Understanding Kazakhstan’s Middle Power Status: The Crucial Role of Soft Power

Since the German Institute for International and Security Affairs ranked Kazakhstan as a middle power state in 2024, the topic has garnered significant attention among experts and academia. 

Kazakhstan has navigated a challenging transformation, achieving tangible results while enhancing its peacekeeping diplomacy in post-soviet Eurasia. This topic warrants further discussion to highlight its problems, limitations, and future perspectives. 

Kazakhstan’s options as a middle power

Aigerim Bakhtiyarova.

Great powers have increased their interest in Kazakhstan since Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022. Visits by Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2022, U.S. State Secretary Antony Blinken in 2023, Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2023, and the U.K.’s Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs, David Cameron in in 2024, indicate that each side seeks to remake the geopolitical architecture in the region in its favor. While counterparts navigate their strategy toward Kazakhstan in various contexts, strengthening of national and regional security has become a cornerstone of Kazakhstan’s fate.

In response to geopolitical challenges, Kazakhstan has opted for a soft balancing strategy among major powers within its multi-vector diplomacy. Experts hold differing views on the viability of Kazakhstan’s multi-vectorism in light of the Ukrainian crisis. Some argue that it is a form of asymmetrical relationship in which more influential states, particularly Russia, dominate. Others believe that Kazakhstan can find a favorable position by adapting its foreign policy to the new reality. 

While Kazakhstan’s foreign policy cannot be monolithic, it presents a complex structured process comprising multiple internal and external factors. In this sense, the policymakers should focus on soft power policy that could support the argument that Kazakhstan is standing as a middle power by leveraging its cultural and diplomatic values to counterbalance the influence of major powers in the region and beyond. 

Today, middle powers are distinguished as either traditional or emerging middle powers. Emerging middle powers are countries that have recently democratized but still exhibit some undemocratic aspects. Behaviorally, emerging middle powers are moderately regionally oriented, traditionally assume leadership roles, and present themselves as reformists aiming to shape the global agenda. 

Realists assert that middle powers’ diplomacy serves to balance and constrain the destructive influence of great power contradictions on world politics. One of the key advantages of being a middle power relies on the fact that such countries do not take responsibility for critical global issues in the hierarchical system of world politics, although they could demonstrate their strength in providing a dialogue platform contributing to resolve conflict-generating cases. Additionally, other indicators such as gross domestic product (GDP), population, and military potential help define countries as middle powers. 

In the case of Kazakhstan, there are compelling arguments supporting the state’s capabilities as an emerging middle-power state. Recently, Kazakhstan has taken significant diplomatic initiatives to regulate regional conflicts by maintaining dialogue among various countries and shaping regional agendas through chairing regional organizations. For instance, the negotiations between Azerbaijan and Armenia held in Almaty this year stand as a testament to Kazakhstan’s diplomatic efforts, despite some skepticism and criticism from other countries.

Another potential of middle powers lies in their ability to project their soft power strategy on the regional and global stage. While promoting a positive image of one’s state and creating a loyal audience abroad is not new, American scientist Joseph Nye noted that the conditions for the manifestation of soft power have dramatically changed. Traditionally, some countries get accustomed to using a policy of coercion to advance their national interest, rendering soft power seemingly irrelevant in their external affairs. 

However, as Nye stated, soft power still matters, and to ignore or neglect it would be analytically incomplete. Despite a large number of studies on soft power, there are few studies that address the build-up of Kazakhstan’s soft power. Most of the literature addresses education, culture, and media within Kazakhstan’s initiatives abroad. However existing research does not explore the broader context and its geopolitical reasoning that could have provided a more extensive understanding of the topic. This is an issue requiring due consideration..

Implementing Kazakhstan’s soft power: economic and geopolitical context 

The soft power policy should be implemented as part of a deliberate strategy, considering numerous factors such as the local population’s loyalty, perception, and the counter-strategy of those states striving for influence. It is a contextual occurrence defined by the target audience and donors because each state and non-state actor defines the notion, objectives, and tools of soft power and realizes them in their own way.   

Due to geopolitical necessities, Kazakhstan advances its influence through economic integration projects, developing transport and logistics routes, and strengthening cooperation with the South Caucasus, the Turkic world, South-East Asia countries, Western partners, and other strategic actors. In doing so, Kazakhstan realizes its multi-vector diplomacy at the state-to-state level. Additionally, in implementing soft power, it is crucial to focus on the people-to-people level. The main idea is to create a strategy that would prevent other countries from confronting Kazakhstan. Thus, not only do official institutional ties matter, but cooperation with the local population, as the target audience, is also essential.  

Currently, Kazakhstan’s target audience consists of three categories: 1) ethnic Kazakhs, 2) former compatriots, 3) and Kazakhs abroad. According to various statistical data, the approximate number of Kazakhs varies between 4.5 and 7 million. Including former compatriots and Kazakhs abroad, the target audience encompasses even more people. Such diaspora potential can play in favor of Kazakhstan abroad if the state can wisely develop its soft power strategy through information and image campaigns. In addition, it helps to create a loyal audience abroad that would positively influence the national security of Kazakhstan. 

The International Organization for Migration’s report states that ethnic Kazakhs live in more than 40 countries. To leverage their intellectual potential in favor of Kazakhstan, it is essential to collect data about the social portrait of the Kazakh diaspora, including mapping, professional skills, and their capabilities.

Firstly, when developing Kazakhstan’s soft power strategy, it is crucial to consider the political, social, and mental characteristics of the host countries. Factors such as the acculturation of ethnic Kazakhs in neighboring countries should be taken into account, as they may affect the success of the measures implemented. Secondly, according to global experience, the state often uses soft power as an additional tool while realizing their main strategy. Therefore, for a soft power strategy to be more effective, it should have political and economic prerequisites and benefits for both parties based on the win-win principle.

For example, as of 2024, the United States ranks first in the Global Soft Power Index. However, as practice shows, even the United States, which has captivated the world, has its limitations in the soft power strategy. Although American cultural values may seem attractive in Japan or South Korea, they can be negatively perceived in the Middle East. Therefore, each state should consider the target audience’s specifics when creating a soft power strategy.

Thirdly, soft power policy should be based on civilizational, political, and ideological values. For example, Türkiye’s soft power policy, which is part of its Neo-Ottomanism doctrine, aims to enhance regional authority by ensuring the role of a mediator in international conflicts and strengthening its status as the leader in the Islamic world. Additionally, Türkiye actively supports Turkish businesses abroad to advance its economic goals.

Incorporating modern global trends into Kazakhstan’s soft power policy could enhance the country’s attractiveness. Current trends include women’s empowerment, digitalization, the development of start-ups and businesses, education, and science. Notably, these issues are partially expressed in the Sustainable Development Goals.   

For example, women’s empowerment will have far-reaching impacts and lasting influence on Kazakhstan’s target audience if the country effectively implements humanitarian projects such as “Women in Science,” “Women in IT,” “Women in Business,” and other initiatives involving Kazakh women in transnational projects. These efforts can attract economic benefits and enhance Kazakhstan’s international reputation, especially in light of global criticism following the murder of Saltanat Nukenova by Kazakhstan’s former economy minister. 

Kazakhstan’s soft power should be pragmatic regarding the economy and rely on civilizational values, forming a new narrative in its foreign policy. As President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev mentioned at the National Kurultai (Congress) earlier this year: “The understanding of the Golden Horde in the international arena should be directly linked to Kazakhstan.”

The author is Aigerim Bakhtiyarova, Ph.D. candidate, OXUS Society for Central Asian Affairs’ Kazakhstan Futures Program Fellows. 

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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