Kazakhstan has long been on a quest to be recognized internationally as a leading country. The initiative comes from the very top: President Nursultan Nazarbayev has worked consistently to frame Kazakhstan as economically dynamic and politically savvy. The government’s strategies, outlined in several grand-scale narratives–the 100 Concrete Steps to achieve the Five Institutional Reforms and Nurly Zhol, the Bright Path–are, in brief, a scheme to bring Kazakhstan into the ranks of the top-30 world economies and give Astana a seat next to Washington, Brussels, Beijing, and Moscow in the geopolitical realm.
Astana’s pursuit of a non-permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council is yet another brick in this road. It took two rounds of votes, but Kazakhstan proved victorious over Thailand for the seat. Kazakhstan will sit on the UNSC for two years starting January 1, 2017.
“No organization has a greater global responsibility than the United Nations Security Council,” Kazakh Foreign Minister Erlan Idrissov wrote in an op-ed for The Hill last week. Laying out Kazakhstan’s case, Idrissov trotted out the usual highlights: the country’s sterling nonproliferation credentials, efforts to further conflict resolution globally, and embrace of multiethnic, multicultural, and multireligious harmony. These talking points (aside from the first) can be argued.
For example, Idrissov noted, “The trust we have built enabled us to help mediate, for example, in the crises in Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan and to play our part in breaking the deadlock of Iran’s nuclear program.” Kazakhstan has played the role of intermediary between Russia and Ukraine, but the conflict is far from close to a resolution and the actual impact of Kazakhstan’s dealings with both sides remains unclear.
The Kyrgyzstan case is also interesting, but not exactly demonstrative of Astana’s peacemaking abilities. In 2010, when Kyrgyzstan’s second revolution began, Kazakhstan was chairing the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). In July 2010, Joanna Lillis wrote an article for EurasiaNet arguing that Astana showed more style than substance in addressing the crisis in Kyrgyzstan. The International Crisis Group’s Central Asia project director, Paul Quinn-Judge, told EurasiaNet, “In fact they’ve done very little [concerning Kyrgyzstan]. They seem to be mostly interested in somehow burnishing their own image.”
As for multiculturalism, “Kazakhstan is a melting pot of people of different nationalities, faiths, and cultures,” Idrissov wrote. “This can, as we have sadly seen in other countries, be a source of tension. But we have worked hard to create a society where all are valued and live in harmony.” Kazakhstan, which has hosted several forums on religion and countering extremism, nonetheless has been named as a Tier 2 country by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. USCIRF’s 2016 report begins its review of Kazakhstan like this: “Although the government of Kazakhstan promotes religious freedom for ‘traditional’ religious groups at the international level, domestic religious freedom conditions further deteriorated in 2015.” The report notes complex religious registration laws, police surveillance of religious groups, and arbitrary extremism charges levied against political dissidents.
In both these areas–conflict resolution and religious harmony–there is a stark divide between the reality that persists within Kazakhstan and the reality Astana promotes outside of Kazakhstan. The same can be said–to different degrees–of other members of the UNSC, non-permanent and permanent alike.
A non-permanent security council seat is of limited actual use; but for Kazakhstan the symbolism of the seat is key. Astana has longed to sit in the room where global issues are debated and importance decisions made, and in this it has at last succeeded.
Correction: This article initially referenced “Zhurly Nol,” which is incorrect, the correct spelling is “Nurly Zhol.”