Ukraine conflict: Kazakhstan’s difficult balancing act between need for Russian support and popular opposition to the war

Locator map of Kazakhstan showing Russia, China and its neighbouring republics.

Vliadimir Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine has put pressure on the leadership of neighbouring Kazakhstan, which only two months ago hosted Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) troops on its soil. The country’s president, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, turned to Putin for military help in January when his rivals hijacked peaceful protests on fuel price hikes to organise attacks on government buildings.

As Putin promptly obliged, it was the first time in the alliance’s history that CSTO peacekeeping forces have been deployed. The 2,000-plus troops were in Kazakhstan for about two weeks before being redeployed. Many of them will now be in Ukraine.

And in the absence of military backing from Moscow, Tokayev is having to walk a delicate path between maintaining Kazakhstan’s “multivectoral” foreign policy, which favours partnerships with Russia, China, the west, and the Muslim world, his dependence on Moscow’s support, and the need to respond to growing anger among his own people at the war in Ukraine and their fear that they might be Russia’s next target.

Kazakhstan abstained on the UN General Assembly’s resolution condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Tokayev had earlier called for restraint on both sides and urged negotiations and compromise. Significantly, the minister of external affairs, Mukhtar Tleuberdi, categorically stated that Kazakhstan would not recognise the separatist republics of Donetsk or Luhansk.

Kazakhstan is also feeling the pressure from its neighbour, Russia.
Rainer Lesniewski via Shutterstock

Kazakhstan’s authorities have also showed uncharacteristic leniency in allowing public rallies in support of Ukraine. Thousands of protesters holding banners reading “Russians, leave Ukraine”, “Long Live Ukraine” and “Bring Putin to trial” marched across the capital, Almaty, wrapping monuments to Lenin and other Soviet-era figures with yellow and blue balloons symbolising the Ukrainian flag.

An initiative by civil rights activists working with the Ukrainian embassy resulted in the Kazakhstan government sending a humanitarian convoy with medicine, clothes, food, cash and other supplies to Ukraine. “Ukraine is fighting for our freedom as well,” said a rights activist.

But there’s a limit to how much the Tokayev government can withstand Kremlin pressure. That much can be seen in the recent sentencing of two leading activists by a court in Almaty for inciting ethnic hatred through protests against the invasion.

The price of friendship

The invasion of Ukraine has prompted many people in Kazakhstan to question the country’s membership of the CSTO and the Eurasian Economic Union (EaEU), which are seen as constraining Kazakhstan’s sovereignty and weakening the economy. Critics say the EaEU copies the EU’s institutional framework, but is more about geopolitical power than trade liberalisation, with Moscow the dominant partner. With Russia and Belarus now under international sanctions and the other two members – Armenia and Kyrgyzstan – being small and debt-ridden economies, Kazakhstan is the only open and dynamic economy in what is seen as an increasingly dysfunctional group.

Business and civil society activists are calling to suspend Kazakhstan’s membership of the EaEU. Demands to hold a referendum on membership of CSTO and EaEU are also gathering momentum.

While leaving the EaEU is not a viable option yet, many are calling on Tokayev to play a far more assertive role and prepare the ground for Kazakhstan’s gradual withdrawal by pointing to how Russia’s aggression violates the basic principles of the alliance, such as mutually beneficial cooperation, equal rights and safeguarding the national interests of all members.

Sanctions challenge

The biggest challenge is to protect Kazakhstan’s economy from the effects of the sanctions on Russia. Given their closely-linked economies, the fluctuation in the value of the rouble has a direct effect on the Kazakhstani tenge. The Kazakh government had to use its currency reserves to avert chaos in the domestic foreign exchange market as the rouble sharply lost value soon after the invasion. About 75% of Kazakhstan’s oil exports to the west also go through the Russian port of Novorossiysk via the Caspian Pipeline Consortium.

As many Kazakhstanis question the value of membership of the EaEU, president Lukashenko of Belarus has been pressing for a meeting in Moscow for EaEU and CSTO members to work on a plan to fight sanctions by further unifying their markets.

After much prevarication, Timur Suleimenov, the deputy chief of the Kazakhstani presidential office, made a categorical statement on April 1 assuring that Kazakhstan will not help Russia evade sanctions, emphasising Kazakhstan’s obligation to the international community. He also stated that Kazakhstan does not recognise Crimea as part of Russia nor the independence of Donbas. Upholding Kazakhstan’s membership of economic and military unions led by Russia, he clarified that the terms of its membership of the EaEU and CSTO do not extend to the case of Ukraine.

Reckless reactions

Officials and media in Russia, meanwhile, have continued to make incendiary statements that defy norms of diplomatic conduct towards an independent sovereign neighbour. These conjure up the image of Kazakhstan as Russia’s backyard, the “near abroad”.

The recent presence of the CSTO troops in Kazakhstan bolstered the widely held Russian belief that Soviet-led modernisation turned the nomadic Kazakhs, who the Soviets saw as “backwards”, into a modern nation. In the Russian imperial imagination, the northeastern regions of Kazakhstan, which border Russia and have sizeable Russian populations, are Russian lands given away to Kazakhstan in the spirit of fraternal help.

Russian nationalist deputy, Gennady Zyuganov, has also repeated old, unsubstantiated allegations that Kazakhstan was producing biological weapons with US finance, a charge that the Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, repeated at a lecture at MGIMO university in Moscow on March 25.

Kazakhstan has built a solid reputation as the second-strongest economy in Eurasia after Russia and as the most stable, modernising and reform-oriented country in Eurasia. But the “New Kazakhstan” promised by Tokayev now finds itself out of sync with Putin’s Russia.

The Conversation

Bhavna Dave does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.