One of the less understood – and less explored – areas of the world is Central Asia. Nevertheless, the combined area of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan is comparable to that of the entire EU, while their population stands at around 60 million people – that of Italy alone. The largest country of the region, in terms of landmass (9th largest in the world) and GDP, is Kazakhstan. Ever since EXPO Milano 2015, where the Kazak pavilion was arguably the best one, I’ve been fascinated by this country. I ended up paying a visit to Astana, the fascinating and cryptic capital, which shattered all expectations. From then on my interest for this unexplored part of globe only kept growing.
Since 1918 Central Asia has been part of the Soviet Union, previously part of the Russian Empire under the name of “Russian Turkestan”. However, after the collapse of the USSR, the political landscape of the region drastically changed, and gradually the rise of China became the source of reordering for the region.
Kazakhstan, since its foundation as a sovereign state in 1991 under President Nursultan Nazarbayev, then-leader of the Communist party of Kazakhstan, and once tipped to succeed Gorbachev as president of the Soviet Union, had to balance its relations with a variety of actors. First and foremost, there were the two largest actors in the region, Russia and China, but also a series of additional actors like the US, Turkey, Iran and India, who wanted to play a role. Since then, the country ensured its sovereignty and independence through the diversification of political and economic ties.
As Professor Michael Clarke of the Australian National University explains, Kazakhstan’s approach to foreign policy has been shaped by 4 key factors.
First is geographical location. The country is landlocked and located in the heart of Eurasia. Not only it is landlocked, but the only two non-landlocked countries with which it shares borders are Russia and China. From a structural point of view this meant that if Astana wanted to take part in international trade, it had to develop good relations with its two big neighbours if only for transit purposes.
Second is ethnic demography. From the early 1940s Kazakhstan’s population was predominantly Russian, with Kazaks closely following second. Nowadays, Ethnic Kazakhs constitute around 65% of the population of the country, with ethnic Russians accounting for just above 20% and concentrated in Northern Kazakhstan near the Russian border. This simple statistical fact, albeit to a minor degree than in the past, grants Moscow considerable leverage when dealing with Astana.