Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Kazakhstan in the middle

The West hopes for a stable partner to deny Russia. Yet the Central Asian nation may seek equidistance from all.

Honour guards at Ak Orda Presidential Palace in Astana (Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images)
Honour guards at Ak Orda Presidential Palace in Astana (Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images)
Published 17 Apr 2023   Follow @Junotane

Kazakhstan, a country too often unfairly treated as a punchline rather than a power, is treading a middle road – that of a “middle power”. The Central Asian nation will host a newly-inaugurated Astana International Forum on 8–9 June this year. Its aim is to promote dialogue, in the words of the President of Kazakhstan: a “platform for global middle powers to discuss their views and positions on the issues of today, amplify their voices and to put forward their own solutions to these global challenges”. What this new forum hopes to achieve remains murky, but the prospect is tantalising.

Middle power is a concept with a distinct Australian flavour, and associated with countries such as South Korea and Canada. Kazakhstan hasn’t typically fallen into the grouping. In 2021, Kazakhstan’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) ranked it 42nd in the world. In an international hierarchy, it sits on the outer edge of that broad band of GDP ranking from 10 to 50 that we today call middle powers. States on the outer edge, such as Nigeria and Iran, tend to be neglected by analysts thinking about middle power diplomacy. However, the middle power term did not start with academics. It started with practitioners, and has always been most relevant in this context. Like all middle powers, Kazakhstan’s relevance lies less in how it fits the academic category, and more in how it practices the role.

To “play a middle power role” and to “act in the middle” are distinct.

For many in the West, there’s hope that Kazakhstan is playing a middle power role to which they’re most accustomed – a stable, reliable partner, supporting the US-led international order. They see Kazakhstan reacting to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. They see it becoming increasingly wary of Russia’s designs on the region, and seeking to shake off Russian influence. They point to the decision to cancel Astana’s 9 May 2022 Victory Day celebrations, and the June 2022 refusal to recognise the independence of Russian-occupied Donetsk and Luhansk as evidence of a changing relationship. Some go further. They see Kazakhstan as playing a role akin to Poland at the end of the Warsaw pact – to impact a great power, a middle power does not need to switch sides, it just needs to indicate that the great power no longer has its support. This US-centric view would see the Astana International Forum as a platform to signal Kazakhstan’s desire to “play a middle power role”.

US-centric English-language foreign policy commentary tends to have a healthy dose of hoo-ra triumphalism. Outside of these sources, there’s a more nuanced picture to consider. Ethnic Russians make up around 15 per cent of Kazakhstan’s population and are more concentrated in northern regions. Russia plays an important role in the Kazakh economy and is an important destination for those seeking education and higher paying jobs. These facts are constantly reiterated in the Russian language press.

From this perspective, Kazakhstan is not wary of Russia’s designs nor seeking to shake off Russian influence – it’s merely trying to avoid Western antagonism. For many, the diplomatic objective since the start of the Ukraine conflict has been to maintain relations with Russia, avoid Western sanctions, and build relations with third countries. This “multivector diplomacy” would see the Astana International Forum as a platform to signal Kazakhstan’s desire to “act in the middle” – to maintain equidistant relations between all parties.

To “play a middle power role” and to “act in the middle” are distinct. Their Cold War equivalents would be Australia and Canada versus India and Indonesia. Either way, the current agenda of the Forum suggests the core objective is to attract international attention. The subjects covered in each session of the program are purposefully newsworthy and the hosts are international media personalities rather than subject specialists. Media coverage is currently limited to regional and Kazakh expatriate press, the engagement of international media personalities demonstrates an intention to go further.    

A key indicator to watch will be how other middle power states, such as Australia, Canada and South Korea, as well as other middle powers, such as Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia, react to the Astana International Forum initiative. Their reactions will be important indicators of both the ongoing relevance of the middle power category and the success of the Forum.

The Astana International Forum may signal the desire to play a middle power role or to act in the middle, but one thing is for certain – Kazakhstan is emerging as an important case study to understand modern middle power diplomatic practice.

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