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Russia and Kazakhstan: 2030 Road Map

photo: casp-geo.ru
12 October 2023

The Russian Federation and the Republic of Kazakhstan (RK) are the biggest countries in the FSU area both from the territorial and economic standpoints. The relations between our two countries are of a long-term strategic nature and are the most advanced among the FSU countries. Our close connection is underpinned by some serious factors from the long frontier and common infrastructure to integrated economy and social and cultural affinity. Regional experts quite fairly call the Russian-Kazakhstan relations a «symbiotic bond». The note that breaking such close connections may either cause potential conflict or even become fatal for the security and the territorial integrity of both Russia and Kazakhstan. Today a series of systemic threats and new challenges for the stability of the relations between Moscow and Astana have appeared, and they need to be analyzed and decisively overcome.

Causes of interconnected relations

First of all, let us define the key factor of close connections between Russia and Kazakhstan. First of all, the land frontier of our countries is the longest in the world and is more than 7.5 thousand km. This border is judicially defined and fully delimitated, but it is effectively open and not protected; building complete frontier infrastructure requires huge money and very long time. That is why our countries have high level of interdependency in the sphere of security both national and regional, and at the same time there are many common vulnerability factors. Any potential conflict in the region of frontier immediately gives the potential enemy access to the Trans-Siberian railway, to strategically important Caspian region and to Russia oil-and-gas areas in West Siberia. Lets be frank: destabilization of Kazakhstan is the same as destabilization of Siberia. The line of potential was encounter will be ten times longer than in the conflict with Ukraine, and will require 25 times more money and human resources. To put it simply, the frontier between Russia and Kazakhstan may be only a frontier of peace, but not a frontier of war. [1]

Secondly, among the FSU countries having the common frontier with Russia, only Kazakhstan, just like Belarus, demonstrates robust participation in all the Eurasian integration processes. The countries of the «Eurasian Triad» have common customs, economic and defence space allowing Russia to implement its own civilization project into practice. We are also connected by common Soviet past: numerous industrial and military standards, common GOSTs (state standards), economic regulations and logistic chains. To put it briefly: until recently, three quarters of Kazakhstan export was transiting through the RF territory, and Kazakhstan oil accounted for 80% of it. In its turn, Russia is interested in Kazakhstan as the key transportation hub for implementing the important new projects «One Belt, One Road» and «North-West ITC». Not many people know that Kazakhstan residents consume approximately one fifth of Russian non-resource exports. At present for Russia, which is under international sanctions, Kazakhstan is a key source of parallel imports. Common military space of the RF and the RK, active participation in the CSTO and the integrated air defence system also is extremely important for strategic security of Russia itself.

Thirdly, a significant share of Kazakhstan population (at least 70% according to the surveys) consider Russian social and cultural space to be very close, if not their own one. Russian information space is of a cross-border character, today it is not only accessible in Kazakhstan it is a dominating one. Let us note here, that out of 27 regions of the Russian Federation positioned on the frontier with the CIS countries 12 regions are neighbors of 7 regions of Kazakhstan. Mutual liking and respect have been in place between our two nations for a long time: about 4 mln Russians currently are living in Kazakhstan, and more than one million of Kazakhs are living in Russia. The growing cross-border trade (accounts for 75% of the entire turnover between the two countries) demonstrates the level of good neighborly relations between Russia and Kazakhstan. Big sympathy towards Russia on behalf of the people of Kazakhstan, good attitude to Kazakhstan on behalf of Russians this important feature is found in all sociological surveys.[2]

Figuratively speaking, our countries are real «Siamese twins». And that is why any problems arising in Kazakhstan may have an extremely painful resonance in Russia. That was the main factor defining the immediate assistance on behalf of CSTO in January 2022, which helped our neighbors to avoid the collapse of the state. On the other side, Russians perceive Kazakhstan as a serious buffer with the Southern countries, which are a source of migrants, crime and banned substances, potential terrorists and extremists flowing into Russia. At the same time Kazakhstan is an extremely important territory for the transit of Russian commodities to Central Asia and China. Close political, economic and cultural ties with the RF guarantee Kazakhstans stability, allow for Astana to speak self-confidently with the global power centers, such as PRC, EU and USA. The elites and the people of Russia and Kazakhstan need to develop a clear understanding of the strategic value of mutual alliance. The above-listed factors should prevent the politicians of both countries from hasty measures, abrupt moves and even simple negligence in the bilateral relations.

Aberration of the affinity

However, the current state of Russian-Kazakhstan relations is not in line with their strategic importance and adequate depth. As of today, the mutual media agenda is defined by the most «yellow» news, the aspiration for hype or evanescent glory. The wave of mutual suspicions, absurd accusations and assumptions is growing in media. We can often track the conducting of unfriendly power centers in the actions of our Kazakhstan partners, as well as the influence of pro-Armenian lobby and nationalistic groups. It is indicative that all this information mayhem is taking place in the situation of excellent relations between the leaders of both countries Putin and Tokayev, of constantly growing commercial turnover and successful cross-border trading, of positive attitude of Russians and Kazakhs towards their neighbors. Eventually, the risk of spontaneous crisis due to simple misunderstanding is growing, and due to the media hysteria, such misunderstanding is balancing on the edge of something much more serious.

In the fundamental report by a group of Russian and Kazakh experts M. Shibutov, N. Malyarchuk and Yu. Solozobov dedicated to the entire complex of our bilateral relations a serious conclusion is made: «A certain misunderstanding has been accumulated between Russia and Kazakhstan, and the main reason is breaking the political and expert communications». [3] This negative process started gathering pace during the Covid pandemic and the associated ban of relocation and personal contacts, and then it grew noticeably after the start of Ukrainian crisis. It means that today Kazakhstan stopped understanding what Russia wants, and in Russia Kazakhstan is often viewed through a distorted media lens of a number of Russian media and a number of public figures with anti-Kazakhstan attitude. If we dot take Moscow and the RF regions on the frontier with Kazakhstan, the perceptions of the RK in Russia are extremely limited and superficial despite a wave of formal publications in media after the start of relocation process. A dangerous situation of the «aberration of affinity» developed not allowing for adequate evaluation of the events and trends in the country, which is our closest neighbor and ally.

