Kazakhstan’s Ambitious Multivector Foreign Policy

If Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev has one foreign policy goal, it is to continue the process of developing and transforming the country into a regional hub for business, technology, finance, and cultural exchange. Gone are the days when Kazakhstan was regarded by some as a remote and distant land in Central Asia, where few could identify, let alone tell the difference between, any of the -stan countries. With its capital, Astana, drawing parallels to cities like Singapore, Doha, and even Dubai in terms of urban cosmopolitanism, it’s evident that recent years have seen a concerted effort to position Kazakhstan as a significant player in a rapidly evolving geopolitical landscape.

Astana. Photo credit: iStock.

A key component in both Kazakhstan’s foreign policy as well as national “branding” is what President Tokayev has referred to as the “multivector foreign policy,” which essentially encourages the development of positive relations with all states. Like most of the other post-Soviet countries of Central Asia, Kazakhstan has maintained close strategic ties with Russia, which remains one of its largest trading partners. Linguistically, Russian is widely spoken throughout Kazakhstan, particularly in major cities like Astana and Almaty. Culturally, Kazakhstan shares many traditions and collective memories with Russia from the Soviet and Tsarist periods. Notably, Uzbekistan has deepened its partnership with Russia, which, in a role reversal, will now supply natural gas to the country via Kazakhstan to cater to increasing energy demands.

Michael Rossi.

However, Kazakhstan’s trading partners extend beyond Russia, including nations like China, Türkiye, South Korea, and the United States. This indicates Kazakhstan’s growing integration into the global market. Currently, Kazakhstan exports more to China than Russia and is viewed by Beijing as a critical transit link for its Belt and Road project that includes the Kyrgyz Republic, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan, forming a significant East-West artery that extends into Iran through Turkiye and the Mediterranean. Embracing its cultural heritage from the historic Silk Road, Kazakhstan, along with most of its Central Asian neighbors, is keen to build on that link to encourage international investment and promote tourism. 

Kazakhstan has also played into the cultural links and commonalities shared with its other Turkic-speaking neighbors like Uzbekistan, the Kyrgyz Republic, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, and especially Türkiye. All of these countries are members of the Organization of Turkic States, which promotes greater cooperation and integration among the primary Turkic-speaking states of Eurasia. 

Notably, while the United States was a relative latecomer to Central Asia, it has made significant inroads in enhancing its economic and cultural presence in the region over the past few years. While U.S. imports to Kazakhstan ($1.9 billion) are a mere fraction compared with Russia ($17.3 billion) and China ($10.9 billion), America’s influence is most visibly present in the consumer and market sectors, as illustrated by trendy stores, products, and fast-food outlets found in Astana and Almaty. Additionally, American-based universities have established branches in Kazakhstan’s major cities. Notably, the domestic Nazarbayev University has adopted the American academic model, providing English-only instruction in state-of-the-art facilities to students across the region. 

Upon initial examination, it may be tempting to assume that Kazakhstan’s “multivector foreign policy” entails numerous controversies and complications, especially in light of the country’s willingness to engage with both Russia and the United States at a time when relations between the two countries are at their lowest in decades. In reality, this multivector diplomacy offers an opportunity for Astana the flexibility to liaise with various partners while still assigning priority to certain nations over others. 

Surprisingly, Kazakhstan’s biggest export partner is Italy, a country few would expect to overshadow giants like Russia or China. But in 2022, Kazakhstan exported a record $13.9 billion in goods and materials to Italy, followed by China with $13.2 billion and Russia with $8.8 billion. Russia remains Kazakhstan’s largest importer at $17.3 billion, followed by China at $10.9 billion. The United States remains distant, with little under $2 billion in imports. In this light, talk of American presence and cooperation in Central Asia, while definitely expanding, appears somewhat marginal when compared to countries that are closer and more interconnected with the region. Much of Kazakhstan’s exports are raw materials such as oil, gas, and minerals, which support large-scale industrial endeavors championed by Beijing and Moscow throughout the region.  

With Kazakhstan importing mostly finished products like computers, automobiles, and phones, the country remains reliant on other countries providing it with technological goods. Yet, the results have been promising in the past few years, as Kazakhstan’s foreign trade reached a record high of $134.4 billion last year, which is 32% more compared to 2021. The surge in trade is, in no small measure, due to Kazakhstan’s proactive engagement with numerous global markets, signifying its pivotal role in ushering broader global economic focus toward Central Asia. 

In essence, a “multivector foreign policy” is an indicator for Kazakhstan’s business partners that it is charting a course toward modernization and global prominence based on its distinct priorities and ambitions. Neither Russia nor China appear to have any objection to this, considering the robust trade both have with Astana. The budding, though expanding, American market should recognize this dynamic when contemplating that deeper economic ties might be accompanied by specific geopolitical considerations. A “multivector foreign policy” signifies an open door to all. However, there are many seats at this table, and some have been occupied more enduringly and frequently than others.

The author is Michael Rossi, a University Instructor at Webster University Tashkent. His academic interests cover studies in Comparative Politics and International Relations of Europe, the former Soviet Union, and the Middle East.

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