In January, everything changed in Kazakhstan. A series of protests have rocked the country, stretching from its oil-rich west to the commercial and cultural capital, Almaty. The protests exploded following longstanding demands for a fairer distribution of Kazakhstan’s wealth, but quickly backfired on the political system, only to be crushed before convincing demands could be put forward or new leaders brought forward. do not emerge. The violence – and demands for political change – that Kazakhstan experienced were unprecedented and challenged both analysts and the regime’s assumptions about political stability.
At the request of President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, Russia sent thousands of troops, officially under the auspices of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, to crush the protests. At least 232 people have died, the government says, although the figure is widely believed to be an underestimate. The intervention of its close ally appeared to make Kazakhstan more dependent on Russia for its security than at any time since the Soviet collapse.
And then in February, Russia invaded Ukraine. Since the start of the last phase of the war in February, the Tokayev government has insisted on presenting itself as not being more dependent on Moscow than before. At least outwardly, Kazakhstan has made efforts to demonstrate that it retains its independence in key areas of economic and foreign policy decision-making. However, appearances can be deceiving.
The political response
Russia’s intervention in Kazakhstan raised fears that Tokayev could effectively become dependent on the Kremlin for his political survival. The experience of Belarus, which has become effectively subordinate to Moscow since Alexander Lukashenko suppressed protests in 2020, served as a cautionary tale.
Yet Tokayev’s government took a relatively more balanced approach to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Kazakhstan has attempted to assuage Western concerns while showing no serious signs of disloyalty to Moscow.
Nowhere can this be seen more clearly than in Tokayev’s decision to suspend Victory Day celebrations this year. The move drew heavy criticism from some voices in Moscow, including commentator Tigray Keosayan. The Kazakh Foreign Ministry even warned that Keosayan could be banned from Kazakhstan for his comments. Moreover, Kazakh Foreign Minister Mukhtar Tleuberdi even mocked a Moscow city deputy and the leader of the Russian Communist Party, Gennadi Zyuganov, in a video in which the latter called on Russia to take measures to protect Russian speakers in Kazakhstan. The Kazakh government has allowed a small number of rallies in support of Ukraine. However, he reacted more aggressively when these were supported by exiled opposition figure Mukhtar Ablyazov.
Tokayev allowed these protests and mini spats for the purpose of public appearance. They allow Kazakhstan to distance itself from Moscow – and even to engage in selective criticism – without affecting bilateral relations. No criticism of Putin’s bloody invasion or the Russian military has been voiced, nor will it be. Kazakhstan will maintain strict control over any non-governmental or oppositional political activity to ensure that it does not genuinely risk affecting relations with Moscow or engendering popular support for anti-Russian action.
These quarrels do not extend to diplomatic action. Kazakhstan abstained in a United Nations vote condemning Putin’s invasion. He voted against another resolution, finally adopted, aimed at withdrawing Russia’s membership of the UN Human Rights Council.
Kazakhstan and the sanctions
From a Western perspective, the most important factor in Russian-Kazakh relations is Kazakhstan’s approach to the sanctions imposed by the West and its allies on Russia for its invasion of Ukraine. So far, Tokayev appears ready to adapt to Western sanctions, while carefully seeking to mitigate their impact.
Since the beginning of the conflict, there have been fears in the West that Kazakhstan could help the Kremlin to circumvent the sanctions. So far, Kazakh officials have said they plan to abide by the international sanctions regime. There are indications that the sanctions are indeed affecting trade: exports to Russia fell 10.6% in March year-on-year.
Yet this is still in its infancy, and Kazakhstan could yet change its approach if Moscow exerts significant pressure on it to do so. At a summit of Commonwealth of Independent States foreign ministers in Dushanbe on May 13, Russian Sergey Lavrov said delegates discussed how to respond to sanctions on Moscow. Kazakh officials did not comment formally, but at least one well-known political commentator, who defended Tokayev’s orders to fire on protesters in January, raised the prospect of a joint counter-sanctions approach in the days that followed.
