Azerbaijan – Kazakhstan Strategic Partnership: A New Geopolitical Axis?

Among the many significant geopolitical consequences of the conflict in Ukraine has been the boost in regional integration between post-Soviet states, which has long been limited to geographical factors. One successful example of such deep engagement is the Azerbaijan – Kazakhstan partnership, recently bolstered by frequent official visits of President Ilham Aliyev and President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, followed by numerous bilateral agreements, particularly in the areas of transport, logistics, and energy. 

Fuad Shahbazov.

The war in Ukraine and the disruption of the global supply chain have underlined the importance of alternative trade routes, such the Trans-Caspian International Transport Route (TITR), also known as Middle Corridor, which is the pathway connecting Europe and Asia. Notably, the TITR is becoming important for supplying much-needed natural gas to Europe, with further involvement of countries like Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan, which possess significant gas deposits.

Kazakhstan’s economic prosperity and active foreign policy have elevated its regional power status. Despite the acute economic crisis that hit the country in 2014, causing slow GDP growth, the country’s successful diplomatic maneuvering between Moscow, Beijing, and the West enabled it to maintain stability. A new era in Astana’s foreign policy strategy began with Tokayev’s presidency, who replaced the former Kazakh leader, Nursultan Nazarbayev. Unlike his predecessor, President Tokayev has embraced more active diplomacy with the regional states and beyond. 

Kazakhstan’s new government, led by President Tokayev, has gradually sought to expand its balanced and pragmatic foreign policy, reducing its dependence on Russian territory for cargo deliveries and crude oil transit to Europe. This shift in Astana’s foreign policy priorities was subtly conveyed in President Tokayev’s remarks at the 2022 United Nations General Assembly. 

In line with this strategy, Kazakhstan reached out to Azerbaijan and Türkiye, especially at a time when Russia was preoccupied with the war in Ukraine, to diversify economic partnerships, find alternative trade routes, and reroute the export of crude oil to Europe. Consequently, in 2022, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan agreed on the flow of Kazakh oil to Europe via the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) oil pipeline. In 2023, both countries revealed plans to increase the volume of oil it transports to world markets through Azerbaijan. 

According to local media, oil shipments from the port of Aktau to the BTC pipeline system in 2023 totaled 1.057 million tons, while shipments of Kazakh oil via the BTC pipeline are planned to reach 1.5 million tons in 2024. Therefore, Kazakhstan’s interest in boosting ties with Azerbaijan should not come as a surprise. Moreover, a close partnership with Azerbaijan enables it to maintain a direct partnership with Türkiye, which has long been interested in expanding its soft power in the region and has unhindered access to regional resources. 

It is noteworthy that the intensified partnership with Azerbaijan and Türkiye led to the establishment of another Kazakhstan-Azerbaijan-Türkiye trilateral partnership format. The Middle Corridor project opened new horizons for Baku-Astana and Baku-Ankara-Astana partnership formats, while also generating more space for establishing multilateral partnership formats. The Baku-Astana axis was further cemented by President Tokayev’s visit to Baku in March 2024, during which additional cooperation agreements with Azerbaijan were signed. 

Given the positively rising numbers, Baku and Astana are attempting to optimize their complementary range of measures. For example, these efforts include implementing projects to upgrade ports along the Caspian Sea and improve highways and railways to be utilized along the TITR. In the case of Kazakhstan, the country has already launched the construction of new facilities in the Caspian Sea to increase export potential, including a new cargo terminal in Aktau with the involvement of foreign companies and container operators Maersk, MSC, and COSCO Shipping. 

Indeed, the potential of the Middle Corridor countries to develop their infrastructure promptly to ensure cargo flow makes it attractive for foreign investments and countries, particularly from the EU states. However, the growing demand for a new route necessitates policy solutions such as deeper customs cooperation, regulatory approximation, better tariff coordination, and industrial solutions to enable smoother transit of cargo from China to Europe or vice versa. 

In this sense, the most important point in the Azerbaijan – Kazakhstan partnership was the creation of a joint $300 million investment fund, plans for which were finalized shortly after President Tokayev’s most recent visit to Baku. Although Azerbaijan established similar funds with Türkiye, the Kyrgyz Republic, and Uzbekistan in 2024, the joint fund with Kazakhstan has the potential to be far more consequential due to the joint infrastructure projects and energy partnerships with Azerbaijan . 

Indeed, Kazakhstan’s new pragmatic foreign policy strategy aims to boost and diversify partnerships beyond traditional boundaries in light of the shifting historical balance of power in Central Asia in the aftermath of February 2022. In this context, a close partnership with Azerbaijan, another important regional transit and energy hub, perfectly aligns with Astana’s current interests in serving its independent foreign policy strategy.

The author is Fuad Shahbazov, a Baku-based policy 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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