Pundit: Kazakhstan balancing between Russia, China, bolstering ties with Turkic world
    Interview with Prof. Karlygash Nugmanova

    INTERVIEWS  01 June 2023 - 17:27

    Matanat Nasibova

    Caliber.Az had a conversation with Karlygash Nugmanova (Kazakhstan), doctor of political sciences, professor, and president of the "East-West" International Centre for Geopolitical Forecasting.

    - How do you see the importance of the Central Asian republics in regional politics and the system of international relations?

    - Central Asia, which recently emerged from the shadow of global politics, is now becoming a brand and a trend in international expert meetings. The guru of political analysis, Francis Fukuyama, said that Central Asia is becoming the centre of the world. And it is indeed the only point on earth adjacent to four nuclear-armed states at once - Russia, China, India and Pakistan. Central Asia, meanwhile, is adjacent to the Muslim civilisation of the Middle East and to two major world players, Russia and China. Post-Soviet Central Asia is in the zone of interest of the world's leading powers, due to the region's geopolitical location, the vast natural resources, processes of economic and political transformation, and the development of relations between its countries and with the outside world. The situation is a priori ambiguous. On the one hand, many of the countries of the region are exporters of raw materials and energy resources, tied to the conditions of global markets.

    There are various potential threats awaiting the Central Asian states. The world is internationalising the means of various groups, and the whole world is feeling the pressure of globalisation - opportunities are emerging for the faster movement of people, information and money. Western countries are trying to contain not only Russian influence but also Chinese presence in Central Asia. The conflict between the "great powers" (China, Russia, the US and the EU) is having a serious impact, forcing a multi-vector foreign policy that requires a great deal of skill. The peoples of Central Asia now once again face momentous challenges. Once again the basic questions of how to ensure external security and political stability must be answered. The external actors involved in Central Asian geopolitics have their own as well as overlapping interests in the region.

    - Why are the US and Western countries interested in Central Asia and what risks does this pose for the region in light of their rivalry with Russia?

    - In general, Washington's foreign policy strategy in Central Asia has focused on human rights: accusations of human rights violations, criticism of authoritarian rule, demands for the democratisation of existing regimes, allegations of corruption, increased outreach pressure by supporting the activities of various NGOs and opposition movements, and outreach programmes through official structures (USIS/USAID) to positivise America's image in public opinion. At the same time, the West is making efforts to prevent a return of Russia; to curb the escalation of Islamic radicalism and fundamentalism; and to ensure control of Caspian oil. Of course, economic and geopolitical interests prevail, but most of the American investments in Central Asia are so-called "political investments" in NGOs, officials and politicians who represent tactical or strategic interests for them.

    Although Russia remains the main player in Central Asia, its power as the guarantor of the current situation in the region is already relatively limited due to the actions of external forces. Western intervention in Central Asia and the Caucasus has changed the strategic balance of power and has direct implications for Russia. For the US, the region is crucial to world leadership as well as to the control of territory adjacent to Russia, China and the Muslim world. It is for this purpose that the US State Department has sent an impressive delegation on a tour of Central Asia, with the objective of somehow persuading the political elites of the Central Asian states to join Western sanctions against the Russian Federation. Subsequently, Washington hopes to include these states in an anti-Russian coalition under its patronage. But despite the fact that the US has its strategic interests in the region, it can be stated that their influence is not sufficient to divert the trajectory of the region from the general Eurasian trend.

    Why does Russia continue to play a defining role in the region and the most successful integration initiatives are linked to its presence and leadership? I explain this factor by the fact that it is related both to the economic, political and cultural legacy of the Soviet period (common infrastructure, language, similar systems of governance, education, etc.) and to the continuing economic and political influence of Russia. The EU's main interest in Kazakhstan is to ensure that international sanctions against Russia cannot be circumvented through its territory. Kazakhstan, on the other hand, is trying to avoid sending crude oil through Russia and to export it directly to the EU. Kazakhstan, as well as its partners, is very carefully studying alternative routes for energy transportation, in particular, the Kazakhstani authorities are interested in the Middle Corridor.

