While speaking at the 25th St Petersburg International Economic Forum, Kazakhstan’s President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev spoke out against the Russian Federation’s invasion of Ukraine and the Kremlin’s support for pro-Moscow separatist movements in several former Soviet republics.
Kazakhstan, which has followed a multi-vector foreign policy under Tokayev, has tried to maintain a delicate balance between the West and Russia. Tokayev said his government would not, under any circumstances, recognize Donetsk and Luhansk, the two eastern regions of Ukraine that are mostly under the control of Russia’s occupying armed forces, as independent republics.
“Modern international law is the UN Charter. But, two principles of the UN came into contradiction – the territorial integrity of the state and the right of a nation to self-determination. Since these principles contradict each other, there are different interpretations of them. If the right of nations to self-determination were actually implemented across the globe, then instead of the 193 states that now make up the UN, there would be more than 500 or 600 states on Earth. Naturally, it would be chaos. … In all likelihood, this principle will be applied to quasi-states, which, in our opinion, include Luhansk and Donetsk.” said Tokayev.
He later explained that Kazakhstan could not put itself into a situation whereby it would officially recognize similar breakaway regions, including Taiwan and Kosovo, as well as Georgia’s regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, both of which have been occupied by Russia since the early 1990s.
Russian President Vladimir Putin reportedly asked Kazakhstan to join the Russian occupation forces in Ukraine, but Kazakhstan flatly refused. Prior to the start of the invasion, the Kazakh government refused to recognize Donetsk and Luhansk, known collectively as the Donbass, as independent states and ruled out the possibility of deploying peacekeeping forces, despite Russia’s stern demand that Kazakhstan, a former Soviet republic, follow Moscow’s orders.
Six days after Russia’s full-scale war against Ukraine began on February 24, Tokayev offered to mediate peace talks. Since the start of the war, Tokayev has held conversations with Putin and has urged him to find a peaceful compromise with Ukraine.
While sharing the St. Petersburg stage with Putin at the plenary session on June 17, Tokayev slammed a number of Russian lawmakers, noting that they made “absolutely incorrect statements about Kazakhstan, inaccurate statements from, so to speak, journalists and even artists”. “I am grateful to Vladimir Putin, who today has comprehensively set out the position of the top leadership (in) the Kremlin in relation to Kazakhstan, and other countries, but especially to my country.”
Tokayev’s comments were directed at several prominent members of the Russian Duma and some of the Kremlin’s most-favored journalists. Echoing Putin’s irredentist statements about Ukraine’s internationally-recognized independence, Russian pundits have regularly and openly questioned the validity of Kazakhstan’s own nationhood, including making baseless neo-imperialist territorial claims against the country and spreading false rumors that the government of Kazakhstan discriminates against Russian speakers; the same cliched accusation that Russia’s state-run propaganda levies against any former ex-Soviet state that formulates a policy that differs from Moscow’s.
Kazakhstan is roughly the same size as Europe and is home to close to 19 million people from dozens of different nationalities, nearly 30% of which are not ethnic Kazakhs. Each group and confession enjoys equal rights and Russian is constitutionally a co-official language alongside Kazakh, with the former serving as the lingua franca for much of the country’s population.
In a recent tirade by Kremlin-backed journalist Tigran Keosayan, Kazakhstan was accused of being ungrateful to Russia after it cancelled a May 9 Victory Day parade. Keosayan hinted that the government should “look carefully at what is happening in Ukraine”, which was interpreted as a thinly veiled threat against the Kazakh state. Keosayan, who is the husband of Margarita Simonyan, the sanctioned pro-Kremlin firebrand and chief editor of RT (formerly Russia Today), suggested that Kazakhstan was ungrateful to Russia after Moscow sent troops to the Kazakh capital Nur-Sultan as part of a Collective Security Treaty Organization (CTSO) contingent under efforts to quell violent riots in January.
