How to survive in the modern world: Kazakh diplomacy

By Murat Laumulin and Chokan Laumulin

(From the book CHILDREN OF THE STEPPES)

Continuing and supplementing the previous chapter, this section also demonstrates how Kazakhstan has survived in the modern world. Kazakhstan officially uses the term “multi-vectored diplomacy”, which was first introduced in the mid 1990s. In fact, concealed beneath the term “multi-vectored” was a balancing of the different geopolitical centres of power that had exerted an influence on Kazakhstan and on Central Asia as a whole.

The multi-vectored approach to foreign policy first came into play in the early 1990s, a time we all remember well. Kazakhstan received its independence at the end of 1991, coupled with a whole host of problems: a thousand or more Soviet nuclear warheads, a huge territory to keep secure and a diverse, polyethnic population, one half of which still did not feel itself as citizens of a sovereign Kazakhstan. This was in addition to having two enormous neighbours, extensive, unprotected borders and unresolved frontier issues, incredibly rich natural resources, eyed by neighbours near and far and a remoteness from the sea and communications with the world.

As soon as Kazakhstan had obtained independence, a multitude of advisors poured forth, both desired and undesired. There were those who taught us how to build democracy and a market economy, others – how to protect human rights. Others called on us to return to our historical, cultural and ethnic roots and, finally, there were those who wanted to persuade us not to break the Soviet economic and political umbilical cord. Accordingly, each party, with their own vested interest, depending upon its geopolitical and international weight, tried to apply pressure on Kazakhstan.

The country’s first test of flexibility was with the issue of the Soviet nuclear legacy. As luck and the geopolitical status would have it, our republic found itself in the same team with Russia, Belarus and Ukraine, all inheritors of the Soviet nuclear arsenal. But it was upon Kazakhstan that the greatest pressure was brought to bear. The West suddenly came to suspect a liking for the Islamic world and a striving to assist in the creation of a so-called “Islamic nuclear bomb” for certain Islamic countries. This all proceeded against a bloody conflict that had unfolded in Tajikstan on regional and confessional grounds. In order not to miscalculate and to bargain coherently with Washington on the nuclear issue, Alma-Ata needed distinct advice or consultation from Moscow, but it did not get any. Left very much to its own devices, the Kazakhstan leadership set about a cautious game, either declaring itself to be a “temporary nuclear state” or agreeing to the unconditional removal of missiles. As a result Washington was simply unable to work out what they were really to expect from Kazakhstan. It seemed that Moscow understood what was going on, but in response to the puzzled questions of the Americans, they only shrugged their shoulders helplessly.

Soon a new and very important element entered the picture, Caspian oil, and Kazakhstan exercised the principle of nuclear weapons in exchange for investment to good effect. We should remember that at the time that Washington still had no idea of the true scale of the reserves that had been discerned and predicted in the Caspian Sea and, also, it was wary of Russia’s reaction, without knowing how weak Yeltsin’s regime actually was. In these conditions, the administration of George Bush Snr. tried not to take risks, but in exchange for Kazakhstan’s agreement to remove ballistic missiles from its territory, it applied pressure on Chevron and encouraged it to come with investment into what was then perceived to be an unlucrative Caspian enterprise. It was later that the Caspian was to become a pivotal element in American geopolitics in Eurasia.

Relations between China and the Soviet Union had started to improve even in Gorbachev’s time. After the fall of the union, the separate republics had to deal with the Asian giant individually. However, even back in the time of Perestroika, Beijing had clearly set Moscow a condition: total normalisation of relations would be possible only if the frontier question was resolved, along with the problem of the so-called disputed territories. Incidentally, these territories were “disputed” only for China. With a vested interest in economic cooperation with the People’s Republic and also proceeding from completely logical considerations that it was better not to have problems with such a neighbour, Kazakhstan was also forced to agree to acknowledge the sovereignty of China over the desert wastelands, which, during the era of Soviet-Chinese confrontation, actually belonged to no one. However, from a social and psychological point of view, the very fact of the transfer of territories was a painful thing for our public opinion.

The well-known aphorism that it is harder to be a friend of America than to be its enemy is fully applicable to Kazakhstan and its complex, to say the least, relations with the USA. In 1994 the presidents of Kazakhstan and the USA signed a Charter on strategic partnership. And while the charter imposed no obligations on the USA, Kazakhstan, as it was soon revealed, had to observe the spirit and the word of the agreement strictly, namely to build democracy and a market economy, observe human rights, run honest elections under international monitoring and all this under the watchful eye of the “strategic partner”, America.

It was revealed that the White House was seriously intent on intervening in Kazakhstan’s internal affairs. Nevertheless, Astana was able to get away with a course for Kazakhstan, which was more or less independent, especially in matters of an internal nature, the strengthening of the vertical of power and statehood. The reasons, as always, lay in Washington’s geopolitical obsession; its striving, at any cost, to implement its Caspian strategy.

