Everyone’s friend. Will Russia and China be able to oust the United States from Kazakhstan?

Temur Umarov

For Kazakhstan, rapprochement with the United States is an important part of a strategy to balance Russian and Chinese influence in the country. Because both large neighbors periodically indulge in gestures that cause considerable concern to the Kazakh leadership.

If in the west Russia has its main ally – Belarus, and in the east – China, then in the south it is definitely Kazakhstan. It has the world’s longest land border with Russia – about seven thousand kilometers. In addition, he regularly participates in all integration projects in Moscow – in the CIS, SCO, EAEU, CSTO, and so on. During his presidency, Vladimir Putin most often visited Kazakhstan – 28 times (in second place – Belarus with 24 visits), and Dmitry Medvedev’s first foreign trip as president was there.

At the same time, Kazakhstan is China’s main partner in Central Asia and an important participant in Beijing’s large-scale initiatives in the region. It was in Kazakhstan that Chinese President Xi Jinping first announced the launch of the land-based part of the Belt and Road Initiative.

Squeezed between the two largest powers of Eurasia, Kazakhstan manages to play the role of the main partner of the United States in Central Asia. That is, the country maintains a unique diplomatic balance – it maintains stable good relations with Russia, China and the United States at the same time. However, as the confrontation between the world powers deepens, it becomes more and more difficult for Kazakhstan to maintain the geopolitical balance without being drawn into the struggle of one against the other.

Economic interests

Relations between the United States and Central Asian countries are going through hard times now. The Central Asian states ceased to see America as a counterweight to Russia and China, and Washington lost interest in the region. Attempts by the Americans to influence its political development run into a dead end, economically it is not very attractive, and with the withdrawal from Afghanistan, military ties are also weakening.

However, Kazakhstan does not fit into this regional trend. Neither Afghanistan nor democracy building have ever been the main themes in his relationship with the United States. But economic ties played an important role.

In the oil industry, which, according to some estimates, forms 44% of the state budget of Kazakhstan, American companies are leading in production. In 2019, their share in the oil produced in the country was about 30% . For comparison: Chinese oil companies CNPC, Sinopec and CITIC account for about 17%, Russian Lukoil – 3%.

Chevron and ExxonMobil jointly own a 75% stake in Tengizchevroil, Kazakhstan’s largest oil producer. Also, each company owns stakes in smaller projects. Chevron points out that for 2020, 20% of all world oil reserves available to the company were located in Kazakhstan.

American companies Fluor, Schlumberger and Baker Hughes provide almost all oilfield services in the country, others supply equipment for production to Kazakhstan. This technique accounts for about a third of all US imports to the country.

In addition to the oil and gas sector, hundreds of American companies operate in Kazakhstan, including Phillip Morris, General Electric, Citibank, Uber, Starbucks, McDonalds and others. So, in total, the accumulated volume of direct American investment in the country reached almost $ 40 billion at the beginning of 2021.

Of course, the trade between Kazakhstan and the United States (almost $ 2 billion in 2020) cannot be compared with the Kazakh-Chinese ($ 21.4 billion) or Kazakh-Russian ($ 19 billion). But it is still three times more than that of all other Central Asian countries combined (about $ 0.6 billion).

Caucus and Soros

Of course, even such economic cooperation does not make Kazakhstan irreplaceable for the United States – the country is not among the 70 largest trading partners of the Americans. But these connections are enough for them to become the basis for deeper interaction in other areas.

From the very beginning, Washington viewed Kazakhstan as a priority partner in Central Asia. The United States became the first state to open its embassy in the then capital of Almaty, and Nursultan Nazarbayev became the first president from Central Asia to visit the United States.

Representatives of various political institutions of the two countries know each other and meet regularly. Since 2012, within the framework of the Strategic Partnership Commission, summits of foreign ministers have been held (Uzbekistan only by 2021, after five years of reforms under Shavkat Mirziyoyev, achieved a promise from Washington to create the same commission). Kazakhstan and the United States also have ministerial commissions for energy and scientific and technical cooperation.

Relations have been established at the level of business and society: the caucus of Kazakhstan works in the US Congress , and Kazakhstanis are more often than other residents of Central Asia issued with American visas – their refusal rate is minimal in the region.

Cooperation has also been established in the military sphere. Since 2003, Kazakhstan annually conducts joint exercises with NATO “Steppe Eagle”. From 2004 to 2019, the United States delivered $ 43 million worth of arms to Kazakhstan, which is more than other countries in the region combined.

Kazakhstan’s close relationship with the United States is also facilitated by the fact that Kazakhstan’s state ideology and rhetoric lacks the anti-Western narrative characteristic of Russia and some other countries of the former USSR.

In Kazakhstan, there are Western non-governmental organizations such as Soros’s Open Society Foundation, which is recognized as undesirable in Russia. According to the former Minister of Social Development Darkhan Kaletaev, annually NGOs in Kazakhstan receive foreign grants worth $ 13.6 million, and 70% of this amount comes from the United States. And thousands of young Kazakhstanis studied in the United States under the prestigious educational program “Bolashak” (future), which was founded in 1993 by Nazarbayev.

Attacks on sovereignty

For Kazakhstan, rapprochement with the United States is an important part of a strategy to balance Russian and Chinese influence in the country. Because both large neighbors periodically indulge in gestures that cause considerable concern for the Kazakh leadership.

For example, Russian politicians and deputies may publicly question the territorial integrity of Kazakhstan, while the Foreign Ministry and the Kremlin are in no hurry to suppress such rhetoric. President Putin himself has publicly referred to the lands of Russia’s neighboring states as “generous gifts from the Russian people.”

He also in 2014 , said that before the coming to power of President Nursultan Nazarbayev, “the Kazakhs were not statehood never.”

