Can Kazakhstan achieve its ambitions in the Central Asia region?
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Central Asian region was not well known to the international community. However, nowadays, it has increased its role in the international economic and political environment. As the region's largest and most economically powerful country, Kazakhstan has distanced itself from Central Asia countries, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, for many years. In recent periods it has begun to see itself as an integral part of the region with pronounced ambitions and goals for regional governance, describing itself as the leader of the Central Asian region. This statement is not accepted by the other countries in the region, especially Uzbekistan, which leaves open the field of analysis for the question of what Kazakhstan should do to achieve its objectives in the region and whether it will succeed at all, taking into account the geopolitical situation in the region.
For much of the period of independence, Kazakhstan's foreign policy was largely related to cooperation with Russia, but the predisposition in favor of the Central Asian region countries has been noticeable in recent years. A number of factors can explain this, firstly, the growth of Kazakhstan's ethnic identity has allowed the country's leadership to identify more closely with Kazakhstan's common identity in Central Asia and, consequently, with the common heritage of Central Asian identity. Secondly, Kazakhstan's deviation from the Kremlin policy, which Moscow achieved with its imperialistic and aggressive foreign policy, without sparing even allies. Third, the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) served as a catalyst for the need for closer integration of the region. Fourthly, the change of power in Uzbekistan and the liberalization of the economy stimulate cooperation in the region as a whole. Finally, there is a growing awareness among Central Asian countries that are deepening regional trade is mutually beneficial compared to spending scarce resources on developing import substitution strategies, especially in view of the constraints caused by Russia's economic problems.
Given its geographical location, natural resources, and economic development, Nursultan (known between 1998 and 2019 as Astana – the capital of Kazakhstan) has certain ambitions for leadership and coordination of national policies in the region. This is also demonstrated by the new concept of Kazakhstan's foreign policy adopted in 2020, in which it openly declares its intentions to strengthen its status as "leading state of the region", leadership positions and promote long-term interests in Central Asia, putting the countries of the region on the same level as other geopolitical actors such as China, Russia, the US or the European Union.
Kazakhstan needs closer cooperation between Central Asian countries, greater regional cohesion, and coordination, as this would help Kazakhstan increase political and military security and better opportunities for economic development and policy coordination. Kazakhstan has also faced the need for a more cohesive foreign policy in the region, capable of "appeasing" the superpowers, since only a stable and united foreign policy in Central Asia would be able to make better use of the opportunities offered by the superpowers, in parallel minimizing potential risks. Nursultan wants to become the main financial center of the region, stimulate investment, and the development of the regional capital market. It claims to be the main banker in the whole region, thus directly affecting the region's economic prosperity. Of course, elements such as the desire to diversify own economy, combat extremism more effectively and solve water and energy problems.
The unstable situation in Afghanistan is the primary non-regional threat to Central Asian security, thanks to terrorist groups such as the Taliban or Al-Qaeda. It is worth mentioning here the idea of the United States and NATO countries that it is necessary to involve Afghanistan in the process of regional and economic integrity of Central Asia, as this would allow more effective resolution of disputes, increase the transparency of policies between countries and also military cooperation. It is Kazakhstan that would be able to carry out this task and integrate Afghanistan into the Central Asian regional policy agenda because the Nursultan has the financial resources to build various types of projects involving Afghanistan. There is another problem that Kazakhstan should be concerned about: the issue of weak controls on Uzbekistan's and Tajikistan's borders. Only by strengthening the border control of these countries, Kazakhstan will be able to reduce the penetration of extremists into the region, which for the most part comes from the territory of Afghanistan.
Central Asia nowadays faces the threat of three types of separatism: first, ideological separatism, which is formed from neo-imperialist or radical Islamist ideas. Secondly, economic separatism, leading the regions to want more authority, and thirdly, classical territorial separatism. For Kazakhstan to achieve its interests in the region, it needs an effective policy against separatism. Thus, Kazakhstan should try to spread the idea of tighter control of foreign media so that they cannot spread propaganda about the region, which would only multiply separatism. Regional identity, which includes different peoples and ethnic groups, should certainly be strengthened. Finally, Kazakhstan should cooperate more actively with the region's countries in implementing a common policy to address this problem.
To successfully achieve goals, Kazakhstan's primary task would be to work on centralizing the policies of the regional countries. Central Asian countries are joint users of energy, transport, gas, water, and irrigation networks with rich oil and gas resources. Countries need to find ways to effectively transport extracted oil and gas to other countries by cooperating with each other. Kazakhstan must continue its efforts to establish a comprehensive regional organization to stimulate economic growth and political stability while strengthening the region's sovereignty. However, in order to achieve this, Kazakhstan must overcome some economic and political obstacles with the countries of the region.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) could serve as an excellent example for countries to cooperate, both politically and economically, in order to achieve collective regional autonomy that would prevent the superpowers from undermining their own nation-building. The ASEAN cooperation mechanism is a flexible system without voting rights, in which relevant issues are discussed until a final resolution is reached by mutual agreement, which has saved ASEAN from conflicts and confrontations.
Assuming the role of leader in its region, Kazakhstan could develop cooperation through such an ASEAN-type partnership, which would allow the gradual introduction of a cohesive foreign policy against external actors. Kazakhstan could play a leadership role on the broader region and support common policy solutions to the problems of Central Asia, resisting the influence of stronger external actors.
