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Kazakhstan's balancing act between the EU and Russia

Teri Schultz
October 25, 2022

Kazakhstan is actively seeking closer European Union ties as a result of the war in Ukraine and the ambition is reciprocated by Brussels. But can Astana seize the moment without angering Moscow?

A terminal on the Caspian Pipeline
Alternate routes through the Caspian Sea may eventually lessen Kazakh energy exports’ dependence on Russia.Image: Yuri Bereznyuk/Tass/picture alliance

It's a line the Kazakh government is treading carefully. Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev has turned his back on some of the more repressive policies of his predecessor Nursultan Nazarbayev — and reversed his own move to name the capital after him.

Deadly protests in January brought both a much-criticized heavy-handed response from Tokayev and further efforts by the president to distance a new administration from the previous regime.

But it's been Russia's war on Ukraine that has turned a spotlight on Astana's position, geographically and politically. Would Kazakhstan speak out against Russia's actions in Ukraine? It abstained on both United Nations General Assembly votes condemning Moscow for the invasion and attempted annexations of Ukrainian territory.

But this was not "silence," Kazakhstan's Deputy Foreign Minister Roman Vassilenko tells DW. He says the abstentions, and numerous statements by Tokayev expressing commitment to international borders, are a "very principled and very clear" position. "We stand for the respect for the UN charter and for the territorial integrity of states."

Indeed, Tokayev made that point to Russian President Vladimir Putin in person at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum in June, saying that Kazakhstan would not grant diplomatic recognition to the breakaway Ukrainian regions of Luhansk and Donetsk.

Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan: Putin's backyard?

In September, Tokayev said the more than 100,000 Russian conscripts who had fled into Kazakhstan were largely "forced to leave because of the hopeless situation. We must take care of them and ensure their safety."

"This conflict has caused very big grief in our society. It has not left anybody indifferent in Kazakhstan because we have good relations with both Russia and Ukraine," Vassilenko explained. However, he added, "if there ever was a time to build stronger connections between Kazakhstan — and central Asia generally — and Europe, to build bridges between us and to bring our two regions closer together, then this time is now."

Foreign capital flees Russia 

Dozens of foreign companies that were based in Russia have already seen Kazakhstan as a safe harbor in which to relocate and Vassilenko says hundreds more have expressed interest. "Those are the companies that work in non-sanctioned areas and they have left Russia at their own will since the start of the conflict," he said. Nearly 40 of those companies are from Germany, according to a government report.

Vassilenko says staying in the Eurasian Economic Union, made up of Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia and Tajikistan, is beneficial for these companies. "That will allow them to continue working within the same legal framework covering Russia, but also Belarus, also Kyrgyzstan, but also being in a country that is bordering China and with a view of exporting their goods to China," he added.

Branching out in politics and pipelines

For now, the European Union remains Kazakhstan's largest trading partner and investor. However, both sides remain dependent on Russia as the majority of goods must get to Europe through Russia. To illustrate this dependency: Oil and gas exports account for more than 40% of Kazakhstan's national revenue — 80% of those exports cross Russia through the Caspian Pipeline Consortium (CPC), of which Moscow is also the largest stakeholder.

infographic of the Caspian Pipeline route
The Caspian Pipeline Consortium handles most exports of Kazakh oil and gas.

"We are maintaining these export routes via Russia," Vassilenko said, "we hope they are not disrupted by any actions or by any actors. But we understand now that there is a need to diversify." 

He says Kazakhstan and its partners are looking "very intensely" at other routes, such as the "Middle Corridor" that could also get energy to Europe, through Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey. This is something he says will be discussed with European Council President Charles Michel when he visits Astana this week.

The Kremlin still holds the cards — for now

At present, however, Kazakhstan can ill afford to anger Moscow, says Temur Umarov, an analyst with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace based in Kyrgyzstan's capital Bishkek. He notes Astana has been shown before what the Kremlin can do.

"Russia has stopped the pipeline from working five times since the war started and it created problems for Kazakhstan," he explained, "because they cannot deliver oil to the importers according to contracts and they have to pay fees and have to cut the budget profits that they were planning for."

Umarov urges the Kazakh leadership to also pay attention to its domestic concerns.

"The political regime [should] implement some reforms that would allow people not affiliated with political elites to be included into the decision-making process," he said. "More should be done to support local activists, to support independent media and political movements that are being created inside Kazakhstan," especially ahead of the November elections, where he is concerned that rivals to Tokayev are not being allowed to run.

Kazakhstan is poised to prosper

But if it can manage its pressures both at home and abroad, Umarov believes Kazakhstan will be seen as an island of stability.

"In the whole Eurasian region, Kazakhstan is kind of the last predictable partner because Russia is has gone crazy, China is closed and doesn't really want to be flexible in its relationship with Europe, focusing on this confrontation with the US," he said. "Other countries are not big enough to make real changes in regional geopolitics and policy."

Vassilenko says his government is working on all of the above and hopes the world understands what he calls Astana’s multi-vector foreign policy. "We are not pro-Russian, we are not pro-Chinese, we are not pro-Western," he said. "We are pro-Kazakh."

Edited by: Rob Mudge