Paolo Sorbello analyses Kazakhstan’s new foreign policy document, which owes more to home truths than ambition.
ALMATY – When the news broke about the publication of a new Kazakh ‘Foreign Policy Concept’ at the end of January, researchers rushed to the web pages of the government, only to find a short summary of what has been the de facto foreign policy of Kazakhstan since 9/11.
Barely meeting the minimum word count for a graduate school essay, Kazakhstan unveiled its planned international involvement for the next 6 years, up to 2020. The document is supposed to look similar to other Kontseptsiya adopted in the former Soviet Union, including that issued by the Russian Federation last year. However, its size betrays the unfamiliarity of Kazakhstan in this task of public diplomacy. The Russian one, which we analysed almost one year ago, is three times larger and contains less repetition. Also, it is available via the Foreign Ministry website in English as well as Russian, whereas the only linguistic choices of Astana were Kazakh and Russian.
As expected from a country where the president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, has served four consecutive terms in office, there is plenty of continuity in Kazakhstan’s foreign policy. The new document reinforces the multi-vector foreign policy conceived in the nineties and its three pillars: pragmatism, mutual benefit and equality. In line with the national “Strategy-2050”, adopted in December 2012, the Concept spells out a straightforward list of objectives designed to bring Kazakhstan to the top 30 most developed countries.
For the first time, a Foreign Policy official document ranked the most important countries for Kazakhstan. Russia grabs the first place, followed by China and Kazakhstan’s Central Asian neighbours. The United States and Europe maintain their status as strategic partners right below the podium. During an interview, KIMEP professor, Nargis Kassenova warned us about “the peculiar imbalance in the space allotted to Russia and China. While the former is listed first, the document only refers to the Treaty of Eternal Friendship, renewed every 10 years since 1992, one can definitely see Astana’s foremost ally losing ground to China, to which a full and detailed paragraph is dedicated”.
Among other interesting features of the new Foreign Policy Concept, is the emphasis on the ‘autonomous path towards development’, which seems a message to Brussels and Washington, which always try to open a back door for the introduction of Western values into the international agreements they sign with Astana.
In the international arena, Kazakhstan stays loyal to its commitment to work under the aegis of the United Nations, treasuring its multilateral role. Additionally, Astana aims to become a net donor of foreign aid, especially towards Afghanistan.
Afghanistan is decidedly a nodal issue for Kazakhstan. It has been the prime target of Astana’s security related aid, but it shows up in the Concept as a foreign policy concern, rather than a focus. The notable exclusion of Nazarbayev’s project to create a UN security hub for the Central Asian region in Almaty is telling of the gap that has grown between Astana and Kabul.
As noted by the Foreign Minister, Yerlan Idrissov (or, in Kazakh spelling, Ydyrysov), the publication of the document is a milestone in terms of the engagement with the citizens. Kassenova explained in our interview that “the previous ‘Concept’ circulated only among the official foreign policy circles of the country, without reaching the wider population”. The signing of the latest document occurred on January 21st, but it was published only on the 29th, signalling the restraint of the leadership in the publication and, possibly, the heavy editing of the original. Kazakhstan’s closed political system is advertising its attempts to open the door to public participation. A closer look, however, increases doubts in the genuineness of the project.
A version of this article was published by The Conway Bulletin.