The Complexity of Kazakhstan-Russia Relations on Display

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The Complexity of Kazakhstan-Russia Relations on Display

What did Kazakh President Tokayev’s recent statements in Russia actually mean? 

The Complexity of Kazakhstan-Russia Relations on Display

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and Kazakhstan’s President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev sit, during their talks on the sidelines of the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum in St.Petersburg, Russia, Friday, June 17, 2022.

Credit: Gavriil Grigorov/TASS Host Photo Agency Pool via AP

Despite the economic isolation the Russian Federation currently finds itself in, Moscow decided to carry on with the 25th St. Petersburg International Economic Forum (SPIEF) earlier this month. The forum was initially founded to showcase the strengths and potential of the Russian economy for foreign investors, as well as for President Vladimir Putin to gather his allies and friends and talk about economic cooperation and beyond. 

This year, Putin’s only high-level in-person diplomatic guest was the president of Kazakhstan, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev. Chinese leader Xi Jinping and Egypt’s Minister of Trade and Industry Niven Gamea addressed the gathering via video. 

Along with the many economy-related questions discussed on the forum’s main panel, featuring Putin, Tokayev, and the editor-in-chief of Russia Today, Margarita Simonyan, the question of Russia’s “special military operation” in Ukraine seized a substantial part of the conversation. 

At one point Simonyan openly asked Tokayev about his and the Kazakhstani people’s perception of the “operation” — a euphemism insisted upon by Putin in lieu of calling Russia’s military actions in Ukraine an invasion. Tokayev replied clearly, saying that Kazakhstan does not and will not recognize quasi-state territories, and that for Kazakhstan those included Luhansk and Donetsk. He added that “this is an honest answer to your honest question.” 

That particular moment, embedded within over three hours of discussions, went viral. Both Western and Russian media speculated on what it meant.

The narrative in the Western media interpreted it as a pivotal moment for Kazakh-Russian relations, with headlines like “Putin Ally Speaks Out Against Ukraine Approach to His Face,” “Putin Gets Unexpected Pushback From Ally Over War in Ukraine,” “How Putin ‘Lost’ Kazakhstan, And Squashed His Own Soviet Revival,” “Putin, Tokayev and the collapse of the ‘Russian world’” and so on. Meanwhile, Russian media also suggested that it was a turning point for the two countries’ relations, but they framed Tokayev’s response from a different angle. Many discussed it as Kazakhstan “breaking away” from Russia, and some asked if Kazakhstan had betrayed Russia, despite the latter helping Nur-Sultan with a CSTO deployment in January. Both interpretations are problematic. 

In some Western media sources there is a clear urge to frame Putin as weakening, losing power and influence. Tokayev refusing to support the Kremlin’s visions for Luhansk and Donetsk, in person, is seen as an example of how low Russia has fallen even among its closest allies. But if you watch the whole panel, the Russian and Kazakh presidents agreed on many points, even those that fell beyond economic discussions. Tokayev was courteous and friendly in his expressions, and he stressed numerous times how important it is for Russia and Kazakhstan to work together in the framework of the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) to overcome the challenging economic state the region finds itself in. Moreover, Tokayev’s presence at SPIEF in the first place is suggestive of Kazakhstan’s clear intentions not to “betray” or “humiliate” Russia, but rather to try to find ways for mutually beneficial economic cooperation.

At the same time, some of the coverage by Russian-language media was also misleading. Claims of Kazakhstan “breaking away,” Tokayev’s “betrayal,” and interpretation of the Kazakh president’s actions as a demonstration of a “sly, eastern style of diplomacy” raise many questions. What exactly is Kazakhstan breaking away from? Russian interests? The Russian state? Does Kazakhstan betray Russia when acting according to its own national interests? And in what way does Tokayev act in an “sly, eastern” manner when trying to diplomatically exit a precarious situation? Unpacking Tokayev’s statements with a decolonial approach in mind, one can clearly see the exaggeration and fallacious nature (not to mention a touch of orientalism) of the above mentioned descriptions. 

It is very well known and has been widely discussed that Kazakhstan was placed in a very disadvantageous position on February 24 when Russia invaded Ukraine. Directly bordering both Russia and China, and trying to maintain friendly relations with the West and the rest of the world, too, Kazakhstan has carefully pursued a “multi-vector foreign policy” since independence in 1991. With intensifying regionalism and global division, it has been especially challenging for Kazakhstan to protect its national interests and at the same time preserve good relations with all states. 

It was not a stunning surprise to the Kremlin for Kazakhstan’s leader to state at SPIEF that Nur-Sultan does not and will not recognize Luhansk and Donetsk. Since the start of the war, various Kazakh officials have stated that stance several times in different venues. The country’s position on the question of territorial integrity is very clear. Having a substantial ethnic Russian minority in the country’s northern regions bordering Russia, Kazakhstan will not take the chance that recognizing any breakaway state will inspire or generate a prerequisite for something similar to happen in its own territory. For this very same reason, Kazakhstan will not purposefully seek ways to worsen relations with Russia. Kazakhstan has other national interests tied up in Russia, too, such as the fact that Kazakh oil is transported primarily through Russia.

Nonetheless, it is important to notice another comment made on the SPIEF stage by Tokayev. Simonyan asked both presidents about Russia’s relations with former Soviet countries and what, perhaps, Russia does wrong in this regard. Taking the opportunity, Tokayev expressed his discontent regarding some of the comments made by Russian public and political figures, including comments from Simonyan’s husband and her own statements regarding Kazakhstan’s territorial integrity and its political developments. Tokayev said that such comments are “absolutely irrelevant” and “strange,” and added that Putin has personally clarified the Kremlin’s positive position regarding Kazakhstan. Simonyan seemed flustered by this answer and tried to transition to economic questions, but was interrupted by Putin. He came back to what Tokayev said and re-stated that Kazakhstan is Russia’s ally in the most direct and broadest sense of the word. 

After the video went viral, several Russian public figures continued to aggressively comment on Kazakhstan, including Simonyan’s husband and Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov. Although these kinds of comments would occasionally come up in the past, commentary about Kazakhstan has intensified since the start of the war in Ukraine. If we believe the official position of the Kremlin and Putin’s public assurance at SPIEF, it can be speculated that these comments are targeting an internal Russian audience more rather than Kazakhstan. For most of Putin’s presidency, strident “us vs them” messaging and flagging of “external enemies” have been successfully used to rally Russians around the flag. The unfolding situation is open for interpretation, of course, but while those who have been furiously attacking Kazakhstan are not high-level officials, they are close allies of the government. It is safe to say that they would not dare to continue and try to worsen relations with other states without the Kremlin’s direct or indirect approval.

Also feeding the overall discourse about SPIEF, a couple of days after the forum Russia reportedly halted the transportation of Kazakh oil and Kazakhstan blocked the transfer of Russian coal. But the problems at the oil terminal began before SPIEF and the news about Russian coal appears to be fake.

Still, in its current position, Russia needs Kazakhstan. And Kazakhstan wants to keep relations with Russia on good terms for its own reasons. On the June 23, Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Mariya Zaharova said that “Russia respects Kazakhstan’s point of view on the conflict in Ukraine.” Overall, the war in Ukraine has seemed to make Kazakhstan more vocal on the global stage in expressing its position and national interests in relation to Russia, but despite the difficult geopolitical and economic conditions Russia has created, it is in both countries’ interests to keep their good relations afloat.