Tuesday, 15 December 2015 21:41

Asserting Statehood: Kazakhstan's Role in International Organizations Featured

By Johan Engvall and Svante E. Cornell

December 2015

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Executive Summary:

1512StatehoodIn the past two years, Kazakhstan has joined the World Trade Organization, obtained a seat at the Asia-Europe Meeting, signed an Enhanced Partnership and Cooperation Agreement with the European Union, announced it would host the EXPO-2017 in Astana, and launched a bid for a rotating seat at the United Nations Security Council. This extraordinary high frequency of international engagements is remarkable, but it represents a difference in degree and not nature in Kazakhstan’s diplomatic history. Indeed, since the fall of the Soviet Union Kazakhstan has developed a record of being the most proactive and innovative former Soviet republic in the sphere of international cooperation.
Kazakhstan’s international engagement can be understood as forming three categories. A first category are unilateral Kazakh initiatives. A second relates to Kazakhstan’s leading role in promoting regional, Eurasian integration. A third is Kazakhstan’s efforts to integrate with western-led international organizations.
Kazakhstan’s unilateral initiatives began, logically, in the field of nuclear non-proliferation. Left with a considerable nuclear arsenal in 1991, its decision to forgo the status of nuclear power helped Kazakhstan obtain a platform on the international scene. Since then, Kazakhstan’s efforts to play a prominent role in the field of peaceful nuclear technology led to the decision in 2015 to build and host the world’s first international low-enriched (LEU) bank in Kazakhstan under the auspices of the IAEA. Also in the early days of independence, Kazakhstan launched the idea of a Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA) – a format that has grown to include 26 member countries. Kazakhstan has also been a driving force in civilizational dialogue through convening a Congress of World Religions, and in boosting the cooperation among Turkic-language countries.
In the former Soviet space, Astana has been a leading promoter of Eurasian integration. The perhaps most well-known example is the fact that the concept of a Eurasian Economic Union is actually originally an idea emanating from Kazakhstan rather than Russia. It dates back to the conviction of Kazakhstan’s top leadership, during the dissolution of the former Soviet Union, that the positive aspects of Eurasian integration needed to be preserved. But Kazakhstan’s efforts originally focused equally, if not more, on Central Asian cooperation and integration. Astana was the driving force behind the Central Asian Cooperation Forum in 1998, and subsequently the Central Asian Cooperation Organization created in 2002. However, due in part to lukewarm support in the region and in much greater degree to Russian ambitions to dominate all forms of Eurasian integration, CACO was subsumed under the Russia-led Euro-Asian Economic Community in 2005. While Astana has continued to support Central Asian integration, it also participated in the efforts to build a Eurasian Customs Union in 2010, later morphed into the Eurasian Economic Union.
Kazakhstan’s approach to Eurasian integration has underlined the economic nature of these institutions, and rejected any ambition to turn them into a political union. Kazakhstan’s approach seems to rest on the twin assumptions that economics and politics can be strictly divided, and that a union in which one member has overwhelming economic and political power can really be an association of equals. Developments during the past several years has given reason to doubt the feasibility of these assumptions. Indeed, Kazakhstan’s leadership has emphasized that Kazakhstan has the right to leave any organization that turns into a political union potentially infringing upon its national sovereignty. While firmly embedded in Russian-led structures, including the Collective Security Treaty Organization, Kazakhstan has also invested in the emergence of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, China’s primary vehicle for influence in the region.
On the international arena, Kazakhstan has accorded considerable energy to its interactions with the OSCE, EU and NATO. Most notably, and in spite of controversy surrounding its domestic situation, Kazakhstan was elected to chair the OSCE in 2010, a task in which it succeeded in hosting a summit of the organization for the first time in 11 years. The country’s relations with NATO are restrained by its membership in the CSTO; yet Kazakhstan is the only country in Central Asia to have advanced its cooperation with NATO to the level of developing an Individual Partnership Action Plan (IPAP) under the PfP, and has sought to make its peacekeeping brigade, Kazbrig, fully consistent with NATO by reaching NATO Evaluation Level 2. With the EU, Kazakhstan in 2015 became the first Central Asian country to conclude an Enhanced Cooperation Agreement with the EU – an arrangement looser than the Association Agreements the EU has offered Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia within the framework of the Eastern Partnership, but more ambitious than the existing agreement between the EU and Russia.
