On March 15, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in Moscow that Kazakhstan’s provision of visa-free entry to U.S. citizens would require the approval of the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), comprising Russia, Kazakhstan, Armenia, Belarus, and Kyrgyzstan.
Lavrov’s comment surprised many, particularly authorities in Kazakhstan.
But it was another reminder that the balancing of relations that Kazakhstan and its president, Nursultan Nazarbaev, have so deftly managed with the country’s neighbors for more than two decades has become more complicated lately and is likely to continue to be so at a time when the aging Kazakh leader is arguably less vigorous.
It is unclear what prompted Lavrov to bring the matter up. But the timing was interesting, as Kazakhstan was that same day hosting the first summit of Central Asian leaders since 1999.
Kazakhstan’s Foreign Ministry waited to respond until March 16, when Lavrov was in the Kazakh capital, Astana, for talks on Syria.
Kazakh Foreign Ministry spokesman Anuar Zhaynakov said the introduction or cancellation of the visa regime for citizens of foreign countries is the right of any sovereign country.
Zhaynakov also pointed out that the EEU is not a political union and is concerned “exclusively with economic cooperation,” and several media outlets noted Kazakhstan’s visa-free regime for U.S. citizens has existed since January 1, 2017, and other EEU member states also allow U.S. and EU citizens for short stays that do not require a visa.
It was an unusually sharp response to a close ally and trade partner, one with which Kazakhstan shares a 7,600-kilometer border.
But since Russia’s involvement in eastern Ukraine, Kazakh authorities have been wary of their own situation with a large Russian population living in northern areas along the Russian border.
When Turkey shot down a Russian warplane in November 2016 and Moscow imposed an embargo on trade with Turkey, it also inconvenienced Kazakhstan, and other Central Asians, who have good ties with Ankara.
The Kazakh Foreign Ministry’s response to Lavrov’s remark may also have indicated a bit of frustration with the course of events in neighboring countries lately.
Kazakhstan also shares a 1,765-kilometer border with China. Ties between those two countries have been good since the late 1990s and appear to be growing stronger, since Kazakhstan plays a major role in Beijing’s One Belt One Road (OBOR) project.
Railway traffic between China and Europe, and China and the Persian Gulf, crosses Kazakhstan’s territory, and in the case of the one of the western routes, involves maritime shipping across the Caspian Sea, through the Caucasus, and then across the Black Sea, to Ukraine.
Relations with China have not only been good financially for Kazakhstan, and Central Asia in general, but the relationship has been relatively free of complications.
But in the second half of 2017, Beijing’s campaign against the Muslim Uyghurs in Xinjiang, just over the border from Kazakhstan, started to include other ancient Turkic Muslim peoples of the region, one being the ethnic Kazakhs of Xinjiang.
Some of those ethnic Kazakhs of Xinjiang are now citizens of Kazakhstan as part of the Kazakh government’s “oralman” program to bring ethnic Kazakhs from other countries to the vast but sparsely populated territory of Kazakhstan.
Kazakh authorities have been extremely careful not to get involved in Beijing’s decades-long treatment of the Uyghurs, who are cultural cousins of the Kazakhs. Astana would likely have tried to stay out of the campaign toward ethnic Kazakhs in Xinjiang, but some of the Kazakhs who emigrated from Xinjiang and had citizenship or residency in Kazakhstan were picked up when visiting or doing business in Xinjiang.
Beijing has been reluctant to provide many details about what has happened to many of these people whom Astana now regards as citizens of Kazakhstan.
The issue has been discussed in Kazakhstan’s government, and a delegation was recently sent to Xinjiang to discuss the problem with Chinese officials.
But the Chinese government’s crackdown on Muslims in the western Xinjiang region is intensifying as Beijing grows more concerned about the possible effect of several hundred Uyghurs who are thought to have fled China, joined Islamic extremist groups in the Middle East and Afghanistan, and occasionally release videos threatening violence in China.
