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At a crossroads with Kazakhstan

Gavriil Grigorov/TASS Host Photo Agency Pool via AP
Kazakhstan’s President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev shakes hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin prior to their talks on the sidelines of the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum on June 17, 2022.

In 1991, Secretary of State James A. Baker III journeyed to the newly independent Republic of Kazakhstan to meet with its president, Nursultan Nazarbayev. The policy objectives in the 31 years since of U.S.-Kazakh relations have centered on three areas: diversifying global sources of energy by capitalizing on Kazakhstan’s world-class energy reserves; supporting a government more responsive to the people through the promotion of democracy and protection of human rights; and advancement of free market enterprise. Following 9/11, U.S. policymakers took greater interest in the region to support the war in Afghanistan and prevent the spread of violent extremism.

Kazakhstan took transformative steps in its infancy on nuclear nonproliferation, scorning the vast arsenal of nuclear weapons it inherited from the USSR and becoming the world’s leading energy uranium producer. These steps set the tone for Kazakhstan to become a key player in Central Asia through its multi-vector foreign policy, designed to balance the pull from three global powers: Russia, China and the United States. 

In the 1980s, California-based energy company Chevron initiated negotiations with the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic to purchase ownership of resource-rich western oil fields, such as Tengiz. By 1993, Chevron became the first and biggest foreign investor into independent Kazakhstan. Other U.S. companies, including ExxonMobil, followed suit.

The terrorist attacks of 9/11 demonstrated the security importance of Central Asia to the United States. Kazakhstan proved to be capable of cooperation in strategic counter-terrorism, including the dispatching of military engineers to Iraq in 2003 and the facilitation of U.S. and NATO troops’ air and land transit through Kazakhstani bases. The U.S.’s shambolic exit from Afghanistan in 2021 revealed a reduction of U.S. interest in the region.

Kazakhstan made global headlines in January 2022, when civic protests over the increase in the price of liquified petroleum gas were met by a violent response from the government. Kazakhstan’s second president, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, a one-time United Nations bureaucrat and former foreign minister, issued an order to “shoot to kill without warning” — resulting in 232 deaths, 9,000 detentions, and six deaths by torture in detention — that has shattered the reputation of stability Kazakhstan had enjoyed in a turbulent region.

In dealing with the challenges of a revanchist Moscow and a rising Beijing, Washington cannot look to Nur-Sultan as an offshore balancer. Tokayev has publicly called Putin his “comrade,” consults with him frequently, and was the only head of state to attend the St. Petersburg Economic Forum in Russia, before traveling to Iran — both countries subject to U.S. and international sanctions. During his presidency, Tokayev has worked to strengthen Kazakhstan’s ties with its treaty ally, Russia, via the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). 

While Kazakhstan pushes for economic integration between the EEU and China’s recent projects, including the Belt and Road Initiative, China’s investment may have reached its high point. Structurally, Kazakhstan is not moving toward greater independence but kicking the three-legged stool of multi-vector foreign policy and sinking in between two smothering elephants: Russia’s Vladimir Putin and China’s Xi Jinping.

Sanctions on Russian oil resulting from Putin’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine have resulted in an increase in the price of energy not seen since the Arab oil embargo in the 1970s. The Kremlin, long experienced in using energy as a political weapon, is shutting off supply to Europe, requiring the West to find a greater volume of oil and gas independent of Moscow’s control. 

President Biden has appealed to Saudi Arabia, to try to gain more hydrocarbon alternatives to Russia. Kazakhstan regrettably falls outside of this category, since its maximum export capacity is insignificant compared to its Saudi counterpart and 80 percent of Kazakhstan’s resources pass through the Caspian Pipeline Consortium (CPC) via Russia on its way to Europe. Also, U.S. companies are minor players in the CPC; sanctioned Russian companies — Transneft, Rosneft and LukArco — account for 36.5 percent of the shareholders, compared to Chevron’s 15 percent. 

While diplomats from Nur-Sultan are saying the right things about upholding Western sanctions, business activities and government actions put the Kazakh economy on a high wire. Kazakhstan faces the real possibility of secondary sanctions against the backdrop of the war in Ukraine. While the focus of the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Asset Control rightly has been on Russia, discussions may be restarted about an international effort to implement Global Magnitsky Act sanctions on those responsible for violence against civilians during the January protests.

The Biden administration has highlighted human rights as a foreign policy priority and cannot allow the Russian war in Ukraine to prevent a response to the events in January in Kazakhstan. Kazakhstan’s recent history has been a gradual improvement in liberty and quality of life that is primarily characterized by distancing itself from Moscow, but Tokayev has failed to pick up the mantle. 

The United States needs to see more from Kazakhstan. A sign of Kazakhstan’s continued interest in growing relations with the U.S. should be the release of all those arbitrarily detained following “Bloody January,” including Dr. Karim Massimov, two-time former prime minister and reliable U.S. friend. This is a key first step for Kazakhstan to rebuild a productive relationship with Washington and regain its reputation as a prime recipient of frontier capital.

David A. Merkel is an associate fellow for geoeconomics and strategy with the International Institute for Strategic Studies. He was deputy assistant secretary for European and Eurasian affairs at the State Department, director for South and Central Asia at the National Security Council, and deputy assistant secretary of Treasury.

Tags China Kassym-Jomart Tokayev Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbayev Russia Russian invasion of Ukraine

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