Kazakhstan President Kasym-Zhomart Tokayev is set to win his country’s June 9 elections, as he has received the blessing of former longtime ruler Nursultan Nazarbayev. Hence, the task at hand is to figure out what can we expect from this transition of power, particularly when it comes to Kazakhstan’s foreign policy and the future of Central Asian geopolitics.
Why the change won’t alter regional geopolitics
When Islam Karimov, the late President of Uzbekistan, suddenly passed away in 2016, there was great speculation in the region about what a post-Karimov Uzbekistan would look like. Now we know the answer, as President Shavkat Mirziyoyev has turned away from the Karimov-era isolationism in exchange for improving ties with the rest of Central Asia and beyond.
When it comes to President Tokayev, there is a level of predictability regarding his government’s foreign policy. After all, he was Kazakhstan’s foreign affairs minister from 1994-1999 and then from 2002-2007. In other words, he helped shape Nazarbayev’s foreign policy. Moreover, he was Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations (2011-2013) and head of the UN office in Switzerland, apart from being president of the Kazakhstan parliament prior to taking the presidential seat in March. Hence, Tokayev is no stranger to drafting foreign policy. In a March 20 speech, the new president declared that “I plan to direct my knowledge and experience to ensuring the continuity of the strategic course,” laid out by Nazarbayev, which suggests that there will be no unpredictable decisions in the near future.
It comes as no surprise that his first trips abroad after taking power were to Moscow, where he met with President Vladimir Putin, and to Tashkent, where he met with President Mirziyoyev. Both meetings have been generally described as cordial and pleasant, with the two leaders praising the new Kazakhstan head of state. “My task is to make sure this strategy remains in place,” said Tokayev during his meeting to Moscow, meaning that the Moscow-Nur Sultan friendship will continue.
It is unclear when Tokayev will visit Beijing, though the ministers of foreign affairs of the two states already met in early April, during which a number of cooperation agreements were signed. Tokayev will probably meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping during the upcoming summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in June in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. The Kazakhstan president is reportedly fluent in Chinese (and English) and served in the Soviet embassy in China between 1985-1991, which will help create a cordial environment when he meets with his Chinese counterpart.
Realities and challenges
During the lengthy Nazarbayev presidency, Kazakhstan maintained a generally friendly and balanced approach to the three global powers. The Kazakhstan government did not try to antagonize Beijing, Moscow, and Washington, but rather sought to profit from befriending all of them.
Leaving aside Nur-Sultan’s dealings with the global powers, there are other foreign policy initiatives to keep in mind. For example, last October 2018 Kazakhstan deployed a company of 120 peacekeepers to the UN mission in Lebanon (UNIFIL). This was the first time the Central Asian state deployed so many peacekeepers, and hopefully this momentum continues.
Similarly, the country is improving ties with Uzbekistan, best exemplified by the April meeting between the two leaders – they pledged that bilateral commerce will reach USD$5 billion by 2020. Hopefully, good relations between Nur-Sultan and Tashkent will have one winner: the Aral Sea. A July 2018 BBC report, “The country that brought a sea back to life,” explains how Kazakhstan has revived the Northern Aral Sea, and has brought back fish and hope to local communities. However much more needs to be done, particularly regarding the water bodies what is left of the Aral Sea on the Uzbek side of the border.
There are other outstanding regional issues that Kazakhstan needs to focus on. Back in August 2018, the countries that border the Caspian Sea (Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia and Turkmenistan) signed an agreement in the Kazakhastan port city of Aqtau in which they pledged to end their border differences regarding this body of water. There have not been any major meetings regarding the Caspian Sea since then, and hopefully Nur-Sultan can revitalize the process.
This is not unprecedented as Kazakhstan has a history of attempting to mediate conflicts; for example, it hosted a round of the negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program back in 2013, and also a round of Syrian peace talks in 2018. Another round of negotiations took place in Kazakhstan on April 25-26 as well – while these were not successful in stopping the violence, good intentions do count.
Of course, Tokayev won’t have it easy, as there are pressing issues that he will have to address. The obvious one is the tragic situation in China, namely the detention of thousands of Uyghurs, ethnic Kazakhs, and ethnic Kyrgyzs, which requires a more robust response from regional countries, including Kazakhstan. Finally, at the time of this writing, a dispute between Kazakhstan and neighboring Kyrgyzstan has caused unwanted delays of trucks carrying merchandise that are trying to cross the border.
Nazarbayev’s decision to resign the presidency back in March was shocking to many Kazakhstanis, as he is the only head of state they have ever known. However, given his respectably advanced age, 78, a transfer of power is an ideal course of action to prevent any tensions and disputes for power. At the time of writing, there have been reports of protests in Kazakhstan regarding the elections, however, Ariel Cohen has argued in a commentary for Forbes that the situation is “is a far cry from the opaque transitions seen in neighboring Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan after their leaders died in office.” (He was referring to Turkemistan President Saparmurat Niyazov’s sudden death in 2006).
As we await the June 9 elections and President Tokayev’s expected victory, this is an ideal time to understand Kazakhstan’s foreign policy strategy and priorities for the immediate future. The country has been generally successful at approaching the global powers while also maintaining a non-threatening leadership role in Central Asia. As the Kazakhstan government intends to become one of the world’s 30 advanced nations by 2050, it will be critically important for President Tokayev to maintain his predecessor’s friendly and open foreign policy.
Wilder Alejandro Sanchez is an analyst who focuses on geopolitical, military and cyber security issues.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect those of any institutions with which the author is associated.