The Caspian direction of foreign policy proved to be the most complex and the most multi-vectored aspect in all of Kazakhstan’s foreign policy. On the one hand ever-growing pressure was to be felt from the principal investor, the USA, and also from the “brotherly” Turkey, while on the other hand a difficult dialogue had to be maintained with the closest ally, Russia and other post-Soviet states, including such an ambiguous partner as the leader of Turkmenistan, the now-deceased Turkmenbashi and also Iran, which put forward businesslike and, at first, apparently reasonable proposals. A firm Yes could not be given to one side for fear of offending the other. A categorical No was not an option, either, to protect the national interests and even the security of Kazakhstan.

In such conditions Kazakh diplomacy displayed the utmost resourcefulness and balancing skills. For a considerable time Astana kept completely silent about the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline and used this time to intensify negotiations on the legal status and regulation of disputed matters with Russia, the principal partner on the Caspian Sea. At the same time, Kazakhstan came out with wholly non-binding statements about the acceptability of the Iranian route, which was sure to appease Tehran. In 1998, Kazakhstan and Russia achieved a breakthrough in delimiting their sections of the Caspian Shelf, which heralded the start of a genuine process of the delimitation of the sea and the resources found beneath it. It is true that Iran was cut out of the equation, but this became more a problem for Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan, which Moscow and Astana gave the opportunity to sort out with Tehran themselves.

Moreover, after reaching agreement with Russia, Kazakhstan found its hands were not tied in terms of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan project. Kazakh diplomacy could now speak out on the subject of this pipeline with relative freedom. The meaning behind the statements made by the Kazakh side and which it continues to make comes down to the following: build what you like; we are prepared to pump our oil over any pipeline and even over all of them at once, as long as there are buyers and as long as oil prices don’t fall. It is probable that Russia did not like this position much. To complete the picture, Kazakhstan managed to bring two more players into the Caspian game. The first was China, with which a ten-billion dollar agreement was signed and which was christened from the start as “the project of the century”. However, with Beijing, Kazakhstan encountered a partner that was at least if not more skilled in the diplomatic and “multi-vectored” game.

The southern, or Islamic direction, always remained among the most complicated in Kazakh diplomacy. In its relations with the Islamic world, Kazakhstan, for a time and in the interests of progress, had to discard its European image and, depending upon the specific situation, don a turban, fez or dhoti. Put directly, Kazakhstan did not stop those who wanted to see it as a close Turkic relative, a part of the Islamic world and at times as a true heir of Soviet-Indian friendship. Following this path and adhering to specific political and economic objectives, Kazakhstan enabled itself to become involved in various, previously “exotic” international associations: the ECO (Economic Cooperation Organisation), ICO (Islamic Conference Organisation) and the union of Turkophone states, headed by Turkey.

To be fair, it should be pointed out that our flirting with Ankara, waving the flag of pan-Turkism, Turkic unity and acknowledging Turkey as a new, “elder brother”, soon ended. It was replaced by a real and intense, mutually beneficial, economic collaboration. However, in Turkish high society, Kazakhstan also saw another channel in relations with the West and with NATO. The matter was more complex with Iran and Pakistan; Islamic states in spirit and in form. Relations with Pakistan and India required that a distinct parity be observed in the number of visits and agreements signed and in the volume of diplomatic activity conducted.

There is another aspect of our foreign policy which should not be overlooked and, as you may have guessed, it relates to the integration of the post-Soviet space. From the very first days of the advent of the CIS, Kazakhstan applied truly titanic efforts to achieve integration, both under the Commonwealth of Independent States and other formations in a narrower format. And Kazakhstan’s policy was sincere: with its previous, close dependence on the union-wide economy, Kazakhstan, like no other republic of the former Soviet Union, was keen to retain traditional links. Furthermore, the matter also related to securing joint strategic security. Despite the fact that such a line was not altogether welcomed by our friends in the West, Kazakhstan was persistant in putting forward more and more new integration initiatives. 

And all the same, the multi-vectored policy did bring wholly tangible results. Kazakhstan was able to make full use of the advantages it had been bestowed by history and by geology and it endeavoured to minimise the risks and threats that had arisen from its not altogether successful geopolitical and geographical position, becoming a leader in economic reforms and economic development among the countries of Central Asia and even the CIS. In so doing, Kazakhstan retained good relations with all the players in the grand political game and with its neighbours and countries further afield that were important to it. Problems of security were also resolved by entering or co-operating with various associations, blocs and unions, including the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) and the NATO Partnership for Peace.

It is specific people who form policies, including foreign policy. It is obvious that our foreign policy direction was formed and directed by the country’s senior leadership, yet a major role in the successful implementation of the multi-vectored foreign policy course was played by managers who easily found common ground both with the West and with the East. Kazakhstan was very fortunate in that the foreign policy authority and other structures, responsible for national security, were peopled by a generation of specialists, Eurasian in spirit and patriotically-minded, enthusiasts for their cause with an open view of the world and, most importantly, loyal to the interests of their country.

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