Kazakhstan’s President Tokayev Toes the Line Between Sanctions Compliance and Peace With Russia

On Sept. 28, Kazakhstan’s President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev was in Germany for bilateral consultations with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz. Tokayev also participated in a Berlin-organized summit with Central Asia’s five heads of state. This followed the “C5+1” summit with U.S. President Joe Biden the week before as well as Tokayev’s meeting with UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres in connection with his address to the UN General Assembly in New York.

Following his pivotal diplomatic talks with Scholz in Germany, President Tokayev made this public statement: “Kazakhstan has unambiguously stated that it will follow the sanctions regime. In addition, the country does not have any concerns regarding territorial claims from the Russian Federation.”

This unequivocal declaration underscored Kazakhstan’s continued commitment to international norms. Western journalists gave this new pronouncement extremely high prominence, but they neglected to report on Tokayev’s other important remarks.

In particular, the Western media failed to mention that Tokayev called the sanctions confrontation between the West and Russia “counterproductive” in terms of preventing further erosion of international relations and deterioration of the global situation in general. “Kazakhstan is not ‘anti-Russia’,” he clarified; “we firmly adhere to a course of comprehensive co-operation with Russia.”

President Tokayev said Kazakhstan is “united” with Russia “by the longest border in the world” and has long-standing bilateral co-operation “in various fields, including trade and humanitarian ties.” In this context, highlighting Kazakhstan’s confidence in its diplomatic ties and ability to enforce agreements, he emphasised the absence of any territorial concerns with regards to Russia.

Kazakhstan has a long and complex geopolitical history with its northern neighbour stretching back to its early sixteenth-century existence as the Kazakh Khanate. After emerging from the disintegration of the Soviet Union as a sovereign and independent modern state, Kazakhstan became keen on establishing its distinct identity on the global stage. Tokayev’s statements reflect the attainment of this diplomatic maturity.

President Tokayev is himself an internationally respected diplomat. His credentials as a  former prime minister, amongst many other high-level posts that he has held over the years, are impeccable. As such, his words carry weight. But they are not merely words. As President Tokayev made clear, his government reflects a dedication to international norms and maintains “contacts with the relevant organisations regarding compliance with the sanctions regime.”

Kazakhstan’s diplomatic stance aligns seamlessly with the broader international community’s collective response to Moscow’s actions in Ukraine. While many countries have rallied to impose sanctions on Russia, there have been concerns about potential circumvention, especially through nations that have close ties with Russia.

Kazakhstan’s clear position dispels any such apprehensions in this regard, placing it alongside the nations that prioritise upholding global peace and security. The recently adopted eleventh package of sanctions of the European Union (EU) aims to prevent re-exports of sensitive goods to Russia by third countries. Kazakhstan’s commitment to the sanctions regime aligns with this EU directive as well, further emphasising the country’s positive orientation with international standards.

Throughout his engagements in Berlin, President Tokayev consistently reiterated Kazakhstan’s independent foreign-policy stance. Whether addressing concerns about the intricate nuances of circumventing sanctions, or emphasising the robustness of territorial agreements with Russia, his message was clear: Kazakhstan values its international partnerships and, while ensuring that its own interests are respected, will also act in the best interests of maintaining global peace and stability.

Astana’s decision not to recognize Moscow’s occupation of the eastern and southern regions of Ukraine further underscores its independent foreign policy position. It demonstrates that notwithstanding close commercial, economic and financial ties with Russia, Kazakhstan still prioritises its own sovereignty and independence when it comes to taking key decisions.

Kazakhstan’s commitment to international norms, synergised with its independent foreign policy, sets an example for other nations both in the region and outside. The country’s judicious and balanced approach, guided by President Tokayev’s years of foreign policy experience, emerges as a blueprint for diplomatic success in Central Asia and beyond. This is especially true given that Western nations are recalibrating their strategies in Central Asia to seek a more pronounced role, including to balance out Russian and Chinese influence.

In July 2023, Kazakhstan’s Ministry of Internal Affairs stated that the government was doing everything possible to avoid being subjected to secondary sanctions. The country banned the supply of military goods to Russia, and introduced certification for dual-use goods. According to President Tokayev, Kazakhstan does not have goods subject to sanctions restrictions and, therefore, does not trade them. Kazakhstan “does not participate in the so-called parallel imports to Russia,” he reiterated.

As President Tokayev himself clarified, Kazakhstan is unambiguous when it comes to sanctions compliance yet is still confident about its relations with Russia. The country’s commitment to peace, stability and international norms will surely guide its path forward in the intricate matrix of twenty-first century geopolitics.

[Photo by Akorda, the Presidential Palace of Kazakhstan]

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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