This is the background against which Kazakhstan launched its bid for a non-permanent seat at the UN Security Council for 2017. The campaign is anchored in Kazakhstan’s foreign policy concept 2014-2020, where active participation in international organizations is presented as an important tool to protect Kazakhstan’s national interests and secure maximum visibility and leverage for its foreign policy on the regional as well as global arena. This objective appears to be perceived as a final confirmation of Kazakhstan’s steadfast commitment to playing a constructive role in international affairs.
The distinguishing characteristic of Kazakhstan’s external policy in the past decade has been a balanced model with partnerships reaching out as broadly as possible – a strategy that has enabled the Kazakh leadership to build strong economic and political relations with multiple partners to a relatively low cost, and without creating adversaries in international politics.
Kazakhstan’s foreign policy in general and its multilateral relations in particular has since early days expressed a clear logic: to establish itself as a reliable and constructive international actor. Astana has been keen to build a role as a good international citizen that can be a pragmatic partner with all quarters of the globe. The core of that strategy has been to create several foreign policy pillars – Russia, China, the U.S., the EU, Turkey – that are rather harmonious in size and shape. The key balancing act has been to keep the house in order by not allowing any pillar to totally outweigh the others. However, the major challenge in recent years is that the Russian pillar has expanded so heavily that the house is less balanced than before. It is in this light that the West should understand the recent surge in international activities coming from Astana – from the admission to the WTO and ASEM to campaigns aimed at securing a seat at the UNSC and joining the OECD as well as trying to increase the visibility as a state by organizing global ventures, such as the upcoming Expo 2017. In this perspective, it is in the west’s interests to support Kazakhstan’s efforts to maintain the balance by further committing to engage with the country. These efforts should, not least, be welcomed in the light of an increasingly polarized and unfavorable geopolitical context.
It must be pointed out that Kazakhstan’s ability to maintain a balanced foreign policy and pursuing multiple partnerships are both enabled and constrained by the presence of certain structural conditions. As Alexander Cooley has persuasively shown, multivectorism in Kazakhstan as well as the other Central Asian states was enabled by the emergence of a specific set of external factors connected to three major powers – China, Russia and the U.S. – present in the region during 2001-2011. The first was the U.S.’s decisive emergence in Central Asia after 9/11 and the security partnership it formed with the regional states in the War on Terror. The second factor was China’s dramatic economic expansion into the region coupled with Russia’s retrenchment. The third and final was what Cooley labels Russia’s weak “unite and influence strategy”. The resulting multivectorism flourished in the region, and lasted for ten years, during this period enabling not only Kazakhstan, but also the small states of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to take advantage of external powers for enhancing their own interests.
Following the drawdown of U.S. forces from Afghanistan and the region, Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its military aggression in the eastern regions of Ukraine as well as the increasing institutionalization of Russia’s influence in the region through the EEU, the geopolitical dynamics in the region has altered to the extent that maintaining external balances is already becoming a much greater challenge for Central Asia’s leaders. While China has indicated an intention to match Russia’s effort to a greater engagement with the region, the west has decisively failed to do so.
For Kazakhstan’s future external engagements and, indirectly, for its assertion of statehood, the key question is whether the golden era of multivectorism since the turn of the Millennium will continue. A pessimist may fear that the period of multivectorism will come to be seen as representing an interlude only, with Kazakhstan returning to a one-sided reliance on partnership with Russia, which existed in the 1990s and may again be consolidating. An optimist may counter that the present Russian-centric tendencies may themselves be an interlude in Kazakhstan’s 25-year long process of emergence on the international scene – an interlude that will revert to the mean, that is, to the continued strengthening of Kazakhstan’s sovereignty and statehood.
What should be clear from this inquiry is that Kazakhstan has not abandoned its vision of a multi-vector foreign policy. In fact, it is seeking alternative external partners and avenues more persistently than ever. Yet Kazakhstan cannot do this on its own: its success in maintaining balance – and in the process keeping the heart of Eurasia open – will depend on the existence of partners willing to engage with the region, and reciprocate to Kazakhstan’s overtures.

