Kazakhstan, increasingly becomes a key player in global politics: Astana “agreement” for Donbass?

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Kazakhstan has relatively recently entered the limelight of global politics. Not only did it hold the rotational presidency of the UN Security Council in January 2018, but two important events focused the international media’s attention on the largest republic in Central Asia. We are talking first of all about what can be dubbed the “Astana format,” conceived and implemented in 2017, seen as a venue of negotiations on solving the long civil war in Syria.

The Central Asian capital that plays an ever-growing active role in regional and international diplomacy hosted the summits involving the interested parties – Russia, Iran, Turkey, and the domestic Syrian belligerent sides –, in order for them to debate and agree on a peace roadmap.

The second recent event, notable for the growing visibility on the international stage of this vast Central Asian country – whose territorial size is comparable to that of the whole of Western Europe –, was the Kazakh President’s visit to Washington and his meeting with his American counterpart D. Trump, as well as the agreements bilaterally reached on this occasion.

The second event highlighted the South-Asian republic’s importance in the current equation of the competition between the great systemic powers, including through the stances adopted by Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev at the UN, in key contemporary issues such as the non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. In this field, in the post-Cold War era, Kazakhstan took the step of voluntarily giving up the nuclear arsenal on its territory, an arsenal inherited from the USSR.

Kazakhstan, a young country as a distinct unit of the modern system of states but keeper of an old traditional culture, finds itself now at a veritable historical crossroads. South Asia has become a veritable fulcrum for the advance of China’s grand strategy – One Belt, One Road (OBOR) – which undoubtedly aims to build a new international order in Eurasia (at least that is what a series of well-known experts consider). But China’s energetic entry in the vast space of Eurasia is, of course, not good news first of all for the old hegemon of the region – Russia –, but also for other neighbouring states with their own regional agendas (Iran, for instance), or for actors of global clout such as the U.S., soon more consistent in terms of presence, and the European Union. This geopolitical and strategic importance has its exigencies and it demands a policy of balance on the part of the Astana authorities, based on a robust short- and medium-term vision, in order to avoid undesired consequences. At least so far, the country’s political leadership, President N. Nazarbayev, who has ample experience as a leader ever since the Soviet period, has managed to remarkably steer the ship of the state through successive tests and, at the same time, to launch notable initiatives that would make it visible amid the growing systemic uncertainty of our days.

Kazakhstan maintaining this geopolitical balance was not at all an easy mission, considering the extremely harsh regional competition between the great systemic actors. Russia, first of all, dominant in this country up until a generation ago, was not late in claiming a top position in line with the great interests it has here, ranging from those related to space industry to the demographic weight of the Russian-speaking population in Kazakhstan, or the latter’s riches in terms of hydrocarbons or other strategic raw materials. The strategic sites inherited from the Soviet period – such as the Baikonour cosmodrome – hikes Russia’s interest in Kazakhstan even more. China, on the other hand, with the launch of its grand strategy – OBOR – several years ago, has amplified the initiatives to gain access to the millennia-old Silk Road, which mandatorily included dynamic action in Astana.

Similarly, according to its systemic position, the U.S. is interested on one hand in free access toward Afghanistan through the so-called ‘Northern route,’ but also in exploiting Kazakhstan’s huge mineral resources. This competition between the great systemic actors, to which one has to add neighbouring Tehran’s interests in expanding its own theocratic revolution, outlines a complex and contradictory security picture.

Finding this state of regional balance, which Kazakhstan is trying to ensure today, has also meant domestic political options concerning the consolidation of the regime and the structure of the political agenda, so that the common political convulsions generated by the amplification of a robust process of national identity building would be avoided. Starting immediately after the end of the Cold War and the obtaining of state independence, this process is meant to prepare present and future generations to handle a set of threats already shaping up in the long term.

The Astana summits dedicated to solving the civil war in Syria have represented one of these initiatives meant to render visible its own foreign policy characterised by openness, the promotion of dialogue and of the position of support for the solving of resilient international conflicts.

Although some called the summit the expression of Russia and Turkey’s own projects, and others Russia’s attempt to turn to good account for the benefit of the Assad regime the important role that Russia played in maintaining him in power, the truth is that, in the development of the rounds of negotiation, Kazakhstan managed to make its capital visible on the international arena.

