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A nation must think before it acts.
In January, everything changed in Kazakhstan. A series of demonstrations rocked the country, spreading from its oil-rich west to the commercial and cultural capital, Almaty. The protests exploded out of long-simmering demands for a fairer distribution of Kazakhstan’s wealth but rapidly turned against the political system, only to be crushed before cogent demands could be put forward or new leaders could emerge. The violence—and demands for political change—that Kazakhstan experienced was unprecedented, and challenged both analysts and the regime’s assumptions about political stability.
At President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev’s request, Russia sent thousands of troops, formally under the auspices of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, to crush the protests. At least 232 people died, according to the government, though this figure is widely seen as an under-estimate. The intervention by its close ally appeared to make Kazakhstan more dependent on Russia for security than at any point since the Soviet collapse.
And then in February, Russia invaded Ukraine. Since the latest phase of the war started in February, the Tokayev government has been keen to portray itself as no more dependent on Moscow than before. At least outwardly, Kazakhstan has strived to demonstrate that it retains independence on key areas of economic and foreign policy decision-making. However, appearances can be misleading.
Russia’s intervention in Kazakhstan led to significant concerns that Tokayev would become effectively dependent on the Kremlin for his political survival. The experience of Belarus, which has become effectively subservient to Moscow since Alexander Lukashenko clamped down on protests in 2020, served as a cautionary tale.
Yet Tokayev’s government has taken a relatively more balanced approach to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Kazakhstan has attempted to placate Western concerns while also 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 provoked vociferous criticism from some voices in Moscow, including commentator Tigray Keosayan. The Kazakh Foreign Ministry even warned Keosayan could be banned from Kazakhstan for his comments. Additionally, Kazakh Foreign Minister Mukhtar Tleuberdi even mocked a Moscow city deputy and the leader of Russia’s Communist Party, Gennadi Zyuganov, over a video in which the latter called for Russia to take action to protect Russian-speakers in Kazakhstan. The Kazakh government has allowed a small number of rallies in support of Ukraine. However, it has responded more aggressively when these have been supported by exiled opposition figure Mukhtar Ablyazov.
Tokayev has allowed these protests and mini-spats for public appearance purposes. They allow Kazakhstan to project a distance from Moscow—and even engage in selective criticism—without actually affecting bilateral relations. No criticism of Putin’s bloody invasion or the Russian military has been forthcoming, nor will it. Kazakhstan will keep a tight control on any non-governmental or opposition political activity to ensure it does not genuinely risk affecting relations with Moscow or engendering popular support for anti-Russian action.
These squabbles do not extend to diplomatic action. Kazakhstan abstained on a United Nations vote condemning Putin’s invasion. It voted against another resolution, which was ultimately successful, to strip Russia of its membership in the UN Human Rights Council.
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 seems prepared to accommodate 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 circumvent sanctions. So far, Kazakh officials have said they plan to comply with the international sanctions regime. There are indications that sanctions are indeed affecting trade: Exports to Russia fell 10.6 percent in March year-on-year.
Yet it remains early days, and Kazakhstan could still change its approach if Moscow exerts significant pressure on it to do so. At a summit of foreign ministers from the Commonwealth of Independent States in Dushanbe on May 13, Russia’s Sergei Lavrov said delegates had discussed how to respond to sanctions on Moscow. Kazakh officials made did not make a formal comment, but at least one well-known political commentator, who famously defended Tokayev’s orders to shoot protesters in January, did raise the prospect of a joint counter-sanctions approach in the days thereafter.
Western leaders will be hoping that Kazakhstan holds its ground in the face of Russian pressure. It can point to comments made in late March by Tokayev’s deputy chief of staff that Kazakhstan “will not be a tool to circumvent the sanctions on Russia by the US and EU.” He declared that “we (the Kazakh government) are going to abide by the sanctions” though it will not itself be passing any limitations on Russian businesses. The government has confirmed that it has complied with US sanctions on Russian banks, freezing some $21.6 million, though Kazakhstan’s Bank CenterCredit was allowed to buy the local subsidiary of Alfa-Bank Kazakhstan at the end of April. Its Russian parent company was sanctioned by the United States earlier that month.
Kazakhstan has close economic ties with Russia, and risks suffering indirectly from Western sanctions. There have been regular reports of Russians purchasing medicine in Kazakhstan amid shortages in Russia, which risks further shortages in Kazakhstan since it imports many medicines from Russia. Likewise, EU sanctions on Russian logistics and shipping have increased freight costs for Kazakh businesses, and these costs are then passed on to the consumer. US policymakers that work on Central Asia should consider steps to address such concerns.
Tokayev is also taking steps intended to demonstrate that he has geopolitical options beyond Moscow. Just days after the cancelled 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 that is structured to allow the construction of ANKA attack drones in Kazakhstan. Turkey’s only previous agreement to build drones abroad was with Ukraine, signed in December 2021. Though production did not got off the ground before Russia’s invasion, Turkish-manufactured Bayraktar drones have proven instrumental to Ukraine’s defense.
Kazakhstan has long sought to project relative independence from Russia on defense supplies, and has been a valued customer of various Western defense firms, albeit not without controversy. Yet its own military proved incapable—or at least insufficiently trustworthy in the regime’s eyes—to respond to the January unrest. The production of Turkish drones by such a close Russian ally is worth keeping an eye on.
Kazakhstan’s government under Tokayev aims to portray that it is pursuing a “multi-vectoral” foreign policy, under which Kazakhstan has sought to develop pragmatic relations with all major regional and global 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 the target of public ire amid the protests. Tokayev, Nazarbayev’s hand-picked successor, worked in Kazakhstan’s foreign ministry before he was elevated to the presidency in 2019.
Tokayev has continued this approach to manage the fallout from Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and present his government as independent of Russia.
Tokayev is also seeking to downplay Nazarbayev’s legacy in order to demonstrate a political response to the January unrest. A referendum on June 5 in which Kazakhs voted on whether to remove Nazarbayev’s constitutionally protected role, restore the constitutional court, and remove some presidential powers, as well as banning the president’s family from certain posts, passed easily, with the caveat that elections in Kazakhstan are not seen to be free and fair. Luca Anceschi, Professor of Eurasian Studies at Glasgow University, pointed out that such constitutional referendums were a power consolidation tool under the old regime, and that this very much remains the case in Tokayev’s Kazakhstan as well.
Despite the referendum, Tokayev has been unable to fully escape Nazarbayev’s legacy. Members of Nazarbayev’s family have been removed from positions at a host of state agencies, but Nazarbayev appears to be quietly living out a long-overdue retirement. Tokayev has yet to rename the capital city—which he updated from Astana to Nursultan in his first act as president after taking office in March 2019 in Nazarbayev’s honor—despite widespread rumors that he would do so earlier this year. Another legacy of the Nazarbayev era that remains is the stated dedication to a multi-vectoral foreign policy, but Moscow remains the 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-vectoral foreign policy under Nazarbayev. Tokayev may be willing to attempt to portray himself as independent of Moscow given the fallout from its unilateral invasion of Ukraine, but he is an experienced practitioner in presenting this image rather than a leader genuinely seeking to move out of Moscow’s orbit.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.