If we exclude some politicians working directly with Astana and representatives of Russian capital having commercial interests in Kazakhstan, for the majority of Russian expert and political community Kazakhstan simply is of no interest. Russian political circles are more preoccupied with complicated relations with the United States and Europe or by a sudden friendship with Africa, which is becoming more and more a fashionable trend. As for the neighboring Central Asia including Kazakhstan, for many Russians this is a far-away periphery and event terra incognita. Numerous misjudgments and conflicts in the relations between Russia and the FSU countries are based on one false stereotype: «They are all our related Soviet people we know everything about them very well». This commonplace mythologeme and political arrogancy already have played a dirty trick in the Ukrainian crisis and in Moldova; and in case they are repeated in relation to Kazakhstan, they may be just fatal for the security and territorial integrity of both our countries.

Let us note here, that even during the times of the USSR each Soviet Republic had its political and ethnic differences, and after more than 30 years of independence and massive change of the Soviet elites for national politicians, the accumulated differences between the neighboring countries have become fundamental. Thus, powerful external centers of force (attraction) have much bigger influence on both domestic and foreign policy of Kazakhstan compared to Russia. In addition to Russia, China, Turkey, the collective West (the USA and the EU) have effective presence there. We should also add the rapidly growing political identity of Uzbekistan, as well as of the entire Central Asian region, which is consolidating within the new «Confederation of the Five». Hence, we can see in Kazakhstan new groups of influence appearing, which will be pulling the country to different integration poles, i.e., will be creating the risks of the controversy in the domestic policy. In this situation, it will be difficult for the already consolidated and mobilized Russia to structure its relations with more peaceful and more prone to internal contradictions Kazakhstan.

Frankly speaking, there is still no demand in Russia for systemic studies of the situation in Kazakhstan, its closest ally. This associated with the fact, that for a very long time Russian presence in the FSU countries was done based on the well-tested scheme of «leadership diplomacy» good personal relations with the leader of the state and formalistic approach to organizing the activities of embassies and other government bodies. This fine-tuned scheme is quite operational in the stable environment, but fails all the time in the situation of a crisis and change of elites. For Russian-Kazakh relationship we can notice gradual, but sure worsening of the situation based on traditional links between the elites. First of all, due to «Nazarbayevs elite» leaving the political arena (whose careers started back in the times of the USSR). This raises an acute question about cardinal change of approaches to the allied countries in general, and about the urgent transition of the Russian-Kazakhstan relations from manual to automatic operation.[4]

Much-needed changes

Over the recent five years after the publication of the above-mentioned report by M. Shibutov, N. Malyarchuk and Yu. Solozobov about the Russian-Kazakhstan relations, the series of meaningful changes occurred.

Firstly, as was forecasted, the concept of national development started to dominate over the common Soviet past. This became evident even in the countries of the «Eurasian Triad», the closest to Russia. A new generation of elites came to the political and economic arena of Kazakhstan, they did not have Soviet educational background or common experience. After Kassym-Jomart Tokayev coming into presidency and after the «tragic January» events, the political elite of Kazakhstan was almost 80% new. Not very well known in Russia bureaucrats from the second and third tier came into control, the majority of them received their education abroad. Thus, on the average Vice-Premiers are much younger than their Russian counterparties (43 years), and the top-level politicians are in the age of about 50. For example, lets take three potential successors of K.-J. Tokayev M. Ashimbayev (52), M. Nurtleu (47), E. Karin (47). Kassym-Jomart Tokayev was re-elected on 20 November 2022 for the term of 7 years and publicly announced the termination of his powers after this term. [5] It means that at the electoral cusp between 2029 and 2030, the values-related and generational gap may appear between the leaders of our two countries.

Secondly, the turbulence in global politics has grown significantly. This manifested itself in the emerging decay of the global trading model after the Covid pandemic and in the obvious crisis of the security systems implemented in the Ukrainian conflict. The drastic cooling of the relations between Russia and the West and the introduction of sanctions-related restrictions have a negative impact on the possibilities for economic development of Kazakhstan, as well as an obvious effect on its foreign policy. For example, Kazakhstan did not recognize the accession of Crimea to Russia, and President Tokayev publicly called LPR and DPR the «quazi-states». [6] However, given all the rhetoric of Astana about the territorial integrity of Ukraine and the support of the Western sanctions, Kazakhstans territory became an important spot for parallel imports and the venue for relocation of Western companies exiting Russia. Moscow and Washington turned out flexible enough in their foreign policy giving Kazakhstan the possibility to maneuver between the two poles and to by-pass the geopolitical barriers. In general, Kazakhstan is back to its favored multi-vector policy, but on a new modern turn.[7]

Thirdly, in the environment of sanction and breaking logistic chains, the geo-economic role of Kazakhstan and other Central Asian countries has grown. It is associated with using the Caspian Region for parallel imports and manufacturing of sanctioned goods, as well as for developing new transportation routes, such as «One Belt, One Road», «North-South ITC» and Trans-Caspian corridor. This trend is also manifesting itself in noticeable enhancement of cooperation between the Central Asian countries on the global arena and in their consistent distancing. Thus, at the recent summits, the Central Asian leaders tried to maintain equally good relations with the USA and the EU, on one hand, and with Russia and China, on the other hand. These leaders also started the process of their five-lateral meetings without participation of Russia and other external players. The intensification of bilateral dialogues within the region is also observed, e.g., between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. Another important trend is facilitation of the regionalization process in Central Asia step by step the five-lateral cooperation is being formed on the principles of confederation, as well as moving towards new regional collective security systems.[8]

Fourthly, a clear gap in expert and media communications between Russia and Kazakhstan has become obvious. The above-mentioned negative factors of limited contacts during the pandemic, sanctions and military conflict were complimented with the growing devaluation of expertise and mass-media. The think tanks engaged in systemic Russian studies and Kazakhstan studies respectively may be counted on fingers of just one hand. For example, in the RK the systemic Russian studies are found in the Kazakhstan Institute for Strategic Studies (Askar Nursha) and in the International Institute for Sociological and Political Studies (Marat Shibutov). Kazakhstan political analysts Daniyar Ashimbayev, Eduard Poletayev and the sociologist Gulmira Ileuova also publish regular materials on this topic based on a balanced approach. In Russia there is a small number of governmental think tanks (the Institute for World Economy and International Relations, Moscow State Institute for International Relations, the Institute for Chinese and Asian Studies, the Institute for Oriental Studies) and a number of sectoral research centers (Russian Institute for Strategic Studies, Eurasian Development Bank) supporting Kazakhstan studies in addition to their main line of activity. However, the information products of these think tanks are either not public, or strictly limited, and hence do not impact the media sphere.

