed by China, and European Neighborhood Program (ENP) by the European Union. At the heart of Eurasia is the geographical region of Central Asia, consisting of five states, which is in closer proximity to global powers. With its location in the middle of Eurasia, “Central Asia” has become a core of transnational reconnection.
Integration efforts of Kazakhstan in Central Asia
Kazakhstan is strategically important for its accessibility to the West and East. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the independence of the states, Kazakhstan attracted foreign actors with a new and profitable market and transit position. With the development of new transport, communications, energy, and trade linkages, Kazakhstan positioned a transit hub between Europe, East Asia, and possibly South Asia. Kazakhstan’s post- independence development strategy includes a focus on regional cooperation and integration in Eurasia. Through this, the “Nurly Jol” (Bright Path) strategy was adopted for cooperation and regional development.
Along with sharing a 7,000 km border with Russia, Kazakhstan like other Central Asia neighbors shared a common history that has influenced the development of its foreign policy strategy. From the beginning of independence, Kazakhstan has maintained close political and economic ties with Russia and has participated in bodies such as the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), the Eurasian Customs Union (ECU), and the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), which were established under the leadership of Russia. Kazakhstan has multi-vectorized its foreign policy and declared its openness to a multidimensional partnership. Besides a close partnership with Russia, Kazakhstan has managed to establish relevant relations with the United States, the European Union, and China. It is known that European and American companies have invested heavily in Kazakhstan’s oil industry, and China has become Kazakhstan’s largest trading partner. Kazakhstan has also strengthened its relations with regional powers such as India, Iran, and Turkey, especially trade cooperation.
Kazakhstan has been the strongest supporter of regional cooperation and integration in Eurasia. Consciously, the Eurasian Union was first proposed by President Nazarbayev in 1994, and Chinese Communist Party leader Xi Jinping announced the “Belt and Road Initiative” during his speech at Nazarbayev University in Kazakhstan, in 2013. Kazakhstan’s foreign policy concept was based on political stability, sustainable and secure economic development in Central Asia. Endeavors by the five Central Asian states to increase cooperation seemed skeptical to some, and one of the important reasons was that the new generation was more deeply focused on the issue of self-identity. With the initiative of the Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB), border and mutual disputes between the countries have decreased and cooperation on transport and economic projects has increased, despite there having been no significant change in trade turnover between the five countries. There are serious problems with water resources in Central Asia, and these problems have become more serious with the increasing population. To address this issue, in 2015, with the consent of other Central Asian countries, Kazakhstan proposed the construction of a regional hydroelectric consortium (Rogun). Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan have had water-sharing cooperation since 2006. Some experts believe that resolving the water issue could be an impulse for regional cooperation between Central Asian states.
Kazakhstan’s balanced policy strategy with global and regional powers
Russia has been Kazakhstan’s most important partner. Kazakh elites always stressed sensitivity about potential Russian pressure, however, the government has indicated that Kazakstan participates in the unions and projects in the framework of Kazakhstan’s interests and respects its sovereignty. After Russia’s joint currency proposal and the result of the crisis in Ukraine, the imposition of sanctions against the Eurasian Economic Union along with Russia, President Nazarbayev emphasized the right to withdraw from the EAEU if Kazakhstan’s interests and sovereignty were threatened, in august 2014. The crisis in Ukraine has created an absolute attitude towards Russia in Kazakh society, nevertheless, Kazakh officials have decided to continue economic relations with Russia. Such issues have damaged relations between Kazakhstan and other major trading partners. The facts of the “Arab Spring” also precipitated Kazakhstan to decide to continue cooperation with Russia in the field of security.
Kazakhstan welcomes extensive economic ties with China. Relations between the two countries have been strengthened by China’s announcement of the “Belt and Road Initiative, industrial development, transit, and energy infrastructure investment strategies with Central Asia, including Kazakhstan. Trade relations between the two countries have tripled, China has built hydropower stations on the Irtysh and Ili rivers in Kazakhstan, near its Urumqi region. One of China’s interests for development and stability in Central Asia, especially in Kazakhstan, is also concerned about security in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, which shares a long border with Kazakhstan.
Kazakhstan is crucial to the United States in terms of its geopolitical balanced policy and natural resources. The withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan has led to a decline in participation in the processes in Central Asia, as well as Kazakhstan, which hoped for US support in the implementation of economic and regional development initiatives. Kazakh experts argue that this approach could be aimed at preventing the implementation of the planned New Silk Road initiative by the United States. Unlike other Central Asian states, Kazakhstan has close ties with NATO although a member of the CSTO. Kazakhstan has joined NATO’s Partnership for Peace and has signed an Individual Partnership Action Plan to enhance its defense and security capabilities.
