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what a tokayev presidency means for the united states in eurasia’s heartland

What a Tokayev Presidency Means for the United States in Eurasia’s Heartland

Author:Jacob Levitan

Jun 10, 2019


The election of Kassym-Jomart Tokayev as President of Kazakhstan provides the United States a perfect opportunity to ensure the independence of Kazakhstan from Russia and China. While Russia and China currently have an advantage over the United States in the region, their policies have resulted in regional resentment that the United States can take advantage of. The United States could find a valuable ally in Kazakhstan if it clarifies its strategy on Kazakhstan and Central Asia.

Kassym-Jomart Tokayev’s ascension to the presidency of Kazakhstan signals the maintenance of the status quo in Kazakhstan’s domestic and foreign policy, though with a twist. Former President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who stepped down on March 19, 2019, led Kazakhstan since 1989 and remains head of the dominant Nur Otan Party; he continues to play a significant role in politics as the Chairman of the recently empowered Security Council — a title given to him for life. Illustrating Nazarbayev’s continued relevance, Kazakh President Tokayev pledged to maintain the previous President’s policies, saying that to continue them is a “sacred duty” and that Nazarbayev continues to be Kazakhstan’s lodestar. The United States should be happy about this pledge, because Nazarbayev’s multi-vector foreign policys benefits U.S. involvement in Kazakhstan and Central Asia.

Despite President Tokayev’s election win on June 9, strategy remains largely the same as it did in previous days. Nazarbayev pursued a multi-vector foreign policy since the country’s creation; he sought to balance Kazakhstan in a region located in the heart of Eurasia, which is coveted and surrounded by powerful countries. To the credit of Kazakhstan’s first president, he took advantage of this situation to develop the nation. Still, Nazarbayev’s choice of successor provides an insight on his policy priorities.

About the President Tokayev

A graduate of the 1975 class of the premier Soviet (and Russian) diplomatic school Moscow State Institute of International Relations, the multi-lingual (English, Mandarin, Russian, and Kazakh) President Tokayev pursued an impressive career in diplomacy. As President Nazarbayev noted in his March 19 address, Tokayev was Minister of Foreign Affairs during the early years of Kazakhstan, and was Deputy Prime Minister and Prime Minister of Kazakhstan before becoming the Chairperson of the Senate. In addition to this, he was Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations. With this foreign policy portfolio, President Tokayev’s succession is a message to the world that Kazakhstan remains committed to multi-vector diplomacy, to international investment, and is preparing to take a larger role in regional affairs. President Tokayev has based his election platform on continuing Nazarbayev’s policies. He looks to develop the country, improve employment opportunities, and maintain ethnic harmony — all which mark a priority for a highly diverse country like Kazakhstan where 130 different nationalities reside. President Tokayev also prioritizes foreign policy, and aims to continue the development of relations with key countries. This foreign policy is practically tailored to provide the United States an opportunity to rapidly make up lost ground against Russia and China in Kazakhstan, if it chooses to seize this opportunity.

With this foreign policy portfolio, President Tokayev’s succession is a message to the world that Kazakhstan remains committed to multi-vector diplomacy, to international investment, and is preparing to take a larger role in regional affairs.

President Tokayev has begun to differentiate himself from Nazarbayev by establishing a social media presence. He has held a Twitter account since 2011, and an Instagram presence that was set up in April 2019. In 2016, President Tokayev wrote an analytical piece for the Astana Times where he gave his opinion that the world is becoming increasingly nationalist along Huntington’s Clash-of-Civilizations model. Additionally, President Tokayev has deviated from Nazarbayev’s policies, such as no longer blocking Internet access in the evenings, and recommending the suspension of the construction of a ski resort in the Kok Zhailau national park. However, his most substantial (though by no means large) divergence from Nazarbayev’s policy is towards China.

Kazakhstan's Shifting China Policy

Kazakhstan has been careful not to poke the dragon, as it greatly relies on China for infrastructure-development investment through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). To this end, Kazakhstan amended a land-ownership law in 2016 that would allow foreign nationals (Chinese farmers) to rent Kazakh land for 25 years, instead of 10. This provoked public outrage, though the government was careful to distance itself from Sinophobic sentiments. This has also been the case with regards to Chinese repression of Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang (primarily Uyghur, but also Kazakh and Kyrgyz).