Read 22527 times Last modified on Wednesday, 16 December 2015 13:48





  • New Article Series on Changing Geopolitics of Central Asia and the Caucasus
    Wednesday, 24 November 2021 11:53


  • CACI Initiative on Religion and the Secular State in Central Asia and the Caucasus
    Sunday, 24 January 2021 13:53

    In 2016, the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program launched an initiative on documenting the interrelationship of religion and the secular state in the region. This initiative departed from the fact that little systematic reserch had been undertaken on the subject thus far. While there was and remains much commentary and criticism of religious policy in the region, there was no comprehensive analysis available on the interrelationship of religion and the state in any regional state, let alone the region as a whole. The result of this initiative has been the publication of six Silk Road Papers studying the matter in regional states, with more to come. In addition, work is ongoing on a volume putting the regional situation in the context of the Muslim world as a whole.


    Case Studies

    Each study below can be freely downloaded in PDF format.


    Azerbaijan's Formula: Secular Governance and Civil Nationhood
    By Svante E. Cornell, Halil Karaveli, and Boris Ajeganov
    November 2016   

    2018-04-Kazakhstan-SecularismReligion and the Secular State in Kazakhstan
    By Svante E. Cornell, S. Frederick Starr and Julian Tucker
    April 2018




    1806-UZ-coverReligion and the Secular State in Uzbekistan
    Svante E. Cornell and Jacob Zenn
    June 2018




    2006-Engvall-coverReligion and the Secular State in Kyrgyzstan
    Johan Engvall
    June 2020

     Event video online


    2006-Clement-coverReligion and the Secular State in Turkmenistan
    Victoria Clement
    June 2020

    Event video online




    Articles and Analyses

    Svante E. Cornell, "Religion and the State in Central Asia," in Ilan Berman, ed., Wars of Ideas: Theology, Interpretation and Power in the Muslim World, Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2021.

    Svante E. Cornell, "Central Asia: Where Did Islamic Radicalization Go?" in Religion, Conflict and Stability in the Former Soviet Union, eds. Katya Migacheva and Bryan Frederick, Arlington, VA: RAND Corporation, 2018.

  • Basic Principles for the Rehabilitation of Azerbaijan's Post-Conflict Territories
    Wednesday, 07 October 2020 09:01

    Rehab-coverIn 2010, the CACI-SRSP Joint Center cooperated with Eldar Ismailov and Nazim Muzaffarli of the Institute for Strategic Studies of the Caucasus to produce a study of the methodology and process for the rehabilitation of the occupied territories in Azerbaijan. The study was written in the hope that it would prove useful in the aftermath of a negotiated solution to the conflict.

    Such a resolution nevertheless did not materialize. At present, however, it appears that some of these territories are returning to Azerbaijani control as a result of the military conflict that began in late September, 2020. While it is regrettable that this did not come to pass as a result of negotiations, it is clear that the challenge of rehabilitating territories is as pressing today as it would be in the event of a peaceful resolution - if not more, given the likelihood that such a solution would have included a time-table and provided the Government of Azerbaijan and international institutions time for planning.

    It is clear that the study is a product of a different time, as much has changed since 2010. We fully expcect many updates and revisions to be needed should the recommendations in this study be implemented today. That said, we believe the methodoloy of the study and its conclusions remain relevant and would therefore like to call attention to this important study, published in English, Russian and Azerbaijani versions.

    Click to download:



  • Resources on the Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict
    Monday, 05 October 2020 08:19

    Resources on the Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict


    The Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program have a long track record of covering the Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict. This page presents the key resources and most recent analysis. 