Separately, Moscow criticizes Kazakh colleagues for rapprochement with the West. For example, in 2018, Minister Lavrov expressed dissatisfaction with Kazakhstan’s consent to the transit of American non-military goods to Afghanistan through the ports of the Caspian Sea.

Then Moscow was outraged when the Pentagon financed the reconstruction of two biological laboratories in Kazakhstan. Up to the point that Vladimir Solovyov proposed to bomb these laboratories, although one of them is located within the city with a million-plus population of Almaty. Kazakhstan’s abolition of short-term visas for citizens of the United States and some European countries in 2015 was also a cause for criticism.

With another large neighbor, China, Kazakhstan also faces similar problems. In the spring of 2020, the Chinese media and the public actively reprinted the article “Why Kazakhstan Seeks to Return to China”, Which claims that the territory of Kazakhstan historically belongs to China. Despite strict Internet censorship in the PRC, this article remained available until the Chinese ambassador was summoned to the Kazakh Foreign Ministry. And reprints of the article can still be found on other sites.

Kazakhstan’s response to such attacks can be divided into several elements. First, the country’s leadership expresses its displeasure, but does not go beyond the diplomatic protocol.

When, at the beginning of the year, several Russian deputies declared that “the territories of Kazakhstan are a great gift from Russia and the Soviet Union,” the Kazakh Foreign Ministry handed a note of protest to the Charge d’Affaires of the Russian Federation, Alexander Komarov, and President Kassym-Zhomart Tokayev published an article in the Sovereign Kazakhstan ”, where he stated:“ Our sacred land inherited from our ancestors is our main wealth. It was not “presented” to us by anyone. Domestic history did not begin in 1991 or 1936 ”.

Secondly, Kazakhstan (especially after the Ukrainian events of 2014) began to actively fight against manifestations of separatism within the country. In social networks, pro-Russian communities began to block, especially active people who wanted to repeat the fate of Crimea ended up in mental hospitals or behind bars .

Third, Kazakhstan is more actively trying to limit Russian cultural influence. Language policy plays an important role here. In recent years, the role of the Kazakh language has been growing rapidly – without it, many universities are no longer accepted.

The transition from the Cyrillic to the Latin alphabet and the reform of the Kazakh spelling continue – for example, by 2023, all schools are planned to be transferred to teaching in the new alphabet. In addition, the authorities are restricting the broadcasting of Russian TV channels.

The fourth direction of reaction is the maintenance of friendly ties with Russia, and with China, and with the United States, which makes it possible to receive preferences from the powers in exchange for loyalty. For example, Washington continues to cooperate with Nur-Sultan, despite all the problems in the field of democracy and human rights. Moscow has supplied more than $ 2.5 billion of arms to Kazakhstan since 1991, an impressive amount for a country with modest armed forces. Since 2018, China has been actively opening access to its huge domestic market for Kazakh farmers.


The flip side of this situation is the constant invitations from each of the powers to their side in the conflict with the other.

Moscow is the most active in this, but Nur-Sultan rarely supports it and tries to maintain neutrality. Kazakhstan, for example, does not recognize Crimea as Russian territory, but President Tokayev refuses to call the incident an “annexation.” Kazakhstan also refuses to join Russian counter-sanctions, explaining this by the fact that “Western sanctions are based primarily on political motives and are directed against individual states, and not the entire EAEU.”

China also wants to see Kazakhstan on its side in the confrontation with the United States.

At the first face-to-face meeting in the China + Central Asia (C + C5) format, Beijing persuaded all countries in the region to appeal to Washington to “responsibly withdraw troops” from Afghanistan. An important topic for the PRC, where it needs international support, is Xinjiang. Kazakhstan, on the one hand, refuses to believe the reports of human rights defenders and international media about the massive persecution of the Uyghurs. But on the other hand, he does not sign letters in support of the PRC’s policy in Xinjiang, as, for example, Russia does, and has recently granted refugee status to those Chinese citizens who illegally crossed the Chinese-Kazakh border.

The United States is also not opposed to getting from Kazakhstan solidarity with their goals, especially in the issue of confrontation with China.

The previous administration did it openly. In February 2020, then Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, during his visit to Kazakhstan, only spoke about how important it is for the country to resist Chinese influence.

It is becoming more difficult for Kazakhstan to maintain a balance: with the growing contradictions between China and the United States, the chances of deviating from the neatly drawn diplomatic line grow.

But Kazakhstan has no other choice but to simultaneously be friends with everyone and keep a certain distance from everyone. At the same time, the great powers do not have the tools to force Kazakhstan to demonstrate absolute loyalty to one person.

Moscow and Beijing cannot get away from Kazakhstan in the literal sense. In addition, Russia is not interested in burning bridges with one of the last loyal partners, without which it is impossible to imagine either the EAEU or the CSTO.

It is important for Beijing that the large neighbor of Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region continues to contribute to stability in the region, welcomes Chinese investors and performs a key transit function between China, the post-Soviet space and Europe. Kazakhstan plays a key role in Xi Jinping’s flagship infrastructure project, the Silk Road Economic Belt.

For the United States, Kazakhstan is the only partner in Central Asia who is interested in the American presence and whose decisions are not changed back and forth in the pursuit of short-term gain, as in Kyrgyzstan or Uzbekistan under Karimov.

This balance is at the heart of Kazakhstan’s foreign policy strategy, and any attempt to upset it from the outside will cause strong retaliatory resistance.

In the foreseeable future, this course is unlikely to change, despite the transit of power in the country. The very figure of the second president of Kazakhstan is the personification of this course. Tokayev is a Sinologist who graduated from MGIMO and made a diplomatic career at the UN headquarters in New York.

Leave a Comment