But as China’s repression in Xinjiang has continued, so has Kazakhstani Kazakhs’ anger grown. Now, Kazakhstan is starting to take small steps on the Xinjiang issue — at least as it pertains to ethnic Kazakhs. One recent example of this was in the treatment of Sayragul Sauytbay, an ethnic Kazakh who fled China and blew the whistle on the camps in Xinjiang. Defying Beijing, the Kazakh court did not extradite her to China. While Ms. Sauytbay was denied asylum in Kazakhstan, she was permitted to leave for Sweden with her family. Although China will remain an indispensable partner, Tokayev’s administration will likely begin to develop stronger partnerships with countries in the fluid and geo-strategically vital region of Central Asia.

Kazakh-Chinese Economic Cooperation

Economic cooperation has been championed by Kazakhstan and China, with Xi Jinping’s 2013 announcement in Nur-Sultan (Astana at the time) that Kazakhstan would serve as the first country in the “belt” of its BRI. Currently, China is funding 125 infrastructure projects in Kazakhstan as part of the initiative. This investment works in tandem with Kazakhstan’s own Nurly Zhol (Bright Path) program, unveiled by President Nazarbayev in 2014 and designed to connect the European and Chinese markets through infrastructure.

However, resentment has grown in Kazakhstan as the perception of China soured in the last few years. Contempt developed in 2016 over Chinese farmers working on Kazakhstan’s land. These feelings derived from resentment dating back to 1999 when Kazakhstan ceded 252 square miles of territory to China as part of negotiations to enter the Shanghai Five, the precursor to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. When news came in 2016 that Chinese foreigners could rent land for 25 years, Sinophobic sentiment flared; with the examples of the Pakistani port of Gwadar and the Sri Lankan port of Hambantota being ceded to China as victims of BRI-related debt traps, wariness of Chinese money and workers has only grown. The current situation in Xinjiang, where China is reported to repress the Uyghur population, ethnic Kazakhs, and ethnic Kyrgyz, has impeded development of Chinese soft power in Kazakhstan.

Kazakh-Russian Economic and Military Cooperation

While China and Kazakhstan continue to develop the BRI and Nurly Zhol projects, Russia continues to integrate Kazakhstan into a common political, security, and economic framework guided by Moscow. Russia pursues this policy primarily through the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) and the Commonwealth Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), both of which Kazakhstan has joined. Russia still possesses the soft-power advantage over China — even as it focuses on developing its hard power in Kazakhstan and Central Asia. Kazakh youths still prefer Russian universities and cities for study and work, as opposed to China. Thus, while China focuses on promoting its soft power in Kazakhstan through infrastructure development and state-to-state relations, its soft power lags behind Russia’s people-to-people approach.

Russia’s EEU (primarily driven by Russia’s economy) has allowed it to economically integrate some of the post-Soviet space. However, given the vast disparities between the economies of China and Russia (in China’s favor), the EEU is unable to compete alone against China. Still, the EEU provides investment in its member countries, has created a common market, and established non-tariff barriers. On the other hand, it precludes certain agreements for member states by preventing visa-free programs and free trade with other blocs such as the EU.

In addition to economic integration, Russia is gathering the post-Soviet space into military cooperation via the CSTO. This organization, like the SCO, is arranged to deal with terrorism as well as internal disputes. However, it goes beyond the SCO in that it also regulates the military systems in the region under Moscow’s direction, with member states being able to send their officers to Russian military academies, as well as obtain Russian weapons at the same discount prices afforded to Russia’s own army. However, the CSTO has yet to prove its efficacy on the ground; when Kyrgyzstan asked for help in 2010, Moscow did not respond.

Yet Russia does face issues. China has this year established its own military presence in Tajikistan in order to safeguard its investments in the region, providing a security alternative to the Russian bear. Meanwhile, Russia’s economic isolation is hurting its projection capacity in Central Asia, having recently been unable to pay its Tajik staff at the 201st Motorized Rifle Division Base in Tajikistan (Russia’s largest foreign military base). Russia also shoots itself in the foot with its irredentist rhetoric.