Expert and consulting activities pertaining to Russia and Kazakhstan do not constitute a source of income for the professionals and have turned into a hobby. High-quality experts are in demand for analytical support of secret services, and only different talking heads are used to explain the politics to the public and to foreign audience. These self-proclaimed «experts in all matters» have devaluated the very concept of analytical studies and expertise, they are just supporting media campaigns. The systemic studies of the neighboring countries is replaced with information «special operations», PR-campaigns and TV talk-shows leading to «political fantasy» dominating in media and mistakes in foreign policy. It seems that ideology and state-sponsored propaganda are becoming more important and more valuable for the authorities than the independent expertise. The growing volume of information, fake news abundance, the clip-style presentation and the decrease of critical re-valuation skills create an information chaos in media. The flipside of this process is the authorities being self-poisoned by their own propaganda, as well as basing the decision-making at the government level on false assumptions and mythologems.[9]

Road Map

The forthcoming electoral cycles in Russia and in Kazakhstan open a unique window of opportunities for rebooting the entire system of their bilateral relations. We can be sure that Russian President Vladimir Putin will be re-elected in 2024 for the next term of 6 years. His colleague in Kazakhstan Kassym-Jomart Tokayev has already assured his presidential powers until 2029. It means that under the auspices of the two leaders complementing each other a Road Map of strategic alliance of the RF and the RK until 2030 may be implemented [10]. The key objective here is step-by-step transition from the developed system of the «leadership diplomacy» to a more flexible and robust institutional system. In future the scope of our bilateral cooperation will become more complex and will be expanding driven by new forms of collaboration in science and research, digitalization, restructuring of industrial and agrarian sectors, as well as in implementing joint social, educational and humanitarian problems. All that will require creating adequate institutions of developing and supporting our allied relations at all levels from inter-governmental and inter-departmental commissions to a broad NGO network.

Currently the key problem of the relations between Russia and Kazakhstan is weak political communication between the two countries, which does not allow for seeing new niches for developing our cooperation. First of all, we need to establish a permanent effective Strategic mechanism Russia Kazakhstan for regular exchange of opinions on our bilateral connection, on regional and international issues. An annual Forum for Strategic Cooperation between Russia and Kazakhstan needs to be established at the presidential level, and it will be taking place alternately in the two countries. This platform will become an effective supplement to the well-reputed Forum of Inter-Regional Cooperation between the RF and the RK. The new Forum will contribute to strengthening the bilateral relations, business contacts diversification and for closer communication of the government and business representatives, of experts and analysts of both countries.

The growing strategic importance of Kazakhstan and Central Asian countries will require creation of a special position of a special envoy of the RF President for Central Asia to supervise the entire complex of issues associated with the Region. Different projects are actively developing today: in energy (both nuclear and gas-fired), logistics and industrial systems requiring integrated and not just departmental approach to their implementation. There is also the need to coordinate the diplomatic activities and to create special consulting bodies on the key areas of the integration policy within the Foreign Affairs Ministries of both countries. Russian embassy in Kazakhstan should be significantly revitalized and rejuvenated, it should be more active in establishing contacts with the new generation of Kazakhstans political class. Cooperation along the lines of Security Councils, defence ministries and secret services of the RF and the RK is a special very important topic. This will allow for substantial increase in the level of mutual trust and understanding between our two countries, for making our alliance more sustainable and predictable.

The relations of Russia and Kazakhstan are of a long-term strategic character, as it was mentioned above, they are the most advanced in the FSU area. However, this topic has not sufficient profile in the national mass-media, it is of interest only for a few experts. Meanwhile, the priority media coverage of the strategic cooperation between Russia and Kazakhstan needs to be clearly planned during all the contacts: from the presidential level to the regional and departmental levels. In our opinion, the communication gap should be bridged, first of all, in the expert diplomacy sphere. Business contacts and effective projects between the analytical centers of Russia and Kazakhstan should be put on a regular basis. Joint research and publications by experts describing the real situation in our two countries, defining the bottlenecks in our bilateral relations, as well as offering recommendations on their improvement shall form a solid basis for clever managerial decision-making. There are also significant resources in the so-called «soft power» enhancement of the network of Russian schools and leading Russian universities branches, publishing training and enlightening literature, humanitarian conflicts and youth tourism. [11].

Evolution of the relations

The evolution of Russian-Kazakhstan relations continues, and specific tasks and problems are being resolved at every stage. Thus, in 1990-s a lot of discussions were dedicated to the amorphous character of the post-Soviet integration within the CIS; its key objective was to maintain economic connections and common infrastructure of the FSU countries after the disintegration of the USSR. In 2000-s, the anti-crisis factor became meaningful, and it played a significant role during the global financial and economic crisis of 2008. In 2010-s the topic of the advanced Eurasian integration within the EAEU came to the fore. But there was a difference: Russia was always viewing the integration process as a broad paradigm of «gathering lands around Moscow», while Kazakhstan always had a pragmatic approach to Eurasian integration looking at it as a «safety cushion». For Astana this process also opened a broader and beneficial access to the neighboring market, to Russian transportation and oil-and-gas infrastructure. Let us remind here, that for the EAEU the priority has always been assurance of the four economic freedoms: mobility of capital, work force, services and commodities.

