Foreign relations

Kazakhstan as an independent state

Kazakhstan was the least eager of all the post-Soviet states to want full independence. Nazarbayev feared that without the supporting framework of the Soviet Union a country as diverse as Kazakhstan might not be able to hold together.

Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan signed a Treaty of Eternal Friendship in 1998.

Nazarbayev campaigned for a time to transform the CIS into an effective "Eurasian Union" of post-Soviet states. While this idea was eventually abandoned, Kazakhstan was actively involved in founding the Union of the Four, the precursor of the Eurasian Economic Community created in 2000 (the founding members being Russia, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan).

In 2007, during a visit to Kyrgyzstan, Nazarbeyev proposed a Central Asian Union (CAU) that would deal primarily with interstate border issues such as trade, visas, tourism and security. Such as organization could compete with the Russian-led Collective Security Organization and the Chinese-led Shanghai Cooperation Council. Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan wanted to create a multilateral-Supreme Council. Uzbekistan President Karimov, reacted negatively to the CAU proposal, perhaps seeing it as Kazakhstan’s effort to compete with Uzbekistan for regional leadership.

Although Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan signed a border agreement in 2008, Kyrgyzstan has had second thoughts and wants to renegotiate it.

Photo: the Presidential Press and Information Office Vladimir Putin, President of Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbayev (centre) and President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko sign the Agreement on the Eurasian Economic Union.May 29, 2014

Russian President Vladimir Putin, President of Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbayev (centre) and President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko sign the Agreement on the Eurasian Economic Union.May 29, 2014 (Russian Presidential Press and Information Office)

Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus established a Customs Union in 2010.  In May 2014, Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus signed a treaty establishing the Eurasian Economic Union, to come into force January 1. 

Kazakhstan security and energy cooperation with Russia

Kazakhstan’s most important security cooperation is with Russia, which is also the country's main trading partner. In 2003, Nazarbayev announced that Kazakhstan would continue to route its oil exports through Russian territory. In 2004, Russia and Kazakhstan agreed to pursue joint exploration and development of Caspian Sea resources. In 2005, they signed a long-term production sharing agreement to develop the Kazakh Kurmangazy oil field, involving $23 billion in investments. In 2006, Russia agreed to provide $160 million to develop infrastructure on the Russia-Kazakhstan border.

Nazarbayev agreed with his Russian and Turkmen counterparts at a summit meeting in Turkmenbashi City in 2007 on a declaration of intent to expand gas transport pipelines along the Caspian coast. (This seemed to exclude participation in the Western-backed Trans-Caspian pipeline that would lead to the Caucasus and the West, bypassing Russia.) Separately, he declared his intent to modernize the Uzbek section of the existing Turkmenistan-Uzbekistan-Kazakhstan gas pipeline leading to Russia.

Russia and Kazakhstan agreed to allow the Russian Federation to lease the Baikonur Cosmodrome from Kazakhstan until 2050. Russia is paying $115 million in rent annually. Rental of Baikonur may come to an end, as Russia is building a new Vostochny Cosmodrome in the Russian Far East. Kazakhstan has blocked three Russian satellite launches because of a dispute over the drop zone for rocket debris. The Kazakh government has requested an additional agreement concerning the drop zone.

Penetration of extremist Islamic organizations into Kazakhstan

Russia, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan share opposition to Islamic extremism. Although a smaller threat to Kazakhstan than to Uzbekistan, extremist Islamist organizations have supposedly penetrated from Uzbekistan into southern Kazakhstan.

In 2004, the Kazakh government announced the arrest of thirteen alleged members (including nine Kazakh citizens) of a terrorist group that had carried out attacks in Uzbekistan earlier that year.

In 2012, a court in Kazakhstan sentenced 47 people to prison terms of up to 15 years on charges of forming a terrorist group, financing extremist activity and organizing a series of attacks. The case concerned a 2011 suicide attack on the southern city of Taraz, where a bomber shot seven people dead before blowing himself up. The other five defendants were linked to attacks in the western oil city of Atyrau.