United States’ Kazakhstan Policy

It is striking to note that in a European Parliament 2019 policy brief, the major non-indigenous actors in Central Asia are perceived to be Russia, China, and the EU — with the United States being conspicuously absent from EU strategy considerations in the region. And this is not without cause. The United States has only proceeded to involve itself in Kazakhstan in what appears to be an as-needed fashion. For the United States, Afghanistan has often been the all-consuming issue in Central Asia; everything else being secondary. Without a stable Afghanistan, there can be no stable Central Asia. However, this concept has led the United States to treat Kazakhstan as a logistics transit point for Afghanistan operations, instead of treating Kazakhstan with the importance its size, economy, population, and location deserves.

The situation of U.S. policy towards Kazakhstan and Central Asia is revealed by the few organizations in which the United States participates: the C5+1 (Central Asian states and the United States) and the U.S.-Central Asia Trade and Investment Framework Agreement Council (TIFA). In addition to this, the State Department still has no Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs, with the Bureau currently headed by the soon-to-depart Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Alice G. Wells. With the Trump administration looking to continue a draw down in Afghanistan — the prime mover of U.S. policy in Kazakhstan and Central Asia — U.S. influence will correspondingly fall.

The U.S. commitments to Kazakhstan are a far cry from Russia’s Eurasian Union (EAU), the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), the Sino-Russo Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), or even the EU’s Erasmus+ program. It is no question that China and Russia are the dominant actors in the region. However, given the policies of Nazarbayev that aimed to maintain Kazakhstan’s sovereignty through diversified ties, and the election of veteran diplomat Tokayev as President, the door to Kazakhstan could not be wider for the United States.


Russia and China will remain major factors in President Tokayev’s foreign policy considerations. With Kazakhstan’s large ethnic Russian population in the north, Kazakhstan is in Russian President Putin’s russky mir, or “Russian world,” and thus vulnerable to manipulation due to close military and economic ties. China’s BRI development projects in the Central Asian country merit it as a close partner for the foreseeable future. Yet the United States can enter the region on a similarly strong footing. According to a survey conducted by Harvard Kennedy School graduate Shyngys Mukan in mid-2018, only 3.19 per cent of Kazakhs want foreign direct investment (FDI) to come from China, and only 6.38 per cent want it to come from Russia. Meanwhile, a staggering 51.06 per cent wish for FDI to come from the United States, followed by another 39.3 per cent who wish for it to come from the EU. The reasoning for this is that Russia and China are perceived as using their security and economic “gifts” as methods to chip away at Kazakhstan’s sovereignty. The United States and the EU are, conversely, unencumbered by this suspicion.

President Tokayev has taken on a multi-faceted foreign policy approach from his predecessor; and is exactly the type of diplomat this kind of policy requires. He has shown himself capable of reaching out to the people and youth of Kazakhstan. While ties with Russia will remain close, its aggressive revisionism will wear thin with Kazakhstan. President Nazarbayev has publicly opened the door to the United States by selecting Kassym-Jomart Tokayev as Kazakhstan’s new president.


The United States will retain its position as the top global economy and preeminent military power for some years yet. But what the United States lacks is a focused strategy towards Kazakhstan and Central Asia, which is where Russia, China, and even the EU outperform the United States. A first step towards rectifying this would be to nominate and confirm an Assistant Secretary to the State Department’s Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs. The United States should also follow on the establishment of the Congressional Uzbek Caucus — established in 2018 — with the creation of a Congressional Kazakh Caucus, as well as a Congressional Caucus for the other Central Asian states and Central Asia in general. The United States should also actively encourage more U.S. companies to invest in Kazakhstan, as well as expand U.S. cooperation with Kazakhstan in counter-terrorism operations. The United States has the means to compete against Russia and China to provide Kazakhstan with security, as well as economic development. President Tokayev and Kazakhstan’s people have invited us in. All we need is the will to develop a forward-leaning policy to do so.

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