It should be acknowledged that our countries were switching from one integration stage to another leaving behind unresolved issues and parallel projects. Thus, the Free Trade Area of the CIS (FTA CIS), which continued its activities, was competing with the EAEU in the economic sphere; and in the political sphere competition continued with the Union State project. In 2020-s the tension between Russia and the West was added to these inveterate problems. Because the financial and economic spheres of our two countries are strongly integrated already within the EAEU, each new round of anti-Russian sanctions painfully affects Kazakhstan. It means that today Astana has to share numerous political and economic risks with Moscow. Initially, they did not assume in the RK that the sanctions-related risks will grow that much, but when it came to the crunch, our Kazakhstan neighbors demonstrated the due courage and stamina maintaining close alliance with the RF despite certain political forces both internal and external were trying hard to break it down.

In addition to the risks associated with the sanctions and foreign policy in general the following internal factors also present a threat for Russian-Kazakhstan relations. We already mentioned two main challenges the generation gap between the elites of the two countries and the gap in political and expert communications. The key problem is that today our bilateral relations are based on good personal relations between the leaders of our states, not on the horizontal connections of the elites in general. This is a potentially hazardous situation, which we should overcome by gradual transition until 2030 from the established «leadership diplomacy» system to a more flexible and more sound institutional system. In the political and media spheres of our countries we can also track the temptation of the «simple solutions» using ultra-patriotic and confrontation rhetoric instead of building reliable alliances. Let us especially emphasize the absence of the «Eurasian integration» and our alliance topic as a priority one in the political and media agendas of Russia and Kazakhstan.

The following factors present additional barriers for improving and developing Russian-Kazakhstan relations: the difference in the size of these two countries and in the scope of their strategic priorities, poor awareness of real internal situations and insufficient absorption in the state of the neighbors affairs. In the economic sphere there are such barriers as corruption and lobbyism of financial-industrial groups, as well as poor efficiency of implementing the executed agreements. According to the expert estimates, for Astana the incentives to continue the partner relations are joint efforts to overcome the Ukrainian crisis, access to Russian energy and investment resources, implementation of new projects in logistics and industrial sector. Moscow, in its turn, is interested in assuring the security of its southern frontier, in the efficient connectivity between the European and Siberian parts of the country, and in the role Kazakhstan plays in communications across the Central Asia.

The relations between Moscow and Astana differ from all the FSU countries by a high a degree of intellectual dialogue and openness. The connections between the politicians and people of our two countries feature high level of trust. This allows for our straight and honest discussion about the impediments and unspoken disagreements that constitute the barriers for our joint progress and close friendship. All this is an evidence of the significant potential for the improvement and evolution of Russian-Kazakhstan relations, including by way of joint efforts to overcome the accumulated domestic problems and external challenges. We need to admit: not only the sustainable domestic policy of our countries, but their joint focus on creating the «image of the future» and forming the common Eurasian meta-identity resistant to the influence of non-Eurasian centers of power all these factors are important for the progress of alliance of Russia and Kazakhstan. We believe that this white paper by the Caspian Institute for Strategic Studies will give a start for an extended expert discussion about the new format of such alliance not only until 2030, but for a longer-term perspective.

1. Russia and Kazakhstan: factors of mutual dependency. Caspian Institute for Strategic Studies, 22.08.2022. https://caspian.institute/product/solozobov-yurij/rossiya-i-kazahstan-faktory-vzaimnoj-zavisimosti-38279.shtml

2. Marat Shibutov: Russia and Kazakhstan cannot do without cooperation. Profile, 09.03.2023. https://profile.ru/society/marat-shibutov-rossiya-i-kazahstan-ne-mogut-obojtis-bez-sotrudnichestva-1279738/

3. M. Shibutov, N. Malyarchuk, Yu. Solozobov. The modern stage of Russian-Kazakhstan relations. Part 3. Regnum Publishers, 10.12.2018. https://regnum.ru/article/2534699

4. How we should study the FSU countries. Regnum Publishers, 17.01.2019. https://regnum.ru/article/2553843

5. Extraordinary presidential elections in Kazakhstan: Tokayev is being pro-active. Caspian Institute for Strategic Studies, 04.09.2022. https://caspian.institute/product/sektor-kazahstana-kisi/vneocherednye-prezidentskie-vybory-v-kazahstane-tokaev-dejstvuet-na-operezhenie-38273.shtml

6. Assessments and narratives: a speech by the President of Kazakhstan at the 25th St-Petersburg International Economic Forum. Caspian Institute for Strategic Studies, 20.06.2022. https://caspian.institute/product/sektor-kazahstana-kisi/vystuplenie-prezidenta-kazahstana-na-hkhv-peterburgskom-mezhdunarodnom-ehkonomicheskom-forume-ocenki-i-smysly-38097.shtml

7. With a carrot and a stick. The narratives and assessments of the visit by Antony Blinken, the US Secretary of State, to Central Asia. Caspian Institute for Strategic Studies, 05.03.2023. https://caspian.institute/product/direkciya-mezhdunarodnyh-programm-kisi/s-knutom-i-pryanikom-smysly-i-ocenki-vizita-gossekretarya-ssha-ehntoni-blinkena-v-centralnuyu-aziyu-38410.shtml

8. Organization of Turkic States: the integration horizons and the prospects of Russian participation. Caspian Institute for Strategic Studies, 16.11.2022. https://caspian.institute/product/direkciya-mezhdunarodnyh-programm-kisi/organizaciya-tyurkskih-gosudarstv-gorizonty-integracii-i-perspektivy-uchastiya-rossii-38371.shtml

9. On Information Policy. Nomad, 06.10.2023. https://nomad.su/?a=3-202310050030

10. Tokayev wished Putin to live a long life in politics. Business Online, 07.10.2023. https://www.business-gazeta.ru/news/609639

11. The study of the potential for humanitarian cooperation between Russia and CIS countries. Eurasian Monitor-2022. https://eurasiamonitor.org/issliedovaniia#2022

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Caspian Institute for Strategic Studies
Reports

Russia and Kazakhstan: 2030 Road Map

photo: casp-geo.ru
12 2023

The Russian Federation and the Republic of Kazakhstan (RK) are the biggest countries in the FSU area both from the territorial and economic standpoints. The relations between our two countries are of a long-term strategic nature and are the most advanced among the FSU countries. Our close connection is underpinned by some serious factors from the long frontier and common infrastructure to integrated economy and social and cultural affinity. Regional experts quite fairly call the Russian-Kazakhstan relations a «symbiotic bond». The note that breaking such close connections may either cause potential conflict or even become fatal for the security and the territorial integrity of both Russia and Kazakhstan. Today a series of systemic threats and new challenges for the stability of the relations between Moscow and Astana have appeared, and they need to be analyzed and decisively overcome.

