Kazakhstan’s Foreign Policy: A New Year’s Outlook Under President Tokayev

When Kassym-Jomart Tokayev became the President of Kazakhstan in 2019, he brought to the role a wealth of experience from his long diplomatic career. Amongst many responsibilities, this experience included high-level government positions such as the post of deputy foreign minister and prime minister.

Navigating geopolitical challenges since 2019

Tokayev has had a high global profile, including serving as director-general of the United Nations Office in Geneva. It was therefore expected that his internationally recognised acumen would play a foundational role in defining Kazakhstan’s path through the complex, and sometimes chaotically evolving, geopolitics in Central Asia and beyond.

Tokayev became president at a time when Kazakhstan faced both internal and external challenges. Domestic political and administrative reforms could not wait. The country’s strategically important natural resources, such as uranium and oil, as well as its keystone geographic position at the heart of Central Asia with a long border on the Caspian Sea attracted the attention of the international community.

Situated between Russia and China, Kazakhstan required a balanced and nuanced foreign policy to respond to growing interest from the European Union (EU) and the United States. Since assuming the presidency in 2019, Tokayev has enhanced the country’s geo-economic context as a shaper of transit corridors. Most notable of these is the Trans-Caspian International Trade Route (TITR), which puts Kazakhstan at the centre of pivotal geopolitical dynamics as a bridge between Europe and Asia.

Strengthening bilateral and multilateral partnerships

The EU, recognising Kazakhstan’s importance, has deepened its engagement with the country through an Enhanced Partnership and Cooperation Agreement that entered into force in 2020. Deeper ties between Astana and Brussels, and the EU’s interest in Kazakhstan, go far beyond hydrocarbon energy resources to embrace cooperation in green technologies, digital transformation and sustainable development.

At the same time, Tokayev’s tenure has seen Kazakhstan navigate its relationships with international superpowers amidst significant “black-swan” events like the COVID-19 pandemic and the worsening of Russia’s conflict with Ukraine. His administration has skilfully maintained good ties with Russia while also adhering to international sanctions. Such an approach showcases Kazakhstan’s commitment to global norms, multilateralism and international cooperation, combined with its commitment to an independent foreign policy based on national interests.

Under President Tokayev’s leadership, Kazakhstan has enhanced its diplomatic engagement by emphasising its strategic role in both regional and global geopolitics. His tenure has been marked by a continuing series of high-profile meetings and participation in key summits.

Kazakhstan has also made crucial contributions to regional organisations, such as the Organisation of Turkic States (OTS) and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). The country’s involvement in these organisations underlines its commitment to regional cooperation and integration. Particularly in the OTS, Kazakhstan has emerged as a leader, facilitating discussions and promoting initiatives that align with its broader foreign policy goals.

Top-level international meetings (with figures such as U.S. President Joe Biden, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Chinese Communist Party Chief Xi Jinping, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and French President Emmanuel Macron) underscore Kazakhstan’s central strategic importance in global affairs. To mention just one more example, Kazakhstan’s increasing influence is highlighted through Tokayev’s consultations with Germany’s Chancellor Olaf Scholz and participation in the recent Berlin-organised summit with Central Asian heads of state.

These meetings are not just diplomatic formalities. They are instrumental in forging economic, cultural and strategic partnerships, and thereby bolster Kazakhstan’s position in broader Eurasian affairs.

Demonstrating the art of diplomatic balance

President Tokayev’s foreign policy has thus successfully maintained the precarious balance among major global powers while bestowing on his country international recognition and respect. To take one example, his approach to international sanctions against Russia, demonstrates his skill at executing of sensitive diplomatic balancing acts. Kazakhstan’s adherence to the international sanctions regime while maintaining a collaborative relationship with Russia demonstrates his success at navigating turbulent geopolitical waters.

In general, Tokayev’s administration has fostered security partnerships that integrate Kazakhstan’s commitment to international norms with its independent foreign-policy stance. He has adapted the country’s foreign policy to new international realities while maintaining internal economic stability by undertaking ambitious domestic political reforms.

Kazakhstan’s capacity for foreign-policy resilience on the global level informed the country’s approach not only to the geopolitical repercussions of the Russia-Ukraine conflict but also to such global issues as responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Synchronising domestic and foreign policies with a view of regional prosperity

The recalibration of Kazakhstan’s internal policies to ensure domestic stability and progress goes hand-in-hand with these foreign-policy adaptations. The country has faced economic and political challenges necessitating reforms and modernisation. One of the areas that President Tokayev’s administration has focused on, for example, has been diversifying the economy beyond traditional sectors like oil and gas.

The comprehensive “Strategy 2050” plan for national development aims to transform Kazakhstan into one of the world’s top thirty national economies by mid-century. It embodies the phased synchronisation of domestic development strategy with the evolving configuration of international trade and geopolitics.

Under President Tokayev, the country has also consolidated its key position in regional development. Initiatives such as the above-mentioned TITR are part of a strategy of domestic economic growth that will, in turn, enhance Kazakhstan’s position as a hub of Eurasian trade and logistics. Tokayev has led by example. His policies to ensure Kazakhstan’s development, security and stability complement the policies that make his country instrumental in promoting geo-economic prosperity in the larger Central Asia region.

In December, President Tokayev advanced the fortification of Kazakhstan’s democracy and rule of law by endorsing a Decree and Action Plan. This plan is centered around ensuring individual safety and freedom across various key areas. One of President Tokayev’s primary objectives has been to expand public participation in the democratic process, which he has begun to achieve through his groundbreaking reforms on party registration. These reforms have intensified political competition and fortified institutional checks and balances. The decree aligns Kazakhstan’s approach towards peaceful assemblies with internationally accepted standards and best practices, effectively balancing public safety and crime prevention while still allowing for peaceful protests. Through collaborations with UN, OSCE, and local agencies, Kazakhstan aims to eradicate systemic torture, protect human rights, and build public trust in law enforcement. These efforts, geared towards meeting challenges in the criminal justice system, align the country’s laws and protections with its international obligations under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Charting the future of Kazakhstan’s foreign policy

So far, President Tokayev’s tenure as president, marked by strategic diplomacy and adept handling of complex global relationships, has been pivotal for Kazakhstan in a crucial time of global change.  Leveraging his long diplomatic experience on the global stage, Tokayev has been able to elevate Kazakhstan’s status in regional and international spheres.

His emphasis on balancing global relationships and prioritising national interests will continue to be crucial for navigating the geopolitical landscape in the new year. As global dynamics shift, Tokayev’s focus on economic diversification, regional stability and international cooperation will continue to enhance the country’s significance as a key player in both Central Asian and global affairs.

His forward-looking approach, characterised by strategic diplomacy and adaptability, positions Kazakhstan well to face future challenges. This strategic vision, coupled with Kazakhstan’s growing economic and geopolitical influence, will hopefully help the country not only adapt to changes but also actively shape regional and international dynamics.