A new name for Tokayev: Souring relations between Kazakhstan and Russia5 min read
“As everyone knows the President of Kazakhstan, Kemel Jomartovich Tokayev, asked for help from the Collective Security Treaty Organization,” stated Russian President Vladimir Putin during the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum (SPIEF) in June. In the same statement, Putin mentioned the brotherly relationship between Russia and Kazakhstan, though the sentiment seemed rather insincere, given his name is actually Kassym-Jomart Tokayev. While this seemed to be a rather innocuous mistake, this “slip-up” reflects a large trend in Kazakh-Russian relations. Since the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, Kazakhstan has refused to recognize the two breakaway regions, Donetsk and Luhansk, a stance that Russia has not taken too kindly.
At the same forum, Tokayev was asked to speak on the invasion of Ukraine while sitting right next to Putin. Tokayev said definitively that he refused to recognize the “quasi-states” Donetsk and Luhansk and that doing so would lead to chaos. Tokayev also made note of attempts from Russian politicians to foment discord between the two countries by threatening Kazakhstan verbally. Referring to the onslaught of statements from Russian officials proposing to invade northern Kazakhstan, home to a large number of ethnic Russians. Many have even gone as far as to say that the region should be de-Nazified, a popular Russian excuse for undermining the sovereignty of neighboring states.
Putin, himself, has also engaged in undermining Kazakhstan several times in the past. For example, in 2014, the same year Russia annexed Crimea, he stated that President Nursultan Nazarbayev “created a state on territory where no state had ever existed,” a statement remarkably similar to some of the justifications for the invasion of Ukraine. However, such statements have become even more commonplace since February. Among the most notable were outspoken Russian YouTube commentator, Tigran Keosayan, who threatened that “If you think that you can get away with trying to be so cunning, and imagine that nothing will happen to you, you are mistaken.” Kazakhstani officials responded swiftly to these statements, proposing to ban him from the country.
Oil Spills and Vintage Bombs
While Russia is unlikely to act on these threats, especially with the war still raging in Ukraine, they have found other ways to retaliate against Kazakhstan. The day after SPIEF, a shipment of oil from Kazakhstan was suspended in the Russian port Novorossiysk, due to alleged oil spill concerns. This, however, is not the first time Russia has obstructed Kazakhstani supply chains. Since the war broke out, Russia has halted the operation of the Caspian Pipeline Consortium’s (CPC) oil terminal twice already, once citing ecological violations, and the second time declaring an alleged detection of WWII bombs near the port. These reasons aside, the closure was more likely a response to Tokayev offering to send more oil to Europe and his continued stance against the war in Ukraine.
The stoppages of the pipeline could threaten future economic instability considering Kazakhstan’s reliance on the trade of fossil fuels, accounting for over 40% of the country’s revenue. An even grimmer picture emerges when considering that the CPC carries 80% of the oil that leaves Kazakhstan. However, Tokayev has not been deterred and even counterattacked by blocking 1,7000 Russian coal wagons from entering the country. Part of his confidence likely stems from the new relationships Kazakhstan is fostering with Iran, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkey. Tokayev seems particularly interested in the relationship with Azerbaijan, which could provide new access to the Trans-Caspian International Transport Route (TITR), otherwise known as the “Middle Corridor”, which connects Central Asia to Europe through the Caspian Sea and Caucasus.
The Middle Corridor is a rail and ferry system that stretches from Europe to China. Until recently this system had been largely overlooked by Central Asian states given the amount of oil that the CPC was able to carry and their strong economic enmeshment with Russia. However, this option has become extremely lucrative to Kazakhstani companies, especially given the Corridor could potentially be faster and more secure. On March 31, 2022, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kazakhstan and Turkey signed a declaration to improve the route. Declarations do not necessarily equate to guaranteed implementation, however, this could be a pivotal step for the future of Kazakhstani trade.
Murky loyalties, and even murkier elections
Considering the strong stance Tokayev has taken on the war in Ukraine, it could be assumed that there must be widespread public support, however recent polls paint a different picture. According to a recent survey conducted by Demoscope, a sociological institute in Kazakhstan, almost 40% of respondents answered that they supported Russia and 70% answered that Russia should continue to be the main strategic partner of Kazakhstan. The answers to this survey might give some insight into why Tokayev seems to have started mending his relationship slightly with Putin in August during bilateral talks on August 19 on the 30th anniversary of bilateral ties between the two countries.
This year has provided Kazakhstan with an especially poor hand. Economic instability brought on by COVID-19 and the war in Ukraine, political instability after the protests in January, and now heightened tensions with its strongest partner. Kazakhstan’s multivector approach of attempting to better position itself economically by expanding trade with Europe while also maintaining its relationship with Russia has also become increasingly fraught. Given the new decision to hold Presidential elections over a year ahead of schedule, President Tokayev does not seem very confident about his hold on power or ability to navigate this difficult balancing act. While it is nearly certain that Tokayev will win these elections, what remains uncertain is where he plans to lead the country for the remainder of the decade.