Causes of interconnected relations

First of all, let us define the key factor of close connections between Russia and Kazakhstan. First of all, the land frontier of our countries is the longest in the world and is more than 7.5 thousand km. This border is judicially defined and fully delimitated, but it is effectively open and not protected; building complete frontier infrastructure requires huge money and very long time. That is why our countries have high level of interdependency in the sphere of security both national and regional, and at the same time there are many common vulnerability factors. Any potential conflict in the region of frontier immediately gives the potential enemy access to the Trans-Siberian railway, to strategically important Caspian region and to Russia oil-and-gas areas in West Siberia. Lets be frank: destabilization of Kazakhstan is the same as destabilization of Siberia. The line of potential was encounter will be ten times longer than in the conflict with Ukraine, and will require 25 times more money and human resources. To put it simply, the frontier between Russia and Kazakhstan may be only a frontier of peace, but not a frontier of war. [1]

Secondly, among the FSU countries having the common frontier with Russia, only Kazakhstan, just like Belarus, demonstrates robust participation in all the Eurasian integration processes. The countries of the «Eurasian Triad» have common customs, economic and defence space allowing Russia to implement its own civilization project into practice. We are also connected by common Soviet past: numerous industrial and military standards, common GOSTs (state standards), economic regulations and logistic chains. To put it briefly: until recently, three quarters of Kazakhstan export was transiting through the RF territory, and Kazakhstan oil accounted for 80% of it. In its turn, Russia is interested in Kazakhstan as the key transportation hub for implementing the important new projects «One Belt, One Road» and «North-West ITC». Not many people know that Kazakhstan residents consume approximately one fifth of Russian non-resource exports. At present for Russia, which is under international sanctions, Kazakhstan is a key source of parallel imports. Common military space of the RF and the RK, active participation in the CSTO and the integrated air defence system also is extremely important for strategic security of Russia itself.

Thirdly, a significant share of Kazakhstan population (at least 70% according to the surveys) consider Russian social and cultural space to be very close, if not their own one. Russian information space is of a cross-border character, today it is not only accessible in Kazakhstan it is a dominating one. Let us note here, that out of 27 regions of the Russian Federation positioned on the frontier with the CIS countries 12 regions are neighbors of 7 regions of Kazakhstan. Mutual liking and respect have been in place between our two nations for a long time: about 4 mln Russians currently are living in Kazakhstan, and more than one million of Kazakhs are living in Russia. The growing cross-border trade (accounts for 75% of the entire turnover between the two countries) demonstrates the level of good neighborly relations between Russia and Kazakhstan. Big sympathy towards Russia on behalf of the people of Kazakhstan, good attitude to Kazakhstan on behalf of Russians this important feature is found in all sociological surveys.[2]

Figuratively speaking, our countries are real «Siamese twins». And that is why any problems arising in Kazakhstan may have an extremely painful resonance in Russia. That was the main factor defining the immediate assistance on behalf of CSTO in January 2022, which helped our neighbors to avoid the collapse of the state. On the other side, Russians perceive Kazakhstan as a serious buffer with the Southern countries, which are a source of migrants, crime and banned substances, potential terrorists and extremists flowing into Russia. At the same time Kazakhstan is an extremely important territory for the transit of Russian commodities to Central Asia and China. Close political, economic and cultural ties with the RF guarantee Kazakhstans stability, allow for Astana to speak self-confidently with the global power centers, such as PRC, EU and USA. The elites and the people of Russia and Kazakhstan need to develop a clear understanding of the strategic value of mutual alliance. The above-listed factors should prevent the politicians of both countries from hasty measures, abrupt moves and even simple negligence in the bilateral relations.

Aberration of the affinity

However, the current state of Russian-Kazakhstan relations is not in line with their strategic importance and adequate depth. As of today, the mutual media agenda is defined by the most «yellow» news, the aspiration for hype or evanescent glory. The wave of mutual suspicions, absurd accusations and assumptions is growing in media. We can often track the conducting of unfriendly power centers in the actions of our Kazakhstan partners, as well as the influence of pro-Armenian lobby and nationalistic groups. It is indicative that all this information mayhem is taking place in the situation of excellent relations between the leaders of both countries Putin and Tokayev, of constantly growing commercial turnover and successful cross-border trading, of positive attitude of Russians and Kazakhs towards their neighbors. Eventually, the risk of spontaneous crisis due to simple misunderstanding is growing, and due to the media hysteria, such misunderstanding is balancing on the edge of something much more serious.

In the fundamental report by a group of Russian and Kazakh experts M. Shibutov, N. Malyarchuk and Yu. Solozobov dedicated to the entire complex of our bilateral relations a serious conclusion is made: «A certain misunderstanding has been accumulated between Russia and Kazakhstan, and the main reason is breaking the political and expert communications». [3] This negative process started gathering pace during the Covid pandemic and the associated ban of relocation and personal contacts, and then it grew noticeably after the start of Ukrainian crisis. It means that today Kazakhstan stopped understanding what Russia wants, and in Russia Kazakhstan is often viewed through a distorted media lens of a number of Russian media and a number of public figures with anti-Kazakhstan attitude. If we dot take Moscow and the RF regions on the frontier with Kazakhstan, the perceptions of the RK in Russia are extremely limited and superficial despite a wave of formal publications in media after the start of relocation process. A dangerous situation of the «aberration of affinity» developed not allowing for adequate evaluation of the events and trends in the country, which is our closest neighbor and ally.