Kazakhstan-Uzbekistan evolving from conflict to cooperation

Shared interest in fighting terrorism has not prevented tensions between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan over border, water, and other issues. Their relations were especially strained by an incursion of Uzbek forces across the disputed border in 2000. In 2002, a compromise was reached on the border issue. Nevertheless, the two states have continued their rivalry to be the paramount regional superpower in Central Asia.

Kazakhstan Foreign minister Idrissov sought to mediate between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan in March 2013 over their differences over resumption of construction on Tajikistan's Rogun Dam project.


Nazarbayev-Karimov meeting, June 13, 2013 (Press Service of the Presidency of Uzbekistan)

A summit meeting bringing together Presidents Nazarbayev and Karimov in Tashkent in June 2013 appears to have marked a major shift to cooperation between the two states.  Summit outcomes were the signings of a strategic cooperation partnership and other agreements.  A key point of emphasis was on regional water issues, and the implied impact of Russian-supported hydroelectric development and mega-dams in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan on irrigation in their down river states.  The U.S./NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014 would have been another factor in their considerations.


Kazakhstan’s broad relationship with China
Another aspect of its multi-vector foreign policy

During April 2013 visit to China, President Nazarbayev meets with Chairman Xi Jinping (Kazahstan presidency).

Chinese President Hu Jintao and President Nazarbayev signed a strategic partnership agreement in 2005. Continuing visits by the leaders of both countries underlined the continuing expansion and mutual benefit of the relationship.  Trade continues to increase, despite the barriers established by Kazakhstan's Customs Union with Russia and Belarus, doubling in four years to $24 billion in 2012.  China currently accounts for 12% of Kazakhstan's oil exports, and is acquiring more, often in partnership with Kazakhstan's State Oil Company.  China also financed a three-stage oil pipeline to connect the oil fields in western Kazakhstan to northwestern China, which will reach full capacity by 2014. Kazakhstan is likely to seek continuing Chinese investment in its energy sector, while avoiding Chinese control over it.

Another visit by Chinese President Jintao to Kazakhstan in 2011 was to increase their economic and strategic partnerships to new levels.

Border issues have been resolved in the framework of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Nevertheless, Kazakhstan has grievances against China, such as the nuclear testing at the Lop Nor site not far across the border in Xinjiang Province.

Cross-border ethnic ties

Cross-border ethnic ties are a source of potential conflict, as well as a possible basis for security cooperation. A million Kazakhs live in Xinjiang, while 200,000 Uighurs live in eastern Kazakhstan. In order to placate China, Kazakhstan remains silent about the treatment of ethnic kin in Xinjiang, and does not allow Uighurs in Kazakhstan to assist the separatist movement of Uighurs in Xinjiang. The two governments also have a common interest in containing Islamic extremist Uighurs associated with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan reportedly coming from Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Kazakhstan and the West

Kazakhstan's relations with the West got off to a good start. Unlike Ukraine, Kazakhstan agreed early on to give up the Soviet nuclear weapons on its territory. Kazakhstan and the West shared the strategic goals of reducing the country's dependence on Russia and warding off the threat of Islamic extremism.

Exploitation of Kazakhstan's oil wealth required cooperation with Western oil companies. Both sides have benefited; the EU takes 72% of Kazakhstan's oil exports.   But there have been problems in the relationship. Western concern about the human rights situation in Kazakhstan has irritated the Nazarbayev government.

There have also been disputes between Kazakhstan’s government and Western companies managing local enterprises and utilities, stemming from disappointment with the performance of these companies and their lack of investment in Kazakhstan. Companies are now required to rely on local products, labor, and contractors.

Since 9/11, Kazakhstan has increased its military ties with NATO and the U.S. In 2004, Kazakhstan contracted with a British firm to upgrade its air defenses. Kazakhstan sent a small contingent of troops to Iraq. In 2006, Kazakhstan concluded an Individual Partnership Action Plan with NATO. Kazakhstan also designated an air assault battalion for potential deployment in NATO-led peace support operations, under UN Security Council mandates. Battalion elements have participated in NATO live fire exercises. One of the major PfP projects is the expansion of this force into a brigade structure (KAZBRIG), giving Kazakhstan the capability to sustain a battalion-size peacekeeping contribution through rotation.