The ethnic Kazakhs and Kyrgyz of Xinjiang are caught up in this, and it is starting to provoke some anger among the ethnic Kazakhs in Kazakhstan.
Rumors in early 2016 that some of Kazakhstan’s land could be sold to Chinese led to the biggest protests Kazakhstan has seen since the mid-1990s.
Besides the problems Kazakhstan has with its two giant neighbors, there are complications starting to emerge concerning Kazakhstan’s role in Central Asia that will likely become more pronounced in the coming years.
In October 2017, a feud broke out between Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. It started because Nazarbaev met in Almaty with a leading contender in Kyrgyzstan’s presidential election, who also happened to be the main challenger to then-Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambaev’s choice for Kyrgyzstan’s next president.
Atambaev hurled criticisms at Nazarbaev, members of Kazakhstan’s government, and Kazakhstan’s policies and, as a result, Kazakhstan slowed border crossings from Kyrgyzstan to a crawl for several weeks, purportedly costing Kyrgyzstan tens of millions of dollars in lost trade.
On October 18, Atambaev accused Kazakhstan of “cutting us off from Russia,” but he mentioned there were other options: “Now, we have excellent ties with Uzbekistan...”
President Islam Karimov had ruled Uzbekistan, home to nearly half the population of Central Asia, during all the country’s years as an independent state until his death in the late summer of 2016. During those years, Karimov had largely shunned regional cooperation, at least any regional cooperation that came on terms other than those Uzbekistan dictated. Karimov was often dismissive of his neighbors’ policies and at times aggressive on issues such as borders and water use.
Naturally, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and even Turkmenistan turned to the other big Central Asian state, Kazakhstan, and the more prosperous Kazakhstan grew, as its revenues from its increasing oil exports increased, the more the three other Central Asian states looked to Astana, not Tashkent, for help.
And Kazakhstan did help. Kazakhstan’s TuranAlem bank opened an office in Kyrgyzstan’s capital, Bishkek, in August 2004, and one in Tajikistan’s capital, Dushanbe, in June 2005. Kazakhstan exports oil to its Central Asian neighbors. And Kazakhstan has supplied humanitarian aid to Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan during times of crisis.
If help was needed from a Central Asian neighbor, Kazakhstan was really the only place to go.
Under new President Shavkat Mirziyoev, Uzbekistan’s regional policies have changed dramatically. Mirziyoev wants Uzbekistan to be involved in regional projects, and he is even offering money for projects Uzbekistan opposed under Karimov, such as the Kambar-Ata hydropower project in Kyrgyzstan and Roghun hydropower project in Tajikistan.
Mirziyoev wants more trade with Uzbekistan’s Central Asian neighbors and generally more regional cooperation all around.
The summit of Central Asian leaders in Astana was largely the work of Mirziyoev.
Kazakh authorities, and Nazarbaev, are as pleased as the other Central Asian states that Uzbekistan wants to be a partner after all these years. But it means Kazakhstan is no longer the only show in town, so to speak.
If Uzbekistan continues on its current path, and prospers, it will evolve as a competitor for regional influence with Kazakhstan. And Mirziyoev is 60, whereas Nazarbaev will turn 78 in July.
Nazarbaev can rightfully take some credit for guiding his country through often complicated regional relations for nearly three decades, but the situation in neighboring countries is now changing significantly with the Kazakh leader is in his twilight years.
As gloomy as that might sound for some in Kazakhstan, there are areas -- one in particular -- where Uzbekistan can never compete with, or replace, Kazakhstan.
Russia has been called the policeman for Central Asia -- the ultimate source of security if any of the Central Asian states is seriously threatened. China has already sunk billions of dollars into Central Asia and is considered the banker of Central Asia.
But Kazakhstan is the baker of Central Asia. Kazakhstan is one of the largest grain exporters in the world and is actually by some counts the world’s second-largest exporter of flour.
All of the Central Asian states are reliant on imports of Kazakhstan’s flour (especially Turkmenistan these days), and having to replace Kazakh flour would be time-consuming and expensive.