Kazakhstan’s Increasingly Powerful Passport Has Become Source of National Pride 

The expansive list of non-CIS countries that have either streamlined or done away with entry requirements for Kazakh citizens is a by-product of Astana’s internationalist outlook.

Saahil Menon.

Shortly after assuming office in mid-2019, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev codified a decade-long, multidirectional foreign policy blueprint that his administration continues to make headway on. Given the choppy geopolitical waters enveloping Russia’s immediate neighbors amid its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Tokayev has sought to hedge Kazakhstan’s bets and, in doing so, helped further cement his nation’s reputation as a so-called middle power. 

It is not merely hydrocarbons or rare earth minerals that have prompted external actors to begin taking the Central Asian giant more seriously. Rather, the Kazakh people are arguably at the forefront of generating greater interest in their homeland from outside the post-Soviet space. The year-on-year upsurge in the mobility strength of Kazakhstan’s travel document – as per Henley & Partners’ Q1 2024 Passport Index – speaks volumes about the pace and scale at which much of the Global South is now opening up to its holders. Meanwhile, the President’s Office, Akorda, has wasted no time in implementing a slew of reciprocal visa waiver arrangements with key emerging markets – even those considered adversaries of the West such as China and Iran

This represents a sea change from the inward-looking legacy of former President Nursultan Nazarbayev, during whose tenure Kazakhstan punched well below its weight beyond the confines of Eurasia. Domestically, however, Nazarbayev oversaw a remarkable modernization drive that rendered the likes of Almaty and Astana highly liveable metropolises for locals and expatriates alike. He attached equal importance to nurturing and empowering the country’s human capital. The Bolashak scheme, for instance, established a de facto quid pro quo between the government and academically-gifted students who would be sent to select elite Western institutions for higher education on the state’s dime provided they return to Kazakhstan for employment upon completion of their studies. 

It is worth noting that Kazakhstan has always been a staunch proponent of the “unity in diversity” doctrine. The country embraced its multi-ethnic demographic landscape and hosted regular interfaith conferences aimed at promoting cross-border religious inclusivity. Growing up in a pluralist, secular society underpinned by harmonious coexistence has significantly shaped ordinary Kazakhs into tolerant and broad-minded individuals with the capacity to assimilate and flourish wherever they go. It should therefore come as no real surprise that President Emmanuel Macron of France, U.K. Foreign Secretary David Cameron and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbàn all emphasized their willingness to bolster cultural exchanges with Kazakhstan during their most recent working visits to the country, despite the rise in populism and anti-immigrant sentiment Western economies are grappling with. Kazakhstan now finds itself in pole position to secure short-stay Schengen visa exemption. 

Achieving a feat of such magnitude will be a feather in Tokayev’s cap and serve as the building blocks for a New Kazakhstan. Its geographic distance from mainland Europe should not be viewed as a handicap in this pursuit but rather as a blessing in disguise. The absence of any existing association agreement with the EU, or candidacy aspirations for that matter, means that granting fiercely independent Kazakhstan Annex II status is unlikely to incite the rabid, self-destructive Europhilia that has taken root in fellow ex-USSR republics situated on the continent’s periphery, notably Georgia and Ukraine.

Besides being in lockstep with Brussels on the carbon-neutrality front, President Tokayev has demonstrated his preparedness to enact far-reaching democratic reforms, bridge the glaring gender equality gap, clamp down on human rights violations, and weed out the Nazarbayev-era exceptionalism afforded to senior officials and elite businesspeople. He continues to implement Kazakhstan’s multi-vector foreign policy, which has served the country well since its independence in 1991. Astana remains committed to deepening its engagement with China, including through the Shanghai Cooperation Council (SCO), as well as developing cooperation with Europe and the United States. This multi-vector foreign policy has enabled Kazakhstan to play the role of a mediator, most recently helping to resolve tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan. 

It is high time the European Union realized that facilitating access to the world’s largest borderless travel zone for ordinary Kazakhs is a safe bet and, to some extent, a no-brainer. President Tokayev, in turn, should take a leaf out of the United Arab Emirates’ book and launch a Passport Force Initiative dedicated to galvanizing this process and negotiating future visa-free deals with OECD states.

The author is Saahil Menon, an investment analyst.  

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of The Astana Times. 

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