NUR-SULTAN -- A rare papal visit, a summit of world religious leaders, and Chinese President Xi Jinping’s first trip abroad since the coronavirus pandemic began.
In the context of growing international tensions over the war in Ukraine, a diplomatically packed few days in Kazakhstan might end up being remembered for missed opportunities -- meetings that didn’t happen -- rather than the ones that did.
But for a host country over which the war has cast a longer shadow than most, they gave Kazakhstan the chance to showcase itself as a place where the world can gather and provided some breathing space from uneasy ally Russia's demands for loyalty.
Tiny Vatican and Chinese flags had lined traffic-clogged roads in Kazakhstan’s soon-to-be-renamed capital, Nur-Sultan, on September 14, heralding the arrival in town of two very different world leaders.
Xi stopped off in Kazakhstan en route to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Uzbekistan’s Samarkand, where major attention will be on his meeting with Putin after the pair’s declaration of a “no-limits” partnership earlier this year.
While official readouts of his meeting with Kazakh counterpart Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev made no mention of Ukraine, his comments that China will support Kazakhstan “in the defense of independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity” and “categorically oppose the interference of any forces in the internal affairs of your country” did not go unnoticed in light of a Russian information campaign that has battered and threatened Kazakhstan over its neutral position on the conflict.
Pope Francis was making his first visit to the world’s ninth-largest country and following up on the first ever papal visit to Kazakhstan by Pope John Paul II in 2001.
Describing the trip as a "pilgrimage of dialogue and peace," the pontiff condemned a “senseless and tragic war that broke out with the invasion of Ukraine” in his first comments in Nur-Sultan on the eve of the congress, which was attended by some 100 delegations from 50 countries.
Russian Patriarch's No-Show
Kazakhstan was holding its Congress of the Leaders of World and Traditional Religions for the seventh time since independence and a year late due to the coronavirus pandemic.
But 2021 feels a world away now.
In January, Central Asia’s richest country experienced regime-shaking protests that turned fatal, leaving more than 230 dead amid reports of indiscriminate shooting and widespread torture by state armed forces and police.
A detachment of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a Moscow-led security body, helped restore order as the revolt wound down, and Russian state media personalities were quick to register disgust that their neighbor had not repaid a perceived debt to Moscow.
“And what did we save them for, you ask,” wrote Margarita Simonyan, editor in chief of the Russia-financed RT, on Facebook, after Kazakh Foreign Minister Mukhtar Tileuberdi appeared to rule out recognizing Russia-backed separatist entities in Ukraine prior to Russia’s invasion.
Lawmakers, political pundits, and television presenters later joined in the attacks on Kazakhstan, which grew more vicious.
Repeated stoppages along a key, Russian-controlled oil pipeline that carries Kazakh crude to a Russian port for export triggered speculation that the Kremlin was punishing Kazakhstan economically.
But Kazakhstan has not yielded to the pressure and continues to pledge not to help Russia evade Western sanctions, despite stating its disapproval of them.
Toqaev, who calls Putin a “staunch ally” despite the tensions, bemoaned during his opening remarks at the congress that “geopolitical confrontation between major powers has intensified,” and asked religious leaders to help create “a new global movement for peace.”
The build-up to the event invited rumors of a potential face-to-face meeting between Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, who has given ample support to Putin’s invasion.
In the end, Kirill ruled out participating and sent instead Metropolitan Anthony, the church’s new 37-year-old head of external relations, who read out a greeting from the patriarch to congress participants.
Following up with his own speech that echoed Kremlin talking points, Anthony insisted that religion was “without national boundaries” but called for a world “without people of a first and second sort, hegemons and satellites.”
“We have seen how it is possible in the informational space to create the image of an enemy, point your finger at him and foster hatred toward everything associated with him,” Anthony added.
The pope and Kirill last held talks back in March via a video call.
There is no record of their speaking after the pontiff warned Kirill not to be “Putin’s altar boy” just weeks later.
Making a keynote speech at the congress, the pope did not repeat his criticism of the invasion the day before, but instead spoke of the broader need to end wars, poverty, and disease while regularly quoting 19th century Kazakh philosopher Abai Qunanbaiuly.
Later that afternoon, in bright weather and against the peculiar, futuristic backdrop of the Astana International Financial Center, the increasingly wheelchair-bound pontiff led a mass for several thousand people that included members of Kazakhstan’s 250,000-strong Roman Catholic community.
Xi Stopping By Is 'A Big Deal'
While the Chinese leader shared a city with the Bishop of Rome for a day, a tête-à-tête between the leaders of two countries with strictly unofficial relations was never seen as likely.
For Kazakh officials navigating the tension-filled relationship with Russia, however, China’s president might as well have been a holy man.
Official footage showed that Xi was greeted on the tarmac by Toqaev, with the leaders wearing facemasks and Toqaev briefly conversing with his counterpart in Mandarin, a language the Kazakh president speaks fluently.
Xi told Toqaev that Beijing pays “huge attention to relations with Kazakhstan,” according to the Kazakh presidency’s readout of their meeting.
Although no landmark deals were announced, the visit was arguably the most important for Kazakh-Chinese relations since 2013, when Xi unveiled his vision for a Silk Road Economic Belt (now the Belt and Road Initiative) -- a move highlighting Kazakhstan’s important position in that project.
The bilateral meeting came almost three years after Xi last stepped outside his country for an official visit and was also a “big deal” due to the rhetoric coming out of Russia regarding Kazakhstan, said Temur Umarov, a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“There is a narrative in Russia -- especially among hawks -- that Kazakhstan somehow owes its stability to Russia,” Umarov said.
The Chinese leader’s stopover should remind Moscow “that Kazakhstan is not Russia’s backyard,” and that there is “demand and supply” for Kazakhstan to diversify its foreign policy," Umarov added.