Kazak-Russian Treaty: Cave-in or Pragmatism?

Kazakstan agrees to “coordinate” foreign policy with Moscow. Some read that as “seeking approval”.

A treaty requiring Kazakstan to coordinate its foreign policy with Russia has left commentators in the Central Asian state uneasy about the implications, although it could be argued that their government had little choice in the matter.

Although the document was ratified by Kazakstan’s parliament on October 23, the Treaty on Good-Neighbourly Relations and Cooperation for the 21st Century was actually signed by President Nursultan Nazarbaev and Russia’s Vladimir Putin last November. It thus predates the Eurasian Economic Union which Kazakstan, Belarus and Russia set up in May, and also Moscow’s increasing isolation from the West because of its actions in Ukraine.

That new context places one part of the Russia-Kazakstan treaty, in particular, in a different light – an agreement to “pursue coordinated foreign policies”. For many in Kazakstan, that is an extraordinary commitment for a sovereign state to make, especially one that has successfully built relationships with Western countries, the Muslim world and China over the last two decades. The wording confirms their worst suspicions about Moscow’s ultimate aim – to turn the Eurasian Economic Union into a supranational structure that controls members’ freedom to act independently on political, diplomatic and security matters. (See also  Eurasian Worries in Kazakstan.)

“Kazakstan has chosen the slippery slope of partnership,” Galym Ageleuov, head of the human rights group Liberty, told IWPR.

Ageleuov believes the right path for Kazakstan is to distance itself from the Kremlin, not to appease it. Like many, he worries that Moscow might one day lay claim to large swathes of northern Kazakstan under the pretext of “protecting” the substantial ethnic Russian community, as happened in the annexation of Crimea earlier this year.

Earlier this year, radical nationalist voices in Russia suggested reclaiming at least part of Kazakstan. Kremlin officials dismissed these statements, although Kazak officials may have noted that nationalists are often used as sounding-boards for official Russian policy on eastern Ukraine.

In an August interview, President Nazarbaev tacitly acknowledged his country’s vulnerability when he warned against taking too strong a stance on promoting the Kazak language vis-à-vis Russian. “Putting pressure on people to speak Kazak” could, he said, lead to “violence and loss of sovereignty”. (See Unease at Focus on Language, Identity in Kazakstan .)

Economist Galymbek Akulbekov believes Nazarbaev is right to be circumspect about Russia’s intentions.

“Putin doesn’t play by the rules,” he said. ‘The ‘protector’ of Russians [abroad] recognises no borders.”

Almaty-based political analyst, Zamir Karajanov is less alarmed than some by the terms of the bilateral treaty.

“Coordinating does not mean falling into line with Russia,” he said.

“Discussing foreign policy affairs with Russia could be regarded as an instrument for reducing the risk of a Ukrainian-type scenario,” Karajanov said, adding that “it isn’t any kind of guarantee”.

Karajanov agrees that Putin’s unpredictability creates risks, and constant concessions to Moscow could increase rather than reduce these. “Appetite comes with eating,” he said.

As well as having limited options open to them, Kazakstan’s leaders may have other, more personal reasons for acknowledging Russian regional dominance.

Zauresh Battalova, head of the Foundation for Parliamentary Development in Kazakstan, argues that the “coordinated foreign policy” clause reflects the scale of Moscow’s leverage over the Kazak ruling elite. Holding onto power may be more of an imperative than maintaining complete sovereignty, she said.

Akulbekov, too, said the clause probably came into being because of the “narrow vested interests of an elite that has been in power for too long”.

Even so, the Kazak government has demonstrated a will to pursue separate relationships, even with the Ukrainian government to which Moscow is so hostile. In June, Prime Minister Karim Masimov attended the inauguration of Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko, and the Kazak foreign ministry issued a statement welcoming the September 26 parliamentary election in that country. This after the government recognised the referendum held to make Crimea part of Russia, despite any feelings of unease its members may have felt in private.

Gaziza Baituova is an IWPR contributor in Kazakstan.