With Kazakhstan’s Rejection of Russia’s Efforts to Politicize EAEU, Multi-Vector Foreign Policy is Alive and Well
Kazakhstan rebuffed Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Pankin’s suggestion to formulate a “consolidated response” to Western-imposed sanctions on Belarus. The Central Asian country’s foreign ministry cautioned Moscow against using the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), an economic bloc consisting of five countries in the post-Soviet space, to advance its geopolitical interests. Deputy Foreign Minister Pankin made his case to Kazakhstan amidst a flurry of international sanctions and rebukes from Western powers over the forced grounding of a passenger airline jet carrying a Belarussian opposition journalist.
On May 23, Belarus drew international ire when authorities forcibly grounded a Ryanair passenger aircraft flying through its airspace after falsely claiming that there was a bomb threat onboard. After the plane, en route to Lithuania from Greece, landed at Minsk International Airport, authorities arrested a passenger, Roman Protasevich, a journalist who had been critical of Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko during mass protests against his reelection last August. The arrest garnered international attention and harsh reprimands from numerous world leaders.
In an effort to support its longstanding ally, Moscow attempted to rally the EAEU to challenge Western-imposed restrictions on Belarus. However, Kazakhstan swiftly rejected the proposal. Nur-Sultan argued that the EAEU should only be used to facilitate trade and remove economic barriers among member states, not to be wielded as a foreign policy weapon. Russia’s eagerness to politicize the EAEU might cause rippling effects among its membership and could discourage others from joining the union.
The Eurasian Economic Union was formally established by treaty in May 2014 and came into force in January 2015. Modeled after the European Union’s multilateral economic bloc, the EAEU’s members are Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Russia. The union was designed to encourage Eurasian integration by facilitating the movement of people, capital, and goods across the region’s borders and by removing economic barriers that inhibit trade and investment. Nevertheless, the political and economic imbalance present within the EAEU suggests that Russia is more easily able to monopolize discourse and cajole the organization’s member states to act within its purview.
Russia dominates EAEU trade markets despite the union providing the same benefits for all member countries. In 2018, trade with Russia accounted for almost 97 percent of all trade within the EAEU. Furthermore, the four smaller countries are highly reliant on trade sponsored by the EAEU. About 35 percent and 20 percent of Kyrgyzstan’s and Kazakhstan’s global trade respectively was through the EAEU, compared to only eight percent of Russia’s global trade. While Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan benefit economically from the perks provided by the EAEU, Russia is more interested in utilizing the union for its political influence.
Kazakhstan has established dependable trade relations with several countries outside of the Caspian region and the EAEU. In 2019, Italy accounted for the largest share of Kazakhstani exports, followed by China, Russia, the Netherlands, and France. Three out of the five countries accounting for the largest shares of Kazakhstani exports are members of the European Union, amounting to over 50 percent of all Kazakhstani foreign trade. In addition, former European Commission Vice President Günther Oettinger announced that it was vital for European private companies to increase investment in Kazakhstan. Kazakhstan’s decision to promptly reject Russian proposals to forge a united front against Western-imposed sanctions safeguards its lucrative trade and investment relationship with the European Union.
Russia should also be cautious to not strongarm Kazakhstan into engaging in its political affairs to avoid warding off potential new members to the EAEU. For example, Uzbekistan has mulled accession to the EAEU since it first expressed interest in the summer of 2019. In December 2020, the most populous Central Asian country gained observer status, but Uzbekistan President Shavkat Mirziyoyev has remained hesitant to obtain full membership. President Mirziyoyev wants concessions from Moscow, including greater trade and investment opportunities between Uzbekistan and the EAEU before fully affiliating with the union. Russia’s attempts to utilize the regional economic union to advance its geopolitical affairs could fuel Uzbekistan’s reluctance to join and jeopardize further expansion of the union.
Kazakhstan’s multi-vector foreign policy works against Russia’s plans to expand its political influence through the EAEU. Kazakhstan wants to avoid being drawn into a geopolitical altercation in Eastern Europe to protect its vested interests with the European Union and the United States. Moreover, Kazakhstan wants to ensure that Russia does not influence its domestic affairs through its involvement in the EAEU. By quickly refusing to participate in an opposition bloc against Western-imposed sanctions, Kazakhstan has made it clear to Russia that it is quite willing to defy Moscow’s hopes to transform the EAEU into a political bloc and that there is a strong desire in Nur-Sultan to maintain its own independent foreign policy.
Photo source: Kaztag