The nine summits that have taken place starting in January 2017 in its capital city, with the impeccable position as host country and neutrality toward all the belligerent sides in the bloody Syrian civil war, have undeniably outlined the importance of such negotiations and have brought Kazakhstan into the spotlight .

We must remind that the summits in Astana prevailed over realities that were otherwise difficult to overcome. On one hand, the development in the U.S. of what was dubbed ‘Russiagate’ – namely the investigation into new President Trump’s connections with Moscow/Kremlin during the presidential campaign in 2016 – resulted in extraordinary tension within the American political establishment, yet to be concluded. This domestic American development absorbed the U.S.’s attention away from other dossiers, Washington only recently energetically returning to Syria and resuming its support for the internal belligerents opposed to Turkey’s military actions in northern Syria. The hastening of the end of the Syrian war was an imperative so as to be able to launch the process of reconstruction in this country destroyed to a significant extent, and the return of approximately half of the country’s population, displaced either internally or across the borders. On the other hand, the ‘Geneva format,’ established as a result of the UN decision to decide a roadmap for peace in Syria, was showing signs of fatigue, especially due to the fact that its sponsors – the U.S. and Russia – were experiencing a cold stage in bilateral relations, but also because the regime in Damascus had obtained military victories that put it in control of a significant part of the country’s territory, previously occupied by its opponents. However, observers from both the U.S. and the ‘Geneva format’ took part in the Astana summit, so that its timeliness was appreciated. Gradually, the summits in Astana made the switch toward the conference in Sochi-Russia, which recently took place, not without political mishaps. At present, the U.S. considers that negotiations should return to the ‘format’ decided at the UN, namely the Geneva format.

The important role that the Astana summits had in the evolution of the situation in Syria was surely discussed during the recent visit that President N. Nazarbayev paid to the U.S., where he had direct meetings with D. Trump (16 January 2018). Meetings amply reflected in the international press, matching the importance of the topics debated by the Kazakh President and his American counterpart, topics concerning major international dossiers. But also because more than 20 contracts on investment and trade-economic cooperation totalling $7.5 billion were signed during Nazarbayev’s United States visit.

“During their visit, the two leaders [Nursultan Nazarbayev and Donald Trump] celebrated two separate deals between Boeing and Kazakh airlines totaling over $1.3 billion, sustaining an estimated 7,100 direct and indirect United States jobs”, a White House statement reads.

Astana’s actions in the Middle East (Syrian) dossier which is of great importance for international security but also for the relations between Russia and the U.S., has recently opened the path toward another diplomatic initiative of the same type on the part of Kazakhstan’s capital.

As mentioned, Nursultan Nazarbayev met D. Trump, their talks touching on the possibility that the negotiations on solving the conflict in Eastern Ukraine – taking place until now in Minsk – would resume in Astana. According to the recent statement made by President Nazarbayev, during the talks with President Trump in Washington, after the latter assessed that the Minsk agreements concerning Ukraine (Minsk-1 and Minsk-2, the latter dating from February 2015) have reached their limits and peacekeeping forces should be introduced in the separatist region of Donbass, the two had the following exchange showing common willingness to work on this direction to chose Astana as the new venue: ‘Let’s try another place, not Minsk’.  “Let’s do it Kazakhstan, as it was originally supposed to be…”  

In this context, we must mention that, for Kazakhstan, choosing its capital Astana as the venue for the debate on a solution to the crisis in Donbass-Ukraine would undeniably mark an enhancement of its own international prestige, especially among post-Soviet states.

Will the solution to the crisis in the Donbass evolve as foreseen by Trump and Nazarbayev in Washington? A meeting that the international press reflected through headlines such as “Nazarbayev’s meeting with Trump sets Kazakhstan as key player in region” or “Nazarbayev’s visit to U.S. opens new stage of strategic partnership.”

It is a question that must be answered as soon as possible not just by the diplomacies of the two states involved – Russia and Ukraine – but also by those of the EU and the U.S., to name only two other interested actors. It is a development that must be carefully monitored because it would mean a major event on the international plane, in the relations between Ukraine and Russia, but also between Russia and the EU, between the EU and the U.S., but also between the U.S. and Russia.