    The EU has included Kazakhstan in its top four, besides Brazil, Chile, and Nigeria, on the basis of its abundance of resources, in order to consolidate its position. Brazil and Chile are in resource-rich Latin America; Nigeria is the economic centre of West Africa; Kazakhstan has oil and gas reserves in Central Asia. But oil is not the EU's only target; it is also interested in Kazakhstan's rare-earth metals.

    - Could the US intensification in the region lead to a geopolitical confrontation with China?

    - Given China's ambitious plans, one could argue that the Great Silk Road Economic Belt (GSR) will be the project of the century for Central Asia, capable of seriously challenging the US and redrawing the global business map. I would note that at this stage, one of the successful projects to put soft power into practice in Central Asia is that of China. As there are no fundamental contradictions between the countries, neither ideological nor military, neither political nor religious. China is once again at the centre of the rich part of the globe washed by the Pacific Ocean, while the US and Europe are displaced to the impoverished fringes of the Atlantic Ocean. The reopening of the Great Silk Road through Central Asia will serve as an elaborate narrative for strengthening practical cooperation in various fields to form a new architectonics of cooperation characterised by a high level of complementarity and mutual benefit. Great China realises - in order to win the trust of Central Asian countries and play the role of a major power it needs to blend and merge with the society in all respects and define a common game plan.

    Xi Jinping's vision of a 'community of one destiny for humanity' aims to be the basis for further strengthening ties between Central Asia and Greater China. The Celestial Empire is setting the stage for its economic sphere, which could lead to the emergence of a China zone in Central Asia. The new incarnation of the Great Silk Road does not have a clear geographical framework, a starting point and an endpoint. More important it is the global idea that East and West are once again attempting to converge.

    The essence of Beijing's strategy is to prevent any major power or political-ideological force, including Russia, the US, the collective West and Islamic countries, from dominating Central Asia; to turn it into a key supplier of energy and its most important economic counterpart in general. And remarkably, China achieves all this not through wars and violent imposition of its convictions, but gently and quite delicately.

    China's geopolitical dominance in Central Asia is necessary to counter the US policy of containing its further growth and opposing the unipolar system and the US dominance at the economic, political, and military levels. Central Asia is important to Beijing as a transport corridor that could eventually provide the PRC with land access to Iran and further into Europe. The emergence of overland routes through Central Asia is important to Beijing in the context of the diversification of overland routes to Europe, as well as the shortening of delivery times for Chinese products. The Central Asian markets are an ideal vector of foreign economic activity for producers in China's western regions, as their remoteness from the world's maritime routes makes it difficult for them to reach the world's major markets. To protect its interests in the Great Silk Road, China is interested in securing its investments in infrastructure, trade routes and maritime communications, which form the backbone of its export-oriented economy. To a certain extent, it can be argued that it is China that can play a significant role in the process of establishing a new strategic balance and geopolitical stability, as well as creating a new system of international relations.

    - Are there any prerequisites for a change in Kazakhstan's foreign policy towards the West? Do you foresee the country's withdrawal from the CSTO and the EAEU in the future?

    - In my opinion, Kazakhstan may well become a bargaining chip and a bargaining chip between the two countries in the formation of a geostrategic alliance between Russia and China. One of the factors of external threats to Kazakhstan's security is the fact that international structures, in which the country is involved, do not form full-fledged security regimes and, therefore, do not provide effective security guarantees. Since the establishment of the CSTO, countering terrorism and jointly combating international terrorism and extremism have been identified as one of the key tasks of the organization, especially in the southern direction. In other words, the factor of challenges and threats from Afghanistan during all these years has been named as the main problem for the member states of the organization. Therefore, I believe that the future of our country is in our own hands and we should clearly understand that "abroad will not help us" and that in any configuration we have to count only on ourselves. We have only one way - to strengthen the functional power of our independent States. The gradual emergence of Kazakhstan as an independent integration nucleus is associated with a much higher level of GDP compared to its Central Asian neighbours, which makes the republic attractive to its neighbours in the context of trade, labour migration and education, and also increases its role as a source of investment.