If we exclude some politicians working directly with Astana and representatives of Russian capital having commercial interests in Kazakhstan, for the majority of Russian expert and political community Kazakhstan simply is of no interest. Russian political circles are more preoccupied with complicated relations with the United States and Europe or by a sudden friendship with Africa, which is becoming more and more a fashionable trend. As for the neighboring Central Asia including Kazakhstan, for many Russians this is a far-away periphery and event terra incognita. Numerous misjudgments and conflicts in the relations between Russia and the FSU countries are based on one false stereotype: «They are all our related Soviet people we know everything about them very well». This commonplace mythologeme and political arrogancy already have played a dirty trick in the Ukrainian crisis and in Moldova; and in case they are repeated in relation to Kazakhstan, they may be just fatal for the security and territorial integrity of both our countries.

Let us note here, that even during the times of the USSR each Soviet Republic had its political and ethnic differences, and after more than 30 years of independence and massive change of the Soviet elites for national politicians, the accumulated differences between the neighboring countries have become fundamental. Thus, powerful external centers of force (attraction) have much bigger influence on both domestic and foreign policy of Kazakhstan compared to Russia. In addition to Russia, China, Turkey, the collective West (the USA and the EU) have effective presence there. We should also add the rapidly growing political identity of Uzbekistan, as well as of the entire Central Asian region, which is consolidating within the new «Confederation of the Five». Hence, we can see in Kazakhstan new groups of influence appearing, which will be pulling the country to different integration poles, i.e., will be creating the risks of the controversy in the domestic policy. In this situation, it will be difficult for the already consolidated and mobilized Russia to structure its relations with more peaceful and more prone to internal contradictions Kazakhstan.

Frankly speaking, there is still no demand in Russia for systemic studies of the situation in Kazakhstan, its closest ally. This associated with the fact, that for a very long time Russian presence in the FSU countries was done based on the well-tested scheme of «leadership diplomacy» good personal relations with the leader of the state and formalistic approach to organizing the activities of embassies and other government bodies. This fine-tuned scheme is quite operational in the stable environment, but fails all the time in the situation of a crisis and change of elites. For Russian-Kazakh relationship we can notice gradual, but sure worsening of the situation based on traditional links between the elites. First of all, due to «Nazarbayevs elite» leaving the political arena (whose careers started back in the times of the USSR). This raises an acute question about cardinal change of approaches to the allied countries in general, and about the urgent transition of the Russian-Kazakhstan relations from manual to automatic operation.[4]

Much-needed changes

Over the recent five years after the publication of the above-mentioned report by M. Shibutov, N. Malyarchuk and Yu. Solozobov about the Russian-Kazakhstan relations, the series of meaningful changes occurred.

Firstly, as was forecasted, the concept of national development started to dominate over the common Soviet past. This became evident even in the countries of the «Eurasian Triad», the closest to Russia. A new generation of elites came to the political and economic arena of Kazakhstan, they did not have Soviet educational background or common experience. After Kassym-Jomart Tokayev coming into presidency and after the «tragic January» events, the political elite of Kazakhstan was almost 80% new. Not very well known in Russia bureaucrats from the second and third tier came into control, the majority of them received their education abroad. Thus, on the average Vice-Premiers are much younger than their Russian counterparties (43 years), and the top-level politicians are in the age of about 50. For example, lets take three potential successors of K.-J. Tokayev M. Ashimbayev (52), M. Nurtleu (47), E. Karin (47). Kassym-Jomart Tokayev was re-elected on 20 November 2022 for the term of 7 years and publicly announced the termination of his powers after this term. [5] It means that at the electoral cusp between 2029 and 2030, the values-related and generational gap may appear between the leaders of our two countries.

Secondly, the turbulence in global politics has grown significantly. This manifested itself in the emerging decay of the global trading model after the Covid pandemic and in the obvious crisis of the security systems implemented in the Ukrainian conflict. The drastic cooling of the relations between Russia and the West and the introduction of sanctions-related restrictions have a negative impact on the possibilities for economic development of Kazakhstan, as well as an obvious effect on its foreign policy. For example, Kazakhstan did not recognize the accession of Crimea to Russia, and President Tokayev publicly called LPR and DPR the «quazi-states». [6] However, given all the rhetoric of Astana about the territorial integrity of Ukraine and the support of the Western sanctions, Kazakhstans territory became an important spot for parallel imports and the venue for relocation of Western companies exiting Russia. Moscow and Washington turned out flexible enough in their foreign policy giving Kazakhstan the possibility to maneuver between the two poles and to by-pass the geopolitical barriers. In general, Kazakhstan is back to its favored multi-vector policy, but on a new modern turn.[7]

Thirdly, in the environment of sanction and breaking logistic chains, the geo-economic role of Kazakhstan and other Central Asian countries has grown. It is associated with using the Caspian Region for parallel imports and manufacturing of sanctioned goods, as well as for developing new transportation routes, such as «One Belt, One Road», «North-South ITC» and Trans-Caspian corridor. This trend is also manifesting itself in noticeable enhancement of cooperation between the Central Asian countries on the global arena and in their consistent distancing. Thus, at the recent summits, the Central Asian leaders tried to maintain equally good relations with the USA and the EU, on one hand, and with Russia and China, on the other hand. These leaders also started the process of their five-lateral meetings without participation of Russia and other external players. The intensification of bilateral dialogues within the region is also observed, e.g., between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. Another important trend is facilitation of the regionalization process in Central Asia step by step the five-lateral cooperation is being formed on the principles of confederation, as well as moving towards new regional collective security systems.[8]

Fourthly, a clear gap in expert and media communications between Russia and Kazakhstan has become obvious. The above-mentioned negative factors of limited contacts during the pandemic, sanctions and military conflict were complimented with the growing devaluation of expertise and mass-media. The think tanks engaged in systemic Russian studies and Kazakhstan studies respectively may be counted on fingers of just one hand. For example, in the RK the systemic Russian studies are found in the Kazakhstan Institute for Strategic Studies (Askar Nursha) and in the International Institute for Sociological and Political Studies (Marat Shibutov). Kazakhstan political analysts Daniyar Ashimbayev, Eduard Poletayev and the sociologist Gulmira Ileuova also publish regular materials on this topic based on a balanced approach. In Russia there is a small number of governmental think tanks (the Institute for World Economy and International Relations, Moscow State Institute for International Relations, the Institute for Chinese and Asian Studies, the Institute for Oriental Studies) and a number of sectoral research centers (Russian Institute for Strategic Studies, Eurasian Development Bank) supporting Kazakhstan studies in addition to their main line of activity. However, the information products of these think tanks are either not public, or strictly limited, and hence do not impact the media sphere.