Relations between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan are essential elements of the region's long-term growth outlook. They determine the regional climate, so it is essential for Kazakhstan to strengthen relations with Uzbekistan by supporting its liberalisation processes. Such cooperation would potentially allow countries to jointly address regional problems such as water and energy security, develop common positions on foreign policies, especially towards China and Russia, and, importantly, not turn into a "raw material peripheral zone of global economic processes".
What Kazakhstan could do is to become the primary export market for Uzbekistan's industrial products. The two countries potentially complement each other also in terms of supply and demand for labor. Looking at the unfavorable investment climate of the rest of the countries, it seems only logical that Kazakhstan should work towards a greater flow of investment to the Central Asian region through its successful multi-vector foreign policy. By developing its logistics sector with Chinese investment, Kazakhstan will be able to trade with the region's countries much more actively since it will be able to export goods and services from other sectors than just oil for the superpowers.
Kazakhstan's former President, Nursultan Nazarbayev, is considered the undisputed "senior leader" in the region, while the new president Kassym-Jomart Tokayev does not have such a status. Of course, it takes time to obtain status, but this is possible with the continuation of Kazakhstan's multi-vector foreign policy, taking the initiative of solving the region's problems and serving as a mediator in regional disputes, as the previous president did. Given Kazakhstan's economic, technological potential and the possibility of the implementation of soft power, the goal is becoming more and more realistic.
Speaking of Central Asia, it is impossible to ignore the influence of the Russian factor. Considering the region as its sphere of influence, Kazakhstan's goals within the region are challenged. The Eurasian Economic Union, led by Russia, is, of course, not just an economic organization. Looking in the context of Central Asia, the organization serves as an instrument for increasing Russia's dominance in the region. The organization poses financial risks because of the possibility of raising tariffs and potentially trying to orient away Kazakhstan's economy from the global market. Kazakhstan is a member of this organization, and because of that, it is more difficult for it to achieve its goals in the region, as the EEU seeks to institutionalize relations with the member states, making the process of Central Asian integration more complicated. Nursultan is increasingly attentive to Moscow's rhetoric and possible actions in the implementation of its goals in regional policy. Although the military threat from the other superpower, China, is not felt, care should be taken that Beijing's investments and loans in the region do not remain too palpable.
Overall, Kazakhstan is in an excellent position to achieve its ambitions, at least some of them. Having received support from the West, acquiring from China the initiative of the BRI and the large Russian market, Nursultan itself becomes a diplomatic force – the "Geneva of Central Asia". It is in an excellent position to develop policies aimed at promoting the growth and integration of the Central Asian region. Kazakhstan has the potential, and with the right foreign policy approach, it can become a leader in the region, a policy coordinator, to resolve problems such as energy and water security. Closer cooperation with the region's countries is possible, which would allow them to diversify their economies, become a financial center in the region, and, most importantly, build a more cohesive foreign policy. It must be said that much will depend on the succession of leaders in Kazakhstan and what will be relations with the region's second more powerful state – Uzbekistan, which will also determine the geopolitical form of Central Asia.
Of course, there are a number of limiting factors that prevent Kazakhstan from achieving all its goals. Thus, it would be utopian to think that it is possible to achieve the creation of an alliance of the Central Asian region with a single economic union, an army, a visa regime, a banking system, and a currency. Irregular border disputes, considerable differences in economic development between the countries of the region and the divergent views of the heads of states on the level of political and economic cooperation, the weak tradition of multilateral diplomacy between countries significantly slow down the further integration of Central Asia, leaving only the smallest ideological window for potential integration in the region in the future.
Since the achievement of Kazakhstan's strategic goals depends on the effectiveness of the ability to limit the potential risks of the superpowers. The "soft" form of regionalism implementation in practice would be more necessary than a formal one so as not to provoke an unnecessary Russian backlash to the processes taking place in the Central Asia region, which Moscow considers to be its sphere of influence.
Central Asia is one of the priority regions for Latvia's foreign policy and development. Whether Kazakhstan will succeed in creating a stable, economically prosperous, open to cooperation and investors Central Asia region, which will be free from the influence of various countries, including Russia, is vitally important for Latvia. The implementation of Kazakhstan's objectives in the region would open up more significant opportunities for trade cooperation and strengthen diplomatic relations between Latvia and Central Asia countries. Latvia must continue to share its reform experience to enhance the region's democratization processes and reforms in education. This has to be done by providing more funds for the development cooperation projects. The cooperation of Kazakhstan and the Central Asian region with Latvia has excellent potential. Still, to achieve this, the Central Asian region needs to undergo a number of reforms and intensify the democratization process, and Latvia can assist in those fields.
 Bohr. A. 27.11.2019. Chatham House Report: “Kazakhstan: Tested by Transition”. In: Relations with other Central Asian states., 70-71. Derived from: https://www.chathamhouse.org/2019/11/kazakhstan-tested-transition
 Official site of the President of the Republic of Kazakhstan. 09.03.2020. “On the Concept of the Foreign Policy of the Republic of Kazakhstan for 2020-2030”., Derived from: http://www.akorda.kz/en/legal_acts/decrees/on-the-concept-of-the-foreign-policy-of-the-republic-of-kazakhstan-for-2020-2030
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Published 07 June 2021