After Kyrgyzstan announced in 2009 that it planned to end U.S. use of Manas airbase, Kazakhstan concluded an agreement with the U.S. on the shipment of nonmilitary supplies by rail from Russia through its territory to Afghanistan.

While concerns about corruption and lack of democracy—as well as Nazarbayev’s own fear of foreign destabilization—have continued to put a strain on U.S.-Kazakh relations, the cancelation of the U.S.-Uzbek strategic partnership led to the strengthening of the U.S.-Kazakh relationship. In 2006, Nazarbayev visited the U.S, where President Bush balanced hopes for future cooperation, while lightly stressing the desire for democratic reforms.  The two presidents agreed to hold annual political consultations (which have taken place since 2010) and meetings of a Strategic Partnership Commission in the form of parallel working groups (held since 2012). 

Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbayev (R) shakes hands with Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron during a meeting in Astana, Kazakhstan, July 1, 2013.

Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbayev shakes hands with Britain's Prime Minister Cameron during a meeting in Astana, July 1, 2013 (VOA).

British Prime Minister Cameron concluded a similar strategic partnership agreement in June 2013, which focused on energy, trade, investment, and regional security.  He also signed $1 billion in trade deals during the visit.

Nazarbayev has never let his interest in good relations with the U.S. and the West damage the cordial relations between Kazakhstan and Russia.

Manages good ties with Iran and Israel

Kazakhstan has been able to manage productive relationships with both Tehran and Jerusalem.  

Trade between Kazakhstan and Iran is currently at $2 billion a year.  Iran imports refined oil products, grain and metals, and Kazakhstan imports food products.  Given its role in nuclear demilitarization, Al Maty was pleased to host two rounds of talks in 2013 between the P5+1 and Iran on its nuclear program.

Israeli President visited Kazakhstan in 2009, and several times previously as foreign minister.  Israel has economic and military cooperation dimensions to the relationship.

Kazakhstan and Afghanistan

Kazakhstan has expanded its security and economic cooperation with Afghanistan.    Even without a common border, Kazakhstan is concerned by the probable spill over of instability from Afghanistan.  Kazakhstan has provided direct aid, training for Afghan internal security and other government personnel, scholarships for students; and funding for infrastructure projects such as the Kunduz-Talukan road.

A workshop was organized by the OSCE Centre in Almaty to train repatriated women on leadership and business skills and to raise their awareness on human rights, Turgen, Almaty, 15 September 2004.

A workshop was organized by the OSCE Centre in Almaty to train repatriated women on leadership and business skills and to raise their awareness on human rights, Turgen, Almaty, 15 September 2004. (OSCE/Gulnara Yessirgepova)

An OSCE Centre was opened in Almaty in 1999 to promote OSCE principles and commitments, and greater regional cooperation. 

Heads of State and Government listen to proceedings during the first day of the OSCE Summit in Astana, 1 December 2010.

Heads of State and Government listen to proceedings during the first day of the OSCE Summit in Astana, 1 December 2010.(OSCE/Vladimir Trofimchuk)

Kazakhstan became OSCE chair in 2010, culminating a long campaign started four years earlier. Kazakhstan eventually won over countries like the U.S. that had advocated delay because of Kazakhstan’s poor observation of OSCE commitments. The U.S. decided to give its support after Kazakhstan pledged to reform its election law, handling of the media, and treatment of political parties, as well as safeguard ODIHR, the OSCE election monitoring body. The Kazakh government had in the past supported Russian efforts to weaken ODIHR’s monitoring mandate.

OSCE CiO visits in 2013

OSCE Chairs-in-Office traditionally make at least one swing through central Asia every year.  Ukrainian Foreign Minister and CiO Kozhara visited the five countries of central Asia in October 2013, meeting with presidents, ministers, parliamentarians, civil society, and OSCE field missions.  Kozhara focused on regional security and OSCE engagement with central Asia.

Kazakhstan to take part in UN peacekeeping

Kazakhstan decided in December 2013 to deploy for the first time 20 officers to UN peacekeeping missions in Haiti, western Sahara, Ivory Coast and Liberia.