President Tokayev's re-election as a genuine strategic importance
    Step-by-step democratization?

    ANALYTICS  21 November 2022 - 13:00

    Fuad Shahbazov

    On November 20, 2022, snap presidential elections were held in Kazakhstan that resulted in the victory of the current President, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev. While Tokayev’s victory strengthened the current government's legitimacy, it occurred in a volatile global security environment. The recent dramatic events erupted in Kazakhstan in January 2022 after a sudden sharp increase in liquefied gas prices following the lifting of a government-enforced price cap. The bloody events reached the culmination point with the interference of the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) to thwart back the protesters.

    After the incidents, many suggested that Kazakhstan's re-orientation toward Russia is inevitable, though for not a long time. For more than three decades, Kazakhstan has proven adept at balancing relations between its giant neighbours and with Western countries. The European Union, for example, is Kazakhstan’s biggest trade partner and the biggest foreign investor in the country. As the biggest regional state in Central Asia, Kazakhstan is the most striving country that eyes partnerships with Europe, China, Russia, Caucasus, and the Middle East for more economic dividends.

    However, in the wake of Russia's intervention in Ukraine and the schism between Moscow and traditional allies, Astana's pivot to the Caucasus and Europe strengthened further. The split between Astana and Moscow became tenser with President Tokayev's refusal to publicly support Russia's war against Ukraine and the quasi-states established in occupied Luhansk and Donetsk regions. Indeed, President Tokayev's public criticism of separatist regimes in Ukraine caused outrage within the conservative and ultra-nationalist Russian strata.

    Amid growing Russian criticism and public threats, the Kazakh authorities supported the efforts to establish a new regional partnership format, such as the Organization of Turkic States (OTS) initiated by Turkey and Azerbaijan. In addition, Astana established bilateral (with Azerbaijan) and trilateral (Azerbaijan-Turkey) partnership formats that could help to boost regional interconnectivity and enable Kazakhstan to reach the Western markets through the Middle Corridor transit route.

    In this regard, Astana's interest in enhancing its partnership with Azerbaijan is attributed to its geostrategic location and energy infrastructure, namely the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline that supplies Azeri oil to Europe. When the diplomatic standoff between Astana and Moscow reached high-level, on July 6, 2022, a Russian court ordered the Caspian Pipeline Consortium (CPC) to suspend Kazakh oil exports for 30 days. CPC carries oil from Kazakhstan into Russia and the Black Sea's edge. Although it handles just over 1 per cent of global crude oil, CPC is critical for Kazakhstan; around 80 per cent of Kazakhstan's oil exports move through the Novorossiysk oil terminal. As such, Kazakhstan held several talks with Azerbaijani colleagues regarding the potential export of Kazakh oil through Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan. As of November 2022, the agreement has been reached to re-route Kazakh oil exports to Europe via the BTC pipeline since January 2023.

    It is likely that with the re-election of Tokayev, diplomatic tensions with Russia will not disappear soon, and dealing with Russia will be Tokayev's major problem in recrafting Kazakhstan's foreign policy. Nevertheless, it would be unrealistic to claim that cooperation between two states could be neglected. The Kazakh authorities apprehend that Russia is still a critical security partner despite its poor performance in Ukraine. The security concerns of Astana mainly stem from highly volatile neighbouring Afghanistan, where dozens of Islamic militant groups lie to the south, and China, which gradually increases its foothold in the region.

    Kazakhstan eyes equal partnership conditions, but Russia's and China's foreign policy agendas do not address Astana's concerns. Therefore, Kazakhstan's ties with Azerbaijan and Turkey will grow steadily in the upcoming years. Kazakhstan boosts trade partnerships within the Middle Corridor and Digital Silk Way projects within the newly established cooperation format. At the end of October 2022, the official statement underlined that Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan would start construction of the fibre-optic communication line next year that will run along the bottom of the Caspian Sea to provide alternative Internet access and expand traffic transit between Europe and Asia. Reportedly, AzerTelecom and Kazakhtelecom, the leading telecommunications companies of Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, will team up for the project’s realization.

    The main subsea line, which measures 340 kilometres in length, will stretch from the Kazakh port city of Aktau to the city of Siyazan in Azerbaijan, while the reserve cable, with a length of about 330 kilometres, will be laid from the Kuryk port in Kazakhstan to Buzovna, a seaside settlement on the outskirt of Azerbaijan’s capital Baku. Hence, if it is successful, the landlocked Central Asian region will connect with the South Caucasus, not by economic ties but also digitally.

    The victory in recent snap elections enabled Tokayev to consolidate power, neutralize external and internal threats and preserve earlier foreign policy priorities. Although the diplomatic standoff with Russia complicates the security issue for Kazakhstan, the newly emerged Azerbaijan – Turkey – Kazakhstan geopolitical axis and the growing influence of OTS could help Astana to avoid pressure from Moscow and Beijing. Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev’s congratulatory letter addressed to President Tokayev on November 21, also reaffirms Baku’s vision regarding the prospects of partnership with Kazakhstan. President Aliyev emphasizes the importance of boosting bilateral cooperation to strengthen the strategic partnership.

    Therefore, it is likely that more agreements in vitally important fields will be signed between Azerbaijan, Turkey, and Kazakhstan, given those countries' geographic proximity to the West and their ability for political manoeuvres in the fragile region.


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