    In this new system of world order, Kazakhstan continues to be a key point of interaction between the EAEU countries and China. Noting the growing security threats in Central Asia associated with the increased activity of ISIS, the Taliban, al-Qaeda and other terrorist organisations on the territory of Afghanistan, which leads to a surge of tensions on the southern borders, directly threatening to destabilise the situation, Kazakhstan's withdrawal from the CSTO is inadvisable. After the January events in Kazakhstan, the leaders of the CSTO member states started talking about the great potential of this organisation in preventing coloured revolutions, terrorism and biological threats. But the liberal part of society in Kazakhstan and in other CSTO member states often perceives the organisation as a possible resource for maintaining the current political regimes. An analysis of the political process as the organisation of the new C5+1 military bloc (PRC) is being implemented will show how far it can go. Perhaps the Celestial Empire will dictate its rules on the withdrawal of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan from the CSTO and EEU in the future. But for now, Kazakhstan's interaction with the CIS countries and multilateral integration cooperation within the SCO, CSTO and OIC are among the main priorities of Kazakhstan's foreign policy strategy and multi-vector approach.

    - At what level are Kazakhstan's relations with the Turkic world now and in general the potential for interaction between them?

    - Kazakhstan manages to balance between the major geopolitical players, Russia and China, while simultaneously strengthening cooperation within the Turkic alliance. Maintaining a multi-vector foreign policy remains one of the key tasks of Kazakhstan's diplomacy, especially in the current circumstances. I see no good reason to give up such a multi-vector approach. It is an objective reality for any sensible state, interested in balanced and diverse relations with the outside world. This is the essence of Kazakhstan's concept of multi-vectorism, which raises so many questions. Maintaining relations with key partners helps to reduce risks from all kinds of shocks, and this works in all areas. Interaction with Turkey is also among Kazakhstan's foreign policy priorities. Despite Türkiye's efforts to develop economic cooperation with Kazakhstan, it is generally not comparable to the economic influence of more powerful players - China, the US, the EU, Russia, and other countries with interests in the region. Türkiye prefers to promote commercial, cultural, and educational programmes through soft power elements. In doing so, it relies on formally non-state, but actively supported by the Turkish government. The potential for interaction between the two countries exists in expanding cooperation, in joint investment projects, in more intensive use of transit potential, and in cooperation in IT, education, and tourism. In the future, Türkiye will produce new-generation drones in Kazakhstan. This, too, is a contribution to the sustainability of the country's military security. In general, the Turkic vector is one of the most promising and important in the current geopolitical turbulence.

    - In your estimation, to what extent has the level of threats against Central Asia from Afghanistan decreased?

    - Afghanistan remains a serious destabilising factor in the Central Asian region. Threats emanating from Afghan territory, including terrorism and drug trafficking, not only persist but may become even more acute as the socioeconomic situation in the country deteriorates. Afghan fighters, supported by Central Asian religious extremist groups, pose not only an increased risk to regional security but also a real threat to state regimes in Central Asia. The fact that the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, Akramiya, Tablighi Jama-at, the Islamic Party of Eastern Turkestan and the Jamaat Mujahedeen of Central Asia have found a home in Afghanistan does not remove from the agenda the issue of securing Central Asia's borders. The big risk is that various destructive elements, including fighters from radical extremist groups formerly part of ISIS (Jamaat Ansarulloh, IMU, Islamic Jihad Union), will infiltrate Central Asian territory under the guise of refugees, capable of creating a real threat to the secular political regimes of the Central Asian states. Today, it seems to me, the concept of the Great Game is outdated, and in the short term the Central Asian states will stick to the philosophy of Great Gain for all.


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