Since the Kremlin announced its “partial” military mobilization on 21 September, Kazakhstan’s government has reaffirmed its distance from Moscow on multiple occasions and issues, highlighting its independent foreign policy. President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev has moved from calculated ambiguity during the initial phase of the war in Ukraine to a decidedly more pro-Western tact, tempered to avoid provoking Moscow.
The Kazakh government has quickly responded to recent Kremlin moves, stating that efforts to annex occupied areas of Ukraine will not be recognized as legitimate and reaffirming that Kazakhstan will not cooperate with military efforts directed against Ukraine, including those associated with the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). Moreover, Akorda claimed that any Kazakh citizen participating in the war in Ukraine would face criminal prosecution. Amid these pronunciations from Astana, Russian parliamentarians and media commentators castigated Tokyaev for “disrespecting” the CSTO that “saved” his administration in January 2022.
Tokayev’s more independent diplomacy has unfolded through several fronts in recent weeks. After months of ambiguity, Tokayev’s administration has suspended the use of the Russian Mir payment systems and its denominated credit cards in Kazakhstan. It has restricted other Russian banking activities, assuring the West that it will abide by sanctions imposed on Russian banks. However, in our view, Kazakhs will continue to engage in dubious financial transactions with Russian firms and figures, an unavoidable outcome, given the high volume of bilateral trade and investment that crosses the two countries’ extensive joint border areas and the consequent difficulty in monitoring such flows. However, we believe that Astana will make an effort to comply with the most sensitive Western sanctions, especially those related to the banking sector and military technology and equipment trade.
The significant numbers of Russian troop deserters flowing into Kazakhstan have also become a prickly issue for Tokayev. Since 21 September, approximately 200,000 Russians have crossed the border into Kazakhstan, with up to a third remaining to obtain permanent residency and employment, while the rest moved on to a third country. Moscow and nationalists within Tokayev’s administration that oppose these flows of Russian immigrants have pressured the president to block them. Conversely, Tokayev has stated that Russian refugees fleeing Moscow’s wartime footing have not created a panic or crisis in Kazakhstan. He has affirmed that his administration will treat Russian immigrants according to the law but also promised to discuss the issue with the Kremlin, as Russians continue to cross the border into Kazakhstan.
On the international front, high-level Kazakh officials have sided with the West against Russia, joining their European counterparts in denouncing Moscow’s war in Ukraine and voting with the majority at the UN General Assembly (UNGA) in September. On the sidelines of UNGA, the Foreign Affairs Ministry participated in discussions with the US through the CS+1 diplomatic forum, which includes the five Central Asian nations of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. During the discussions at the UN, Kazakh officials reported a series of cyberattacks against government agencies. Tokayev implied that Moscow was responsible, pledging to strengthen the nation’s cybersecurity capabilities and fight disinformation.
Meanwhile, a diplomatic scandal erupted between Astana and Moscow last month when Petr Vrublevsky, the Ukrainian ambassador to Kazakhstan, was recorded saying that Russians deserve to be killed for what they have done to his country. Vrublevsky’s remarks sparked animosity from the Russian Foreign Affairs Ministry, with Moscow calling for the Ukrainian ambassador’s immediate exit from Astana. Tokayev’s administration refused to comply, waiting for Ukraine to replace Vrublevsky on its own terms.
Overall, Tokayev’s approach to Moscow has been tempered but increasingly features open rebuke of Russian moves that appear to publicly impinge on Kazakh sovereignty. Astana has gradually escalated its responses to Moscow, offering more nationalistic and pro-Western positions, especially on sanctions compliance and critical issues of interest to the West, such as publicly visible diplomatic independence from Russia, sovereignty to engage with any non-Kremlin led institutions and coalitions and freedom of information related to issues surrounding the Russian invasion and mobilization. Tokayev’s posture invites improved relations with international energy companies but could provoke Russian retaliation. Kazakhstan appears willing to accept the costs of its increasing distance from the Kremlin and unwillingness to become entangled in the war, betting that Russia’s interdependence with Kazakhstan, from the nuclear industry to Astana’s continued participation in the Eurasian Economic Union (UAEU), will curb Moscow’s appetite for strategic retaliation.
personality of the week
Managing Director of Development and Privatization for the Samruk-Kazyna Welfare Fund (SK). Born in 1984, Zhanadil, a rising star, represents the younger generation of technocrats. He pursued a finance and auditing education through several UK, US and Switzerland institutions. Afterward, he worked in mid to senior financial positions at PricewaterhouseCoopers and Phillip Morris Kazakhstan.
In 2014, he joined SK as secretary of the audit committee and was a member of audit committees of various SK subsidiaries. He was appointed as the financial controller of SK in 2016 before becoming the managing director of finance and operations and a member of the fund’s management board. In 2018, he became chairman of the supervisory board of SK Invest, a financial and investment subsidiary of SK, before assuming the position of managing director for investment, privatization and international cooperation in 2021. However, he remained a secondary figure among technocrats overseeing IPO campaigns.
In February 2022, he was appointed as SK’s managing director of development and privatization. Reportedly, he was promoted to his current post by President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev with the support of his protege Bolat Zhamishev, who exercises immense influence over the fund. Consequently, Zhanadil exercises significant authority to define the technical issues related to the privatization of SK assets, including KazMunayGas (KMG) and QazagGaz.
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