Ever since the intervention of peacekeepers from the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) helped Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev to remain in power—and even increase his authority—during the recent unrest there, there has been speculation that the country’s foreign policy is likely to change. The logic is that the country’s leadership will have to pay back the Kremlin somehow for its support. Ideas of what form that payment may take range from recognizing Crimea as part of Russia to abandoning plans to replace Cyrillic with the Latin alphabet, and shutting down so-called “anti-Russian” NGOs.

It’s being widely assumed that an inevitable consequence for Kazakhstan of its recent crisis will be the end of its celebrated multi-vector foreign policy. But are those assumptions entirely fair?

It’s true that the CSTO operation cost money, and that Russia took a serious risk in sending its troops into Kazakhstan while the country was gripped by violent protests and rioting. If Russian soldiers had had to take part in breaking up street protests, that would have been catastrophic for Moscow’s reputation, not just in the eyes of the Kazakh people, but in the world at large. There was also a domestic risk: a prolonged operation or any fatalities could have hit President Vladimir Putin’s approval rating hard.

Still, the logic that this must be paid for fails to take into account one important detail. Moscow’s main motivation in intervening in Kazakhstan was not to increase its influence in Central Asia, but fear for its own security if the situation in the neighboring country got irrevocably out of control. The Kremlin was more concerned about the possible fallout for Russia from the unrest in Kazakhstan, which took it by surprise, than about the fate of the Kazakh leadership. The Russia-Kazakhstan border—the second-longest land border in the world—is barely guarded, and in places is not even demarcated.

It was also important for Moscow to ensure that Kazakhstan remained, as always, a key Russian ally willing to join Kremlin initiatives, both in the security sphere and in the economic integration of the post-Soviet space. Russia was not prepared to stand by and let a friendly political regime collapse and a legitimate president lose power.

The intervention itself did not cost a great deal. The active phase of the peacekeeping mission, in which 2,500 troops were sent to Kazakhstan, lasted just a few days: Tokayev appealed to the CSTO for help on January 5, and just five days later he announced the peacekeeping operation was approaching completion.

Officially, the troops were there to protect strategic infrastructure, but in reality, their role was largely symbolic. It’s entirely possible that Tokayev would have managed without outside help, but some of the security services (in Almaty, at least) were in no hurry to implement the orders coming from the central government, and there was a risk of the crisis becoming protracted. The president needed to demonstrate urgently that he not only had institutional legitimacy on his side, but brute force too. The most accessible way to do that was to ask Moscow for help.

The Kazakh leadership had little choice: despite all the talk of Kazakhstan’s multilateral foreign policy and China’s growing influence there, Russia remains the only country capable of swiftly lending military support to the region’s governments. First, the legal framework is in place to do so: under the CSTO charter, in the event of a threat to any member state, the others can take action. Second, Kazakh society is well-disposed toward Russia: 81 percent of respondents to a recent poll considered Russia to be a friendly and reliably helpful partner. The United States does not enjoy such trust, and nor, certainly, does China.

Finally, Russia understands better than other powers what is going on in Kazakhstan’s domestic politics and within the ruling elite. There are close ties within the two countries’ elites, which speak the same language and share many values inculcated in them under the Soviet system. This presents opportunities to influence domestic politics in Kazakhstan, and to react swiftly and effectively in times of crisis.

Even without any additional gestures of gratitude from Tokayev, Moscow has already gained a lot from the brief CSTO operation in Kazakhstan. Above all, it has ensured the preservation of a friendly political regime in a large neighboring country. It has also shown the world that the CSTO doesn’t just exist to satisfy Moscow’s great power ambitions, but is a fully functioning organization. Meanwhile, the rest of Central Asia’s ruling regimes have seen for themselves that only Russia is capable of and willing to save them from collapse in the event of a crisis. The recent unrest has shown that despite its recent activity and economic impact in the region, China is still a long way behind Russia in its ability to understand and influence Kazakhstan’s ruling elite.

Those now expecting a pro-Russian turn in Kazakhstan’s foreign policy have also failed to explain what new levers of influence Russia has acquired by briefly sending troops to Kazakhstan as part of the CSTO mission. The answer is most likely none.

In any case, it’s not in Russia’s interests to interfere in Kazakhstan’s multi-vector outlook. Nearly 40 percent of Kazakh exports are sent to Europe, while U.S. companies dominate the country’s oil industry. If Moscow wanted to destroy the careful balance of Kazakhstan’s multi-vector policy in its favor, therefore, it would have to be prepared for the economic consequences of such a step.

Why would Russia deliberately damage the economic situation even further in a country that was just rocked by mass protests over high prices and social inequality? The political crisis and intervention of foreign troops have already spooked investors, and cannot fail to impact on the Kazakh economy. In this situation, requiring the country to distance itself from the West in any way would only create more problems all around.

In any case, the hypothetical scenario of edging out the West from Kazakhstan would not necessarily mean that Russia could step into the resulting vacuum. Most probably, Moscow would simply be helping China to become an even more influential power in Central Asia.

It’s far more likely, therefore, that Russia will not attempt to establish any new advantages over Kazakhstan in addition to those it already has. Just as before, minor disagreements can be expected between the two countries—over the status of the Russian language, for example, which remains an official language in Kazakhstan despite attempts to promote the Kazakh language—but nothing more serious.

Kazakhstan is wealthy enough as a nation to be able to determine its own foreign policy. Much has already been made of the signals Tokayev is giving through his staffing appointments: Askar Umarov, the new minister for information and public development, is notorious for his Russophobic comments, while at the same time an ethnic Russian—Roman Sklyar—has been appointed to the influential post of first deputy prime minister for the first time in two decades. This balance suggests that there will be no changes to Kazakhstan’s foreign policy in this new chapter of the country’s history: the alliance with Russia is stronger than ever, but it does not cast doubt on Kazakhstan’s sovereignty.

By:
  • Temur Umarov