Kazakhstan has usually been a willing powerbroker in distant conflicts as it pursues its cherished multi-vector foreign policy. But it has found itself in an awkward position as its former colonial masters and “strategic” partners in Moscow and its “fraternal” cousins in Ankara try to make it take sides in their standoff following the downing of a Russian jetfighter by Turkish armed forces in November.
It is precisely its multi-vector policy, whereby Kazakhstan maintains staunchly equidistant relations between foreign powers (albeit occasionally siding with Russia to rap its Western partners), which allowed President Nursultan Nazarbayev to speak to the leaders of now archenemies Turkey and Russia within days.
On February 6, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu courted Nazarbayev in Astana in an attempt to secure his country’s economic interests in the increasingly hostile atmosphere between Turkey and Russia, Kazakhstan’s partner in the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) and its largest trading partner. Relations between the two countries are developing “intensively” in all spheres such as transport, energy and trade, Davutoglu said following his meeting with Nazarbayev. Turkey is Kazakhstan’s gates to Europe, while Kazakhstan for Turkey is a path to Eurasia, the Turkish prime minister noted.
“We should find solutions to the current situation,” Nazarbayev riposted. “The crisis in relations between Turkey and Russia has also become a great problem for us as both countries are our important allies and partners.”
As if reassuring Moscow of Astana’s loyalty, on February 8 Nazarbayev called Russian President Vladimir Putin to report on his discussions with Davutoglu, the presidential press service said the same day. “Putin reiterated that the complications had been created by the Turkish side which is why steps for normalisation should be undertaken by Turkey,” the press service said.
Nazarbayev showed self-restraint in taking sides this time around: a week after Turkey downed the Russian jetfighter the Kazakh leader delivered a state-of-the-nation address in which he openly sided with the Kremlin, embarrassing his diplomats who had walked a tightrope in the immediate aftermath of the incident.
“We are very much upset by the event that happened between Russia and Turkey. We don’t know all details of this issue yet but the fact is that the Russian jetfighter didn’t attack Turkey. It didn’t go to Turkey but went to fight terrorists,” the Kazakh president said. “As friends and partners in the fight [against terrorism], they [Turkey] should have found a common language and not spoil relations that have been built for many years.”
The day after the incident Kazakhstan’s Foreign Ministry said the incident was “regrettable” and expressed concern that it could affect the campaign to fight the Islamic State rebels. “We call upon the Russian and the Turkish sides to show restraint in reacting to this tragic incident and to use all possible measures and channels to de-escalate the situation,” the ministry said.
Nazarbayev is no stranger to diplomatic faux pas that contradict his Foreign Ministry’s delicate neutral stance on conflicts involving Russia. In early March 2014 following Russia’s annexation of the Ukrainian region of Crimea, the ministry urged Russia and Ukraine to “renounce options that imply the use of power and make maximum political efforts to resolve the current crisis by means of negotiations”. “The resolution of the crisis should be based on respect towards the fundamental principles of international law,” the ministry said in a diplomatically neutral manner.
However, less than two weeks later Nazarbayev sided with Moscow, showing “understanding” for Russia’s position ahead of the Crimean referendum on March 16 and later hailed the referendum as a “free expression of will” of the population of Crimea under “the existing circumstances”.
Such behaviour, however, doesn’t seem to hurt Nazarbayev’s “multi-vector” credentials. The Kazakh president’s sudden visit to Kyiv in December 2014 was seen as a slap in Putin’s face as Nazarbayev rushed to show support to Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko after the Kremlin foiled plans to hold talks between pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine and Kyiv. And Nazarbayev received a triumphant Poroshenko in Astana a week after the ceasefire achieved as a result of talks in Paris at the beginning of October 2015.
For Kazakhstan the Turkish prime minister’s visit at the height of the conflict between Turkey and Russia serves as a demonstration of the country’s independence, both political and economic, from Russia. Whatever happens Astana and Ankara have to find ways of continuing to trade in the face of Russian economic sanctions against Turkey, which can any time prevent the transit of Turkish goods to Kazakhstan via Russia.