To the casual observer, Kazakhstan can be a tricky country to get to grips with. In 2010 they scored a major diplomatic coup by becoming the first post-Soviet country to chair the OSCE, where they hosted the stagnant organisation’s first summit in 11 years. While its neighbour Kyrgyzstan descended in chaos, Kazakhstan seemeed an oasis of stability in what is a perilously fragile region. Its economy, fuelled by rising oil prices, also seems to be well on its way to recovery from the asset and property bubble that burst there two years ago.
However, 2010 also saw continued international criticism. Most critics allege that the reign of Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbayev, now over 20 years long, has continued to slide from a stable, business-friendly environment into a whirlpool of nepotism and corruption. Investors have also grumbled about a squeeze on private enterprise while government whispers about renegotiating production sharing agreements (PSAs) with international energy companies has raised concern.
Located in the heart of Central Asia, where it is considered as the de facto regional leader, Kazakhstan has traditionally remained largely outside the attention of Western policy makers. However its considerable energy resources and proximity to Afghanistan have earned it an increasing number of admiring, and sometimes conflicting glances in recent years.
The EU’s attempts to promote the rule of law, good governance and human right in Kazakhstan appear to be languishing, given the latter’s high profile corruption cases, human rights abuses and alleged political murders. Similarly Brussel’s desire to get Kazakhstan and its neighbours involved in the Nabucco pipeline project has produced endless, high-profile declarations without a single block being laid.
At the political level, Brussels and Almaty are currently locked in negotiations over a new Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA) to replace the original one signed in 1997. In addition the EU is keen to upgrade its three-years old Central Asian strategy, of which Kazakhstan is a key component, but which has flattered to deceive.
While the EU has remained timid, China’s cooperation with Kazakhstan has seen new pipelines built at breakneck speed, joint counter-terrorism drills within the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) and a flurry of Chinese aid and assistance. Central Asian scholar Sebatian Peyrouse has commented that the role of China in Kazakhstan, and in Central Asia as a whole, “will partially determine the future of the whole region.” Despite this importance, in its official documents on Kazakhstan, the EU makes little or no mention of the activities of China.
The topic in many ways alludes to a much bigger academic debate that is taking place regarding the EU and China’s involvement in third countries. For many observers the EU is facing a strategic challenge in its external policies as international actors like China create a serous threat to the EU’s ambition to apply external policies that reflect European values. They argue that this reality demands an urgent re-think as to how the EU approaches its external relations
This blog series has five parts and will first look at the current economic and political situation in Kazakhstan before examining the strategies that the EU and China are employing there. It will then seek to explore whether the involvement of China places a threat to the EU’s goals in Kazakhstan, whether the EU can learn anything from China’s approach and whether any potential cooperation opportunities exist between the three parties.