The European Union (EU) is an essential partner for Kazakhstan. Despite the European Union bringing economic opportunities for Kazakhstan, it lags behind Russia, the United States, and China politically. The European Union has provided funding for infrastructure, transport, and education projects. In the 1990s, the European Union launched an initiative known as TRACECA (Europe-Caucasus-Asia Transport Corridor), which developed the vision of a continental trade corridor to East Asia. TRACECA aims to facilitate countries’ access to world markets through the development of transport and transit corridors, as well as the revival of the ancient Silk Road. As an extension of TRACECA, the Trans- Caspian Corridor broaden from China to Kazakhstan to Central Asia, through the Caspian Sea to the South Caucasus, and Turkey to the EU. From the EU’s point of view, the Trans- Caspian corridor has the advantage of promoting China-EU trade, as well as promoting the EU’s access to energy markets in Central Asia by eliminating its dependence on Russia. Kazakhstan became the first Central Asian state to chair the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in 2010, thus increasing its visibility in the international arena. During his visit to Kazakhstan in 2014, the German Foreign Minister Steinmeier focused on economic cooperation and energy and infrastructure development, and in the same year, French President Hollande highlighted bilateral trade and investment. Kazakhstan is the largest supplier of uranium to France which is used in the nuclear power industry. Kazakhstan buys weapons and machinery from France. Moreover, Kazakhstan acted as a mediator in the negotiations to normalize EU-Russia relations, which had cooled due to the crisis in Ukraine, in those times.
Kazakhstan has sought to pursue a geopolitically balanced policy by developing cooperation with Turkey. Relations with deep ethnic and cultural heritage have led to the strengthening of economic ties. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Turkey’s political interests in Central Asia changed, but internal problems, political disputes in the immediate vicinity, wars prevented Turkey from focusing on the region. Although Kazakhstan, like other Turkic-speaking countries, is a member of the Turkic Council, the organization has made little contribution to the development of relations between Turkic- speaking countries.
Iran is not considered a significant trade partner for Kazakhstan. Iran is needed for Kazakhstan’s access to the Persian Gulf, as well as cooperation on issues related to the Caspian Sea. Kazakhstan has maintained relations with Iran during the imposition of the sanctions. Kazakhstan has been presented as the only country that may be a mediator capable of bringing together Iran and the United States for nuclear talks.
The role of Kazakhstan in regional energy-transit issues
Energy prices were one of the most critical issues for Kazakhstan’s emergence in the world. After independence, Kazakhstan has been the focus of foreign companies in need of energy resources, and significant investments have been made in the oil sector. Thanks to oil revenues, Kazakhstan’s economy has gained significant growth. Kazakhstan exported oil and related products to the world through Russia. The Caspian Pipeline Consortium (CPC) transported Kazakh oil in the Black Sea via the Russian port of Novorossiysk. The consortium was controlled by various shareholders, and Russia prevented the Consortium from expanding its activities to control fully Kazakhstan’s oil resources. Some Kazakh officials viewed Russia’s dependence on the Consortium as a potential risk. China also received 16% of its oil needs from Kazakhstan, while Kazakhstan exported oil to Europe via the Caspian Sea and Azerbaijan via the Baku- Tbilisi-Kars pipeline or the Black Sea ports via Turkey and Georgia. 76% of Kazakhstan’s oil was exported to Europe, which was important to meet Europe’s energy needs.
Accordingly, a non-Russian-controlled energy corridor from Central Asia to Europe was created, which could also end the dependence on the transportation of Kazakh oil through Russia. Along with oil, Kazakhstan also exported gas and is a key transit country for Turkmen and Uzbek gas to the Russian and Chinese markets. Kazakhstan considered the development of railway transport infrastructure a top priority. Kazakhstan has crossed four of the six railways under the Central Asian Regional Economic Cooperation (CAREC) program, which was established to provide connectivity in Central Asia. Kazakhstan maintained its strategic importance between Europe and Asia. Moreover, Kazakhstan was a partner in the North-South International Transport Route and Trans-Caspian International Transport Route projects. Sea transport via the Caspian Sea is of great importance for Kazakhstan, as Kazakhstan provided access to Europe via Azerbaijan when Iran was sanctioned.
Kazakhstan is a leading state in the main corridor from China to Europe without the participation of Russia, which is part of China’s New Silk Road initiative. At the same time, the state that supplies Europe with the energy it needs is also an important chess figure for the union of Turkic states. Political developments in Kazakhstan should be of concern to Europe and China, as the inability of Kazakhstan’s oil and gas to reach Europe could make Europe dependent on Russia for energy. China, on the other hand, could lose its main corridor to the European market independently of Russia and become dependent on Russia. The China-Kazakhstan-Russia-Belarus-European Union route, known as the Northern Corridor and aimed at reaching Europe, could lose its functionality due to sanctions and political pressure on Russia and Belarus. In addition, the Northern Corridor is considered to be the most threatening route due to poor infrastructure and weather conditions, which causes transportation from China to Europe to be twice as slow as other routes.
China’s apathy on the process is likely to lead to the idea of a new corridor in addition to the six economic and transport corridors identified under the “Belt and Road Initiative”, as a result of melting ice in the Arctic due to global climate change predicts that a new direct corridor may open from China to Europe. The creation of such a corridor will reduce the distance from existing roads by half. In this case, Russia will be the main leading figure. However, given the difficult geographical conditions and the borders of Canada, the United States, and the Scandinavian countries (Finland, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Iceland) in the Arctic, there will be a need for cooperation and new policy.
*Aytan Aliyeva graduated from the School of International Relations and Regional Studies at the Azerbaijan University of Languages.
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