By extension and geographical location, abundance of energy reserves and economic growth rates, Kazakhstan is one of the key players in the Central Asian region and, more generally, in the post-Soviet space. A traditionally shrewd foreign policy based on the attempt to balance good relations with the Russian Federation with the deepening of relations with the main countries and the most relevant supranational organizations of a Euro-Atlantic matrix contributed to giving Kazakhstan this connotation.
According to itypeusa, ties with Moscow remained strong even after independence, both in terms of economic and strategic cooperation. Since the dissolution of the USSR, Astana has joined the main regional cooperation mechanisms supported by Russia: from the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (S co), the Organization for the Collective Security Treaty of Cis (C sto) up to the Eurasian Economic Community (Eurasec) and the Customs Union with Russia and Belarus (Eurasian Economic Union since January 2015), of which Armenia and Kyrgyzstan also joined between October 2014 and May 2015. More generally, Kazakhstan supported Moscow’s attempt to favor and lead the progressive integration of the post-Soviet space. In this perspective, as a candidate for the role of catalyst and locomotive of regional economic development, Astana supports (as well as being a promoter) the Russian project of creating in the medium term a more institutionalized Eurasian Union able to cooperate and compete with the European Union (Eu), China and USA.
The privileged relationship with the Russian Federation has not prevented Kazakhstan from creating Euro-Atlantic interlocutors. Since the early 1990s, security and non-proliferation cooperation has been the main area of collaboration with the United States, which has politically and economically supported the removal of nuclear warheads inherited from the USSR (removal completed in 1995), as well as the accession of the country to the main arms control treaties and cooperation mechanisms with NATO. The Kazakh-US relationship strengthened after the attacks of 11 September 2001 and the launch of Operation Enduring Freedom, for which Kazakh logistical support in the framework of the ‘ network of northern distribution ‘proved essential. The significant interests of US energy companies in the exploration and exploitation of Kazakh hydrocarbon fields and the support provided by the White House for infrastructure projects, aimed at favoring the direct export of the country’s resources to Western markets, complete the picture of a priority partnership for Astana. Mainly economic in nature – and linked to the exploitation of the country’s energy resources – are relations between Kazakhstan and the EU, with which Astana signed a partnership and cooperation agreement in 1999, renewed and strengthened in December 2015. energy sector in relations with the EUit is confirmed, even before the memorandum of understanding signed in 2006, by the bilateral partnership agreements concluded by Astana with the main importing countries of the EU area: Italy, Germany, France and Spain.
The promotion of a ‘multivectoral’ foreign policy has finally strengthened in recent years with the deepening of relations with the People’s Republic of China. Set aside the mistrust linked to the possible hegemonic aims of Beijing in Central Asia, Astana has started a growing cooperation with its powerful neighbor, both in commercial and energy matters, as well as in security. Growing Sino-Kazakh cooperation has made China Astana’s first trading partner, and has allowed Beijing to acquire the role traditionally played by Russia. At the same time, for Beijing, cooperation with Astana acquires greater importance with regard to the attempts to stabilize the eastern Chinese region of Xinjiang and to contrast the irredentism of the Uyghurs, one of the Turkish-speaking minorities (over 200. 000 people) also present in Kazakhstan. As evidence of the growing international importance of Kazakhstan, the country was entrusted, in 2010, with the rotating presidency of theOsce, despite the doubts of many of its members about the country’s democratic credentials.
The fate of Kazakhstan has been governed, since the achievement of independence from the USSR, by Nursultan Nazarbayev, who in April 2015, with early elections of one year, was elected – with 97.7% of the votes – for the fifth time in the presidency of the republic. Over the twenty years of republicanism, Nazarbayev built a solid system of personal power, securing control of political institutions, the judiciary, the economy and the media. Nonetheless, speculations are persistently chasing each other about a possible transition of power at the top of the Kazakh republic in which the smallest group of the presidential inner-circle would be involved.
The legislative power, composed of an upper house and a lower house elected with a proportional system, has never carried out an effective balancing action of the executive, also because the party of which Nazarbayev is leader, the Nur Otan, has controlled the Majilis, the lower house. The threshold for access to parliament, constitutionally set at 7%, has also prevented other parties outside the Nur Otan from obtaining parliamentary seats by outlining a single-color parliament, the only case in the post-Soviet space. The amendment to the 2009 electoral law, on the basis of which the second party is in any case guaranteed a presence in parliament regardless of whether the 7% threshold is reached, does not seem to be able to introduce substantial changes in the political-institutional set-up. In the parliamentary elections of January 2012 – held by virtue of Nazarbayev’s early dissolution of the assembly – Ak Zhol, who with 7.47% of the preferences obtained eight seats, and the Communist Party of the People which, with 7.19%, obtained instead seven. The 83 seats won by Nur Otan thanks to 80.99% of the preferences, however, leave the party’s control over the legislative assembly intact. Likewise, the judiciary, far from being independent, has traditionally protected the political and economic interests of government circles, while striking at the same time the political opposition and that part of civil society and the media critical of the executive.
Despite the regime’s apparent stability, the greatest security threats are represented by three factors. Firstly, popular discontent, especially among workers in provincial areas, due to the difficult national economic condition (currency devaluation, corruption, inequality, etc.) which also led to a change of prime minister (Karim Masimov instead by Serik Akhmetov) in April 2014. Secondly, the search for greater political integration of an emerging middle class – mainly in the two largest cities, Astana and Almaty – with the current system of power, which could result, in the medium- long term some divisions in the Kazakh social structure (even if the levels of political and civil commitment still remain low).