Kazakhstan President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev announced on April 9 that his country will hold presidential elections on June 9. This is a remarkable development as President Tokayev came to power just this past March when long-time President Nursultan Nazarbayev stepped down and Tokayev succeeded him as speaker of the parliament. It is widely expected that Tokayev will remain in power, given that Nazarbayev openly endorsed him in late April.
Tokayev’s consolidation as the president of Kazakhstan is important to US foreign policy in Central Asia.
A Cordial, but Not Special, Friendship
Since gaining independence in 1991, Kazakhstan has balanced the interests and objectives of two of its neighbors, China and Russia, and maintained a pro-West approach. While the United States and Kazakhstan have not developed a special relationship, like between the US and the UK, Washington and Nur-Sultan (the Kazakhstani capital, formerly known as Astana) have maintained cordial ties, with the Kazakhstani government participating in US operations and initiatives, such as the Northern Distribution Network to Afghanistan. Even more, the Central Asian state also deployed troops to Iraq for non-combat operations, like removing landmines and other explosives and providing medical care.
Bilateral trade was estimated at $2.1 billion in 2018, making the Central Asian state America’s seventy-ninth largest trading partner. This is not an impressive number by US standards, but it is a big number for Kazakhstan and, when placed alongside other initiatives, highlights the overall positive bilateral relations between the two governments.
Kazakhstan held the rotating presidency of the UN Security Council in January 2018, and to celebrate President Nazarbayev traveled to New York and Washington, where he met President Donald Trump. This meeting was aimed at cementing these positive bilateral ties.
Education as Public Diplomacy
Moreover, Kazakhstan has an active presence in the US education system. Through the Bolashak education program, paid by the Kazakhstani government, Kazakhstani students attend universities in the US and Canada, provided they return to their homeland upon completing their studies and work for the state for a number of years. Think of it as the Kazakhstani version of the Fulbright Program. Some universities that host Bolashak students include Stanford University, UC Berkley, UC San Diego, among others.
As a result of this program, there is a growing body of academic literature that analyses Kazakhstan’s “Bolashak Generation,” namely rising Kazakhstani professionals, entrepreneurs, and government officials who participated in this program. In a couple of decades, when they ascend to more senior positions, their Western education will likely influence their nations’ future domestic and international policies.
Yes, Kazakhstan Matters
It is because of these ties and Central Asia’s geopolitical situation that the change of leadership in Kazakhstan on June 9 is important. As previously mentioned, the country has generally maintained close relations with the US and its European allies while also maintaining close commercial and diplomatic ties with Beijing and Moscow. After all, geography still influences foreign policy, so we should not expect Tokayev to attempt to detach Kazakhstan from its close relations with China and Russia and to eagerly approach the US. Trade between Kazakhstan and Russia in 2018 was estimated at $18 billion, and President Tokayev’s first trip abroad upon coming to power was to Moscow to ensure President Vladimir Putin that bilateral relations will remain as usual. Moreover, Kazakhstan is regarded as the “buckle” of China’s Belt and Road Initiative due to its geographical location. (But the status of ethnic Kazakhs, not to mention Uyghurs and ethnic Kyrgyzs, in the so-called “reeducation camps” in Xinjiang, China, remains a problem that needs addressing.)
Nevertheless, Kazakhstan has historically maintained good relations not only with Washington but also its allies. Case in point, the new prime minister of Kazakhstan, Askar Mamin, announced that he plans to visit Israel soon. There is a small Jewish community in Kazakhstan, and the two countries may sign a free trade agreement under the umbrella of the Eurasian Economic Union, of which Kazakhstan is a member. The Central Asian state has also done its part to try to promote peace, as it has also attempted, with mixed success, to diplomatically solve conflicts such as Iran’s nuclear program and the Caspian Sea dispute. In late April, the Kazakhstani capital hosted a new round of Syria peace talks, though it is unlikely that there is a peaceful solution to this conflict.
The June 9 events will be a pivotal moment for Kazakhstan, as President Tokayev will cement his role as the country’s new head of state. Meanwhile, at a time when Washington’s foreign policy priorities lay elsewhere, it is imperative for the US government to maintain close allies that it can trust in distant Central Asia.
Kazakhstan is generally regarded as the de facto leader of Central Asia, given its ambitious foreign policy strategy and growing economy. Hence, it is logical that the White House should continue to seek close, constructive, and mutually beneficial ties with the Kazakhstani government and its future Western-educated leaders who share common goals with Washington.
Wilder Alejandro Sanchez is an analyst who focuses on geopolitical, military, and cybersecurity issues.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not reflect those of any institutions with which the author is associated.
Photo Credit: Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, then director-general of the United Nations at Geneva, on October 1, 2012. By United States Mission Geneva, via Flickr.