Over the last few years, Kazakhstan has significantly increased its foreign assistance to neighboring countries. Indeed, according to the “Concept of the foreign policy of the Republic of Kazakhstan for 2014-2020,” one of Kazakhstan’s main foreign policy objectives is assistance to developing countries. In 2017, Dariga Nazarbayeva, daughter of the president of Kazakhstan and also chairwoman of the Kazakh Senate’s Committee on Foreign Relations, Defense, and Security, noted that Kazakhstan had provided around $450 million in aid to other countries since obtaining its independence.
Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev, has incorporated this aid initiative into his larger foreign policy strategy. In the 2012 World Bank annual report on the competitiveness of world economies, Kazakhstan came in at 51st place, prompting Nazarbayev to announce his new national strategy—Kazakhstan-2050—with the main objective of pushing Kazakhstan up the list into the Top 50 developed countries in the world. Nazarbayev also aims to have Kazakhstan join the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). However, one of the requirements for entering this privileged club of developed countries is the establishment and operation of official development assistance, or ODA, mechanisms. For this reason, Kazakhstan created a national agency, KazAID, to support development projects in different states.
The lion’s share of aid to date has gone to Afghanistan, where KazAID focuses its attention on infrastructure, humanitarian aid, and gender equality initiatives. In 2014, Kazakhstan adopted a joint action plan that would invest $2 million in the construction of schools, hospitals, and roads, as well as $1.5 million in the construction of four new bridges in Afghanistan. Later, in 2016, KazAID launched a project aimed at increasing the economic independence of women in Afghanistan, and in 2018, the country hosted a regional conference on the theme of women’s empowerment. In April 2018, KazAID also conducted a two-week workshop on maternal and child healthcare for public health professionals from Afghanistan.
Additionally, the Kazakh government has allocated $50 million in grants and scholarships for Afghan students to pursue post-secondary education at Kazakh universities. Under an agreement signed in 2009, Kazakhstan covers not only tuition fees but also travel expenses and accommodation for the entire duration of study. The total number of Afghan students enrolled in Kazakh universities in 2016 was 994.
Although Afghanistan has indisputably been the main recipient of Kazakhstani aid, other countries in the region have also benefited from this assistance. In 2014, during the visit of then-Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev, Nazarbayev noted that Kazakhstan, a“brother country,” would provide Kyrgyzstan with $100 million to assist it in joining the Eurasian Economic Union. However, tensions in Kazakh-Kyrgyz relations have occasionally disrupted the delivery of aid. For example, in 2017, during a diplomatic row between the two states, Atambayev officially refused to receive foreign aid from Kazakhstan. The Kyrgyz president, at the time rapidly approaching the end of his time in office, announced his decision while criticizing the Kazakh government, particularly his counterpart Nazarbayev, for interfering in the impending Kyrgyz presidential election.
This stands in sharp contrast with Tajikistan, which willingly accepts foreign aid from Kazakhstan. Relations between Astana and Dushanbe are much warmer and more stable. In 2015, Kazakhstan sent $4.7 million in humanitarian aid to Tajikistan. However, the Embassy of Kazakhstan in Dushanbe pointed out that Tajikistan did not list Kazakhstan as one of its foreign donors in its annual report entitled “Socio-economic situation of Tajikistan in 2015.” Nevertheless, this incident did not stop Kazakhstan from offering more aid. Last December, the then-ambassador of Kazakhstan to Tajikistan, Nurlan Seitimov, while participating in the delivery of 5,000 tons of Kazakh oil worth $1.5 million, emphasized that since 2006 Kazakhstan had provided its “brotherly state” with $36 million in aid.
In contrast to poorer Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, the second biggest economy in the region, is in lesser need of foreign assistance from Kazakhstan. Moreover, the political rivalry between Nazarbayev and former Uzbek President Islam Karimov created obstacles for closer cooperation between the states, including its cultural and humanitarian aspects. Nevertheless, after Karimov’s death, under the leadership of Shavkat Mirziyoyev, relations between the two countries have shown noticeable improvement. In 2018, celebrated as the year of Uzbekistan in Kazakhstan, Nazarbayev offered 10,000 grants and scholarships for Uzbek students to study at Kazakh universities.
In a period of four years, Kazakhstan’s foreign policy agenda and Nazarbayev’s aspirations have achieved some results. In 2018, the country was invited to participate in the 25th plenary session on governance of the OECD Development Assistance Committee (DAC) in Paris. It was the first time Kazakhstan took part in the session on governance. In the last several years, the overall image of the country in the international arena has arguably improved. Kazakhstan became the first Central Asian country to become a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. Furthermore, Kazakhstan won its bid to host the International Exposition (EXPO) in 2017.
Nevertheless, Nazarbayev’s aspirations do attract criticism at home, as many among the public believe that the money spent on increasing Kazakhstan’s international profile should have been spent on domestic needs. For example, the government spent several billion dollars to host EXPO, a huge expenditure even for an oil-rich country like Kazakhstan. A survey conducted by BRIF Research Group showed that around 70 percent of respondents believed that those resources should instead have been channeled to solve critical social and economic problems in the country. When James Palmer, Foreign Policy’s Asia editor, criticized the Kazakh government and questioned its success in hosting EXPO in a June 2017 article, access to Foreign Policy’s website in Kazakhstan was simply blocked.
In a similar fashion, foreign assistance may also attract criticism from the public. The potential for criticism may explain why the issue has been downplayed at home. Kazakhs are largely unaware of the amount spent on foreign assistance, insulating the government from public criticism. In Central Asia, Kazakhstan has used its economic resources in an attempt to become an undisputed regional leader. However, the extent to which the country’s foreign aid has achieved this aim is questionable given that other countries in the region are reluctant to recognize Kazakhstan as a “big and generous brother.” Meanwhile, in early February, domestic discontent erupted following the death of five children in a house fire in Astana. Hundreds of mothers across the country came out to the streets demanding increased social expenditure from the government. For a country that rarely sees protests, this was quite a development. Pointing to the country’s large oil reserves, the protesters demanded an increased role from the government in raising the standard of living and providing adequate social services. Dariga Nazarbayeva rightly pointed out that “for a developing country such as Kazakhstan, giving $450 million in aid is a very substantial amount.” If the government fails to meet the public’s expectations, Nazarbayev’s efforts to increase the country’s standing abroad may only decrease his own standing at home.
Khamza Sharifzoda is a graduate student at Georgetown University. He specializes in the politics and governance of Russia, Turkey and Eurasia. Anuar Temirov is a graduate student at Eurasian National University in Kazakhstan. He specializes in Central Asian politics.