Kazakhstan still finds itself situated awkwardly between two long-time allies: Russia and Turkey. Up until late November 2015, when Turkey shot down a Russian fighter jet it claimed violated its territory, Russia and Turkey were allies too. Now, Russians won’t be vacationing in Turkey any time soon and Turkish businesses in Russia are facing a difficult year due to sanctions. Few hope for a quick return to the status quo between Ankara and Moscow. Meanwhile, Kazakhstan remains quietly between the two former friends now slinging accusations at each other.
To illustrate Kazakhstan’s bind, just look at President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s recent engagement schedule. On February 6 he hosted the Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu in Astana. Nazarbayev lauded Kazakh cooperation with Turkey, particularly regarding the Turkic Council. “Turkey is very important for Kazakhstan, and we will never stop our cooperation policy,” Nazarbayev said.
Regarding the Russia-Turkey tensions he was diplomatic, saying,“The reasons for everything that is happening today are still unclear” and going on to peg the conflict in Syria and Iraq as rooted in the Sunni-Shia divide. Nazarbayev, per the snippets posted by the president’s office, stressed that both Russia and Turkey are important allies. “The tension between Turkey and Russia is a great challenge for us as well.”
In Astana, the reasons for what’s happening might be “unclear” still — but things are very clear for Moscow. Two days after the Turkish prime minister’s visit, Nazarbayev took a call from Russian President Vladimir Putin. According to the Kazakh readout of the call, the two sides talked EEU, Ukraine, and Turkey. The Kazakh summary says, “Vladimir Putin noted that the difficulties were instigated by the Turkish side, therefore the country should take steps to normalize the relations.” Per the Russian account of the call, the two “discussed economic matters, including the situation in the energy sector, and exchanged views on current regional affairs,” as well as looking “at the timetable of planned bilateral contacts.”
TASS reported that during Davutoglu’s visit, Nazarbayev said the Russia-Turkey crisis “had become a big problem.”
Of course, it doesn’t look like relations between Moscow and Ankara will improve any time soon. The two are backing different sides in the Syrian civil war. Turkey is supporting the rebels fighting the government of Bashar al-Assad and Russia is backing Assad. A Bellingcat report last October concluded that “the overwhelming majority of Russian airstrikes have targeted positions held by non-ISIS rebel groups posing a more immediate threat to the Syrian regime and its head, Bashar al-Assad.” Russian officials continue to deny this, saying they are fighting terrorists and that Turkey, for its part, is supporting terrorists. Meanwhile, Syrian government troops, aided by Russian airstrikes, are moving closer to the Turkish border.
For Kazakhstan, the specifics of the Syrian civil war are largely irrelevant but the longer that the conflict lasts the more difficult balancing good relations with both Russia and Turkey will become.