Western leaders hope that Kazakhstan will stand firm in the face of Russian pressure. He can cite comments made in late March by Tokayev’s deputy chief of staff that Kazakhstan “will not be a tool to circumvent the sanctions imposed on Russia by the United States and the EU.” He said that “we (the Kazakh government) will respect the sanctions”, although he himself will not impose any restrictions on Russian companies. The government has confirmed it has complied with US sanctions against Russian banks, freezing some $21.6 million, although Kazakh bank CenterCredit was allowed to buy the local subsidiary of Alfa-Bank Kazakhstan in late April . Its Russian parent company was sanctioned by the United States earlier this month.
Kazakhstan maintains close economic ties with Russia and risks suffering indirectly from Western sanctions. There are regular reports of Russians buying medicines from Kazakhstan due to shortages in Russia, which may cause further shortages in Kazakhstan since it imports many medicines from Russia. Similarly, EU sanctions on Russian logistics and shipping have increased transportation costs for Kazakh businesses, and these costs are then passed on to the consumer. US policymakers working on Central Asia should consider steps to address these concerns.
Are you considering alternatives?
Tokayev is also taking steps intended to demonstrate that he has geopolitical options beyond Moscow. Just days after the cancellation of Victory Day celebrations, Tokayev met with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara. Among the agreements signed was one to produce Turkish-developed drones in Kazakhstan which is structured to allow the construction of ANKA attack drones in Kazakhstan. Turkey’s only previous deal to build drones overseas was with Ukraine, signed in December 2021. Although production didn’t start before Russia’s invasion, Turkish-made Bayraktar drones have proven essential to the defense of Ukraine.
Kazakhstan has long sought to project relative independence from Russia in defense procurement and has been a valued customer of various Western defense contractors, though not without controversy. Yet his own army proved unable – or at least insufficiently trustworthy in the eyes of the regime – to respond to the January unrest. The production of Turkish drones by such a close Russian ally is worth watching.
The government of Kazakhstan under Tokayev aims to show that it pursues a “multi-vector” foreign policy, in which Kazakhstan has sought to develop pragmatic relations with all major regional and world powers, without interference from ideological or external factors. This approach is a continuation of Kazakhstan’s foreign policy under Tokayev’s predecessor, Nursultan Nazarbayev. Nazarbayev was Kazakhstan’s authoritarian president from the eve of the Soviet collapse until 2019. He was still a dominant political force after his retirement and was a target of public anger amid protests. Tokayev, Nazarbayev’s hand-picked successor, worked in Kazakhstan’s foreign ministry before being elevated to the presidency in 2019.
Tokayev continued this approach to deal with the fallout from Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and portray his government as independent from Russia.
Tokayev also seeks to downplay Nazarbayev’s legacy in order to demonstrate a political response to the January unrest. A June 5 referendum in which Kazakhs voted on whether to remove Nazarbayev’s constitutional protection role, restore the constitutional court and remove some presidential powers, as well as bar the president’s family from some posts, was easily passed, with the caveat that elections in Kazakhstan are not considered free and fair. Luca Anceschi, professor of Eurasian studies at the University of Glasgow, underline that such constitutional referendums were a tool for consolidating power under the old regime, and that this remains very much the case in Tokayev’s Kazakhstan as well.
Despite the referendum, Tokayev was unable to fully escape Nazarbayev’s legacy. Members of Nazarbayev’s family have been removed from their positions in numerous state agencies, but Nazarbayev appears to be enjoying a long-awaited retirement quietly. Tokaev has yet to rename the capital – which he updated from Astana to Nursultan in his first act as president after taking office in March 2019 in honor of Nazarbayev – despite widespread rumors that he would do so earlier this year. Another legacy of the Nazarbayev era that remains is the declared dedication to a multi-vector foreign policy, but Moscow remains first among equals.
The protests and Russian intervention in January proved that Kazakhstan remains firmly within Russia’s sphere of influence despite decades of this supposed multi-vector foreign policy under Nazarbayev. Tokayev may be willing to attempt to portray himself as independent of Moscow given the fallout from his unilateral invasion of Ukraine, but he is a seasoned practitioner of presenting that image rather than a leader genuinely seeking to break free. Moscow’s orbit.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a nonpartisan organization that seeks to publish well-reasoned, policy-oriented articles on U.S. foreign policy and the national security. priorities.