    In 2017, Palgrave published the first book-length study of the International Politics of the Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict, edited by Svante Cornell. The book concluded by arguing that if international efforts to resolve the conflict are not stepped up, “the ‘four-day’ war of April 2016 will appear a minor skirmish compared to what is sure to follow”.

    In 2015, CACI & SRSP released the Silk Road Paper  “A Western Strategy for the South Caucasus”, which included a full page of recommendations for the U.S. and EU on the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict. These are reproduced below:


    Develop a substantial and prolonged Western initiative on the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict.

    o This initiative must be led by the United States, in close consultation with its European partners – primarily the EU Commission and External Action Service, and France. Barring some process to reinvigorate the Minsk Process – a doubtful proposition given Western-Russian relations in the foreseeable future – Western leaders must be prepared to bypass that process, utilizing it where appropriate but focusing their initiative on developing direct negotiations between the Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders.

    o The U.S. and its European partners must abandon the practice of relying solely on the Minsk Group co-chairs to resolve the Karabakh conflict. These diplomats have contributed greatly to formulating a workable framework agreement. However, strong and sustained U.S. Government leadership from the top level is needed to complement or, failing that, to replace the Minsk Process. In practice, this means the expressed support of the President, involvement of the White House, and leadership manifested in the appointment of a distinguished citizen as Special Envoy for the resolution of the conflict.

    o The EU must take a more clearly defined and substantial role in the process, by integrating to the highest degree possible the French co-chairmanship of the Minsk Group with EU institutions. While Washington will need to take the lead on the political side, it would be natural for the EU to take the lead in organizing an international development program for the currently occupied Azerbaijani provinces and Karabakh itself. That effort, too, would need to be led by a senior EU figure.


    In 2011, CACI & SRSP helped launch an extensive study of the steps needed for the post-conflict rehabilitation of Azerbaijan's occupied territories, in cooperation with Eldar Ismailov and Nazim Muzaffarli of the Institute for Strategic Studies of the Caucasus. The monograph "Basic Principles for the Rehabilitation of Azerbaijan's Post-Conflict Territories" can be accessed here


    More background resources:

    Svante E. Cornell, "Can America Stop a Wider War Between Armenia and Azerbaijan?", The National Interest, October 2020

    Brenda Shaffer and Svante E. Cornell, Occupied Elsewhere: Selective Policies on Occupation, Foundation For Defense of Democracies, January 2020. 

    Brenda Shaffer and Svante E. Cornell, "The U.S. Needs to Declare War on Proxies", Foreign Policy, January 27, 2020

    Svante E. Cornell, “The Raucous Caucasus”, American Interest, May 2017

    Svante E. Cornell, Small Nations and Great Powers: A Study of Ethnopolitical Conflict in the Caucasus, RoutledgeCurzon, 2001.

    Svante E. Cornell, The Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict, Uppsala University, 1999

    More recent analysis:

    Turkey Seeks to Counter Russia in the Black Sea-Caucasus Region,” Turkey Analyst, 10/5/20, Emil Avdaliani

    Turkey’s Commitment to Azerbaijan’s Defense Shows the Limits of Ankara’s Tilt to Moscow,” Turkey Analyst, 9/25/20, Turan Suleymanov & Bahruz Babayev

     “Cross-Border Escalation between Armenia and Azerbaijan,” Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 9/25/20, Natalia Konarzewska

    Russia and Turkey: Behind the Armenia-Azerbaijan Clashes?”, Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 8/31/20, Avinoam Idan

    Armenia and the U.S.: Time for New Thinking?”, Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 10/2/19, Eduard Abrahamyan.

    Why Washington Must Re-Engage the CaucasusCentral Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 7/8/19, Stephen Blank

    Azerbaijan’s Defense Industry Reform”, Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 5/7/19, Tamerlan Vahabov.

    Military Procurements on Armenia's and Azerbaijan's Defense Agendas”, Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 3/27/19, Ilgar Gurbanov

    Armenia's New Government Struggles with Domestic and External Opposition,” Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 3/20/19, Armen Grigorian.

    Bolton's Caucasian Tour and Russia's Reaction”, Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 12/17/18, Eduard Abrahamyan.