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Will Kazakhstan Become An Apple Of Discord Between China And Russia? – Analysis

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The Institute of CIS countries (Institute of Diaspora and Integration) in Moscow created and headed by Konstantin Zatulin, a Russian politician, first deputy chairman of the committee of the State Duma for the CIS and relations with Russian nationals abroad, posted on its website an interview with its chief. The reason for the conversation was the fact that a bit earlier Halyk, Kazakhstan’s largest bank, had suspended the use of Russia’s Mir payment cards – one of the few cards still available to Russian bank clients – after a US Treasury Department warning that sanctions could be imposed on institutions accepting them. The decision was perceived as the latest unfriendly move from Astana by the political circles and press in Moscow. And the question of how the Russian Federation can respond to it became the main subject of conversation with the State Duma member. 

At the very beginning of the interview, Konstantin Zatulin stated the following in this regard: “My opinion is that the country, which has the longest land border with the Russian Federation, strongly risks when it tries, despite our historical ties and geographical proximity, to be guided by Western sanctions in the current situation. Of course, Russia will not let this go without a response”. It would seem, everything is clear – the State Duma member warns that Kazakhstan could be next in line after Ukraine. His Kazakhstani counterparts, members of the Kazakh Parliament, appear to understand his speech as such. This is evidenced by the fact that some of them reacted harshly to the above interview by using expressions such as ‘provocative statement’ and ‘boorish verbal attack’.

But things with that interview seem not to be quite so simple, as they might appear at first sight. And here are the reasons for that. 

In July, Konstantin Zatulin said the Kazakh president had ‘challenged’ Putin and verbally attacked Kassym-Jomart Tokayev back for his refusal to recognize the DPR and LPR. He then was immediately set straight by a senior official from the Russian parliament, Andrey Turchak. The latter asked him to ‘keep his views to himself’. This time none of the senior officials from the Russian parliament and the bosses from the Kremlin’s party, United Russia, of which Konstantin Zatulin is a member, made a remark. This suggests that in his latest interview, he had said nothing that would have run counter to the current Kremlin line in regard to Kazakhstan. That’s the first thing.

And second, Konstantin Zatulin, in his remarks, paid a lot of attention to Xi Jinping’s September visit to Kazakhstan. As is well known, in mid-September, the leader of the world’s most populated country and second largest economy (GDP) traveled to the Central Asian country for a state visit, in his first foreign trip in nearly 1,000 days. His meeting in Nur-Sultan with President Tokayev caused much interest of the political community across the world. No wonder that Time magazine’s Amy Gunia wrote that ‘Xi Jinping’s Choice of Kazakhstan for His First Overseas Trip Since the Pandemic Is Highly Significant’

All this certainly did not leave official Moscow indifferent. It can be assumed that especially the Russian media and political elite’s attention was drawn to the following statement by the Chinese leader in Nur-Sultan (Astana): “Once again I would like to assure you that the Chinese government pays a significant attention to relations with Kazakhstan. No matter how the international priorities could change, we will continue to decisively support Kazakhstan in its defending of its independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity, firmly support your ongoing reforms to secure stability and development, [and] categorically stand against interference of any forces in your country’s internal affairs”. One gets the impression that some of those Russian politicians who used to call into question the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Kazakhstan are now inclined to take such a warning at their own expense. 

For instance, here is what Konstantin Zatulin said in the interview in question: “I want to note that Chinese President Xi Jinping has chosen Kazakhstan as his first destination out of China to visit after the 2019 COVID outbreak. During the visit, he stated that China guarantees the territorial integrity of Kazakhstan. In Kazakhstan, many politicians and public figures like to speculate about the existential threat of losing territories with a predominantly Russian population, and about how dangerous the new policy of the Russian Federation, which is now engaged in the return of historical territories in Ukraine, is. Maybe they feel they now [after Xi Jinping’s visit to Astana] have an important argument, although no one [here in Russia] claims some portion of Kazakhstan. Maybe they think that they can now afford what they could not before”

While saying the above, the Russian MP kind of takes a step backwards. Previously, he argued that ‘everything is possible with regard to Kazakhstan, just as in the case of Ukraine’. Now, according to him, ‘no one [here in Russia] claims some portion of Kazakhstan’.

And yet it seems to be difficult for Konstantin Zatulin (and his like in Russia) to consent to be left without the possibility to continue bullying Kazakhstan and Kazakhs. “This is bizarre because China and the Russian Federation, whatever the speculations on this point, are in the same boat. And unfriendly moves against the Russian Federation are unlikely to be approved in China, at least for reasons of self-preservation”, he further said.

He and those with him seem to be eager to convince themselves that China would not spoil relations with Russia because of Kazakhstan and to receive some sort of notification from the Chinese side proving the validity of this line of thinking.

So the question is: Will Kazakhstan become an apple of discord between China and Russia?!

Akhas Tazhutov

Akhas Tazhutov is a political analysts from Kazakhstan.

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