Expert and consulting activities pertaining to Russia and Kazakhstan do not constitute a source of income for the professionals and have turned into a hobby. High-quality experts are in demand for analytical support of secret services, and only different talking heads are used to explain the politics to the public and to foreign audience. These self-proclaimed «experts in all matters» have devaluated the very concept of analytical studies and expertise, they are just supporting media campaigns. The systemic studies of the neighboring countries is replaced with information «special operations», PR-campaigns and TV talk-shows leading to «political fantasy» dominating in media and mistakes in foreign policy. It seems that ideology and state-sponsored propaganda are becoming more important and more valuable for the authorities than the independent expertise. The growing volume of information, fake news abundance, the clip-style presentation and the decrease of critical re-valuation skills create an information chaos in media. The flipside of this process is the authorities being self-poisoned by their own propaganda, as well as basing the decision-making at the government level on false assumptions and mythologems.[9]

Road Map

The forthcoming electoral cycles in Russia and in Kazakhstan open a unique window of opportunities for rebooting the entire system of their bilateral relations. We can be sure that Russian President Vladimir Putin will be re-elected in 2024 for the next term of 6 years. His colleague in Kazakhstan Kassym-Jomart Tokayev has already assured his presidential powers until 2029. It means that under the auspices of the two leaders complementing each other a Road Map of strategic alliance of the RF and the RK until 2030 may be implemented [10]. The key objective here is step-by-step transition from the developed system of the «leadership diplomacy» to a more flexible and robust institutional system. In future the scope of our bilateral cooperation will become more complex and will be expanding driven by new forms of collaboration in science and research, digitalization, restructuring of industrial and agrarian sectors, as well as in implementing joint social, educational and humanitarian problems. All that will require creating adequate institutions of developing and supporting our allied relations at all levels from inter-governmental and inter-departmental commissions to a broad NGO network.

Currently the key problem of the relations between Russia and Kazakhstan is weak political communication between the two countries, which does not allow for seeing new niches for developing our cooperation. First of all, we need to establish a permanent effective Strategic mechanism Russia Kazakhstan for regular exchange of opinions on our bilateral connection, on regional and international issues. An annual Forum for Strategic Cooperation between Russia and Kazakhstan needs to be established at the presidential level, and it will be taking place alternately in the two countries. This platform will become an effective supplement to the well-reputed Forum of Inter-Regional Cooperation between the RF and the RK. The new Forum will contribute to strengthening the bilateral relations, business contacts diversification and for closer communication of the government and business representatives, of experts and analysts of both countries.

The growing strategic importance of Kazakhstan and Central Asian countries will require creation of a special position of a special envoy of the RF President for Central Asia to supervise the entire complex of issues associated with the Region. Different projects are actively developing today: in energy (both nuclear and gas-fired), logistics and industrial systems requiring integrated and not just departmental approach to their implementation. There is also the need to coordinate the diplomatic activities and to create special consulting bodies on the key areas of the integration policy within the Foreign Affairs Ministries of both countries. Russian embassy in Kazakhstan should be significantly revitalized and rejuvenated, it should be more active in establishing contacts with the new generation of Kazakhstans political class. Cooperation along the lines of Security Councils, defence ministries and secret services of the RF and the RK is a special very important topic. This will allow for substantial increase in the level of mutual trust and understanding between our two countries, for making our alliance more sustainable and predictable.

The relations of Russia and Kazakhstan are of a long-term strategic character, as it was mentioned above, they are the most advanced in the FSU area. However, this topic has not sufficient profile in the national mass-media, it is of interest only for a few experts. Meanwhile, the priority media coverage of the strategic cooperation between Russia and Kazakhstan needs to be clearly planned during all the contacts: from the presidential level to the regional and departmental levels. In our opinion, the communication gap should be bridged, first of all, in the expert diplomacy sphere. Business contacts and effective projects between the analytical centers of Russia and Kazakhstan should be put on a regular basis. Joint research and publications by experts describing the real situation in our two countries, defining the bottlenecks in our bilateral relations, as well as offering recommendations on their improvement shall form a solid basis for clever managerial decision-making. There are also significant resources in the so-called «soft power» enhancement of the network of Russian schools and leading Russian universities branches, publishing training and enlightening literature, humanitarian conflicts and youth tourism. [11].

Evolution of the relations

The evolution of Russian-Kazakhstan relations continues, and specific tasks and problems are being resolved at every stage. Thus, in 1990-s a lot of discussions were dedicated to the amorphous character of the post-Soviet integration within the CIS; its key objective was to maintain economic connections and common infrastructure of the FSU countries after the disintegration of the USSR. In 2000-s, the anti-crisis factor became meaningful, and it played a significant role during the global financial and economic crisis of 2008. In 2010-s the topic of the advanced Eurasian integration within the EAEU came to the fore. But there was a difference: Russia was always viewing the integration process as a broad paradigm of «gathering lands around Moscow», while Kazakhstan always had a pragmatic approach to Eurasian integration looking at it as a «safety cushion». For Astana this process also opened a broader and beneficial access to the neighboring market, to Russian transportation and oil-and-gas infrastructure. Let us remind here, that for the EAEU the priority has always been assurance of the four economic freedoms: mobility of capital, work force, services and commodities.