“In Russia, some people (have) distorted this whole situation, asserting that Russia supposedly ‘saved’ Kazakhstan, and we should now eternally ‘serve and bow down to the feet’ of Russia,” Tokayev commented to Russian news outlet Rossiya 24. “I believe that these are totally unjustified arguments that are far from reality … Indeed, we do not have any issues that can be agitated in one way or another and which sows discord between our peoples and causes damage to our people and to the Russian Federation. I do not really understand these statements. I don’t really understand why these individuals, who in some strange way, comment on the decisions made by the Kazakh leadership or the events taking place in our country,” Tokayev stressed.
He acknowledged that the forum is taking place in a situation of increased political and economic turbulence. “Global shocks associated with the pandemic and increasing geopolitical tensions have led to a new reality. Globalization has been replaced by an era of regionalization, with all its virtues and inherent flaws. The process of reformatting traditional economic models and trade routes is accelerating. The world is changing rapidly. Unfortunately, in most cases, not for the better.”
Immediately after leaving the former Russian imperial capital, Tokayev visited Tehran where he held talks with Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi. The two countries agreed to increase and strengthen mutual trade, and boost economic cooperation in transport, logistics, manufacturing, and agriculture, and expand cultural and humanitarian ties.
Earlier at the St. Petersburg Economic Forum, Tokayev also referred to a state-wide referendum where most of the citizens of Kazakhstan approved the adoption of amendments to the country’s constitution, a move that most observers believe will determine the future of the Central Asian country.
Kazakhstan’s ongoing large-scale political and economic reforms are aimed at revamping the country’s public administration in an effort to push for economic growth and improve the overall well-being of its citizens. Since becoming president in 2019, Tokayev has pushed for sustainable development, as well as deepening Kazakhstan’s trade and economic relations through the opening of new production facilities and promoting the creation of conditions for growth in both human capital and innovations.
Regional cooperation and trade
Tokayev called the strengthening of the potential of the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) an urgent task. “In my opinion, it would be appropriate and useful to work out a new trade strategy within the EAEU taking into account the new reality. Instead of counter-sanctions, which are unlikely to be productive, we should pursue a more active and flexible trade policy with a wide coverage of Asian and Middle Eastern markets,” he said while adding that Kazakhstan has no intention of breaking the Western sanctions that were imposed on Russia over its invasion of Ukraine.
“We cannot violate them, especially because we receive warnings about possible so-called secondary sanctions against our economy from the West if we did violate the sanctions,” Tokayev added. “But I want to stress that we continue working with the Russian government, I would say in an intensified manner, and reach necessary agreements while not violating the sanctions,” he said.
Tokayev also stressed that Kazakhstan will still adhere to its duties as an ally of Russia, including through membership in the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union and the Collective Security Treaty Organization, Moscow’s answer to the European Union and NATO.
Another priority, Tokayev said, was further expansion of trade and economic cooperation with third countries…Therefore, Tokayev did not rule out the prospect that in the coming decade traditionally friendly countries such as China, India, the Middle East, South and Southeast Asia, may become major investors in the economies of the region.
“China has already become Kazakhstan’s main economic and foreign trade partner. This country has already invested over $22 billion in our economy over the past 15 years. Deepening multilateral cooperation with China is an extremely important task for our country.”
Turning to climate change, Tokayev said there are opportunities to expand growth of green investments and to solve environmental problems, according to Qazaq Green Association.
“We plan to consistently expand opportunities for the growth of green investments and implementation of the relevant projects,” he said.
Tokayev noted that environmental problems have a global nature and have affected almost every country in the world, including Kazakhstan. Kazakh farmers suffered from drought last year due to low rainfall and shallow rivers. Tokayev recalled the critical condition of the Ural (Zhaiyk) River basin ecosystem, which traverses Kazakhstan and Russia.
Kazakhstan joined the 2015 Paris Agreement on August 2, 2016, and pledged to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060.
“I believe that such long-term challenges to the sustainable development of our states should be addressed together. I think we should seriously consider the prospects of introducing the principles of a circular economy. We are working on reducing the energy intensity of GDP, expanding the renewable energy sector and reducing transit losses in this sector,” Tokayev added.