It should be acknowledged that our countries were switching from one integration stage to another leaving behind unresolved issues and parallel projects. Thus, the Free Trade Area of the CIS (FTA CIS), which continued its activities, was competing with the EAEU in the economic sphere; and in the political sphere competition continued with the Union State project. In 2020-s the tension between Russia and the West was added to these inveterate problems. Because the financial and economic spheres of our two countries are strongly integrated already within the EAEU, each new round of anti-Russian sanctions painfully affects Kazakhstan. It means that today Astana has to share numerous political and economic risks with Moscow. Initially, they did not assume in the RK that the sanctions-related risks will grow that much, but when it came to the crunch, our Kazakhstan neighbors demonstrated the due courage and stamina maintaining close alliance with the RF despite certain political forces both internal and external were trying hard to break it down.

In addition to the risks associated with the sanctions and foreign policy in general the following internal factors also present a threat for Russian-Kazakhstan relations. We already mentioned two main challenges the generation gap between the elites of the two countries and the gap in political and expert communications. The key problem is that today our bilateral relations are based on good personal relations between the leaders of our states, not on the horizontal connections of the elites in general. This is a potentially hazardous situation, which we should overcome by gradual transition until 2030 from the established «leadership diplomacy» system to a more flexible and more sound institutional system. In the political and media spheres of our countries we can also track the temptation of the «simple solutions» using ultra-patriotic and confrontation rhetoric instead of building reliable alliances. Let us especially emphasize the absence of the «Eurasian integration» and our alliance topic as a priority one in the political and media agendas of Russia and Kazakhstan.

The following factors present additional barriers for improving and developing Russian-Kazakhstan relations: the difference in the size of these two countries and in the scope of their strategic priorities, poor awareness of real internal situations and insufficient absorption in the state of the neighbors affairs. In the economic sphere there are such barriers as corruption and lobbyism of financial-industrial groups, as well as poor efficiency of implementing the executed agreements. According to the expert estimates, for Astana the incentives to continue the partner relations are joint efforts to overcome the Ukrainian crisis, access to Russian energy and investment resources, implementation of new projects in logistics and industrial sector. Moscow, in its turn, is interested in assuring the security of its southern frontier, in the efficient connectivity between the European and Siberian parts of the country, and in the role Kazakhstan plays in communications across the Central Asia.

The relations between Moscow and Astana differ from all the FSU countries by a high a degree of intellectual dialogue and openness. The connections between the politicians and people of our two countries feature high level of trust. This allows for our straight and honest discussion about the impediments and unspoken disagreements that constitute the barriers for our joint progress and close friendship. All this is an evidence of the significant potential for the improvement and evolution of Russian-Kazakhstan relations, including by way of joint efforts to overcome the accumulated domestic problems and external challenges. We need to admit: not only the sustainable domestic policy of our countries, but their joint focus on creating the «image of the future» and forming the common Eurasian meta-identity resistant to the influence of non-Eurasian centers of power all these factors are important for the progress of alliance of Russia and Kazakhstan. We believe that this white paper by the Caspian Institute for Strategic Studies will give a start for an extended expert discussion about the new format of such alliance not only until 2030, but for a longer-term perspective.

1. Russia and Kazakhstan: factors of mutual dependency. Caspian Institute for Strategic Studies, 22.08.2022. https://caspian.institute/product/solozobov-yurij/rossiya-i-kazahstan-faktory-vzaimnoj-zavisimosti-38279.shtml

2. Marat Shibutov: Russia and Kazakhstan cannot do without cooperation. Profile, 09.03.2023. https://profile.ru/society/marat-shibutov-rossiya-i-kazahstan-ne-mogut-obojtis-bez-sotrudnichestva-1279738/

3. M. Shibutov, N. Malyarchuk, Yu. Solozobov. The modern stage of Russian-Kazakhstan relations. Part 3. Regnum Publishers, 10.12.2018. https://regnum.ru/article/2534699

4. How we should study the FSU countries. Regnum Publishers, 17.01.2019. https://regnum.ru/article/2553843

5. Extraordinary presidential elections in Kazakhstan: Tokayev is being pro-active. Caspian Institute for Strategic Studies, 04.09.2022. https://caspian.institute/product/sektor-kazahstana-kisi/vneocherednye-prezidentskie-vybory-v-kazahstane-tokaev-dejstvuet-na-operezhenie-38273.shtml

6. Assessments and narratives: a speech by the President of Kazakhstan at the 25th St-Petersburg International Economic Forum. Caspian Institute for Strategic Studies, 20.06.2022. https://caspian.institute/product/sektor-kazahstana-kisi/vystuplenie-prezidenta-kazahstana-na-hkhv-peterburgskom-mezhdunarodnom-ehkonomicheskom-forume-ocenki-i-smysly-38097.shtml

7. With a carrot and a stick. The narratives and assessments of the visit by Antony Blinken, the US Secretary of State, to Central Asia. Caspian Institute for Strategic Studies, 05.03.2023. https://caspian.institute/product/direkciya-mezhdunarodnyh-programm-kisi/s-knutom-i-pryanikom-smysly-i-ocenki-vizita-gossekretarya-ssha-ehntoni-blinkena-v-centralnuyu-aziyu-38410.shtml

8. Organization of Turkic States: the integration horizons and the prospects of Russian participation. Caspian Institute for Strategic Studies, 16.11.2022. https://caspian.institute/product/direkciya-mezhdunarodnyh-programm-kisi/organizaciya-tyurkskih-gosudarstv-gorizonty-integracii-i-perspektivy-uchastiya-rossii-38371.shtml

9. On Information Policy. Nomad, 06.10.2023. https://nomad.su/?a=3-202310050030

10. Tokayev wished Putin to live a long life in politics. Business Online, 07.10.2023. https://www.business-gazeta.ru/news/609639

11. The study of the potential for humanitarian cooperation between Russia and CIS countries. Eurasian Monitor-2022. https://eurasiamonitor.org/issliedovaniia#2022