War in Ukraine strains ties between Kazakhstan and Russia

Kazakhstan, which shares the world’s longest continuous border with Russia, has long balanced its status as Moscow’s most trusted ally in former Soviet Central Asia with attempts to maintain cordial ties with the West.

But Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, combined with Russian perceptions that the Kremlin secured the Kazakh regime during a political crisis earlier this year, turned this balancing act into a frantic march, according to officials. experts.

The most recent sign of tensions came at an economic forum in Russia’s second city, St. Petersburg, last week, as Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev discussed global politics with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin.

Tokayev reiterated his country’s refusal to recognize what he called “quasi-state” entities in eastern Ukraine, where Moscow has been making progress since its invasion in February.

The Kazakh president also criticized Russian politicians and commentators, whom he accused – without naming names – of sowing “discord” between the two countries by launching public attacks against Kazakhstan.

Arkady Dubnov, a longtime observer of Russia’s relations with Central Asian states, said Tokayev’s comments were “impressive” given he stood before Putin.

“Tokayev is the type of character that we are not used to seeing anymore (in Russia). He did not falter, he looked Putin directly in the eye,” Dubnov said in an interview with the media on Wednesday. Russian Republic.

“What is this ingratitude?

One of the most vocal critics of Kazakhstan’s neutral stance on Ukraine was Margarita Simonyan, editor-in-chief of Russia Today, who moderated the discussion between Putin and Tokayev on June 17.

In February, the Kazakh Foreign Ministry ruled out recognizing the territories Moscow calls the “People’s Republics” of Lugansk and Donetsk. Shortly after, Simonyan asked his social media followers why Russia had “saved” Kazakhstan during a historic crisis earlier this year.

Simonyan’s husband, TV presenter Tigran Keosayan, went further in April, unleashing a tirade against Kazakhstan’s leadership that was so vicious the Foreign Ministry pledged to bar him from the country.

“Watch carefully what is happening in Ukraine,” threatened Keosayan, calling the government “cunning donkeys”.

“What is this ingratitude?

Tokayev appeared to be on shaky ground in January as protests over soaring energy prices swept the country and more than 200 people died in subsequent clashes with the military.

The arrival of troops from a Moscow-led security bloc, the Collective Security Treaty Organization, strengthened Tokayev’s position at the expense of a powerful political clan linked to his long-ruling predecessor, which was considered by some as using the crisis to usurp the president. .

‘A more favorable position?’

In an interview with Russian media earlier this month, Tokayev pushed back against the idea that Kazakhstan had been saved by the intervention.

But Maximilian Hess, a researcher at the US-based Foreign Policy Research Institute, told AFP the Kremlin was unlikely to see it that way.

He said Kazakhstan could already face retaliation.

Since the start of the invasion, a Russian-controlled pipeline carrying both Russian and Kazakh oil – deliveries of which account for more than half of Kazakh crude exports – has experienced two shutdowns.

Hess argued the shutdowns smack of politics, though both sides offered other explanations.

“There are important ties between Russian and Kazakh business elites that Putin can draw on to try to pressure Kazakhstan into adopting a more favorable stance,” Hess added.

But while Russian pressure is to be expected, Kazakhstan “cannot jeopardize its fundamental national interests,” Nargis Kassenova, senior fellow at the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies told AFP. Harvard University.

This includes territorial integrity, “hence the non-recognition of quasi-states,” Kassenova said, as well as avoiding the deep economic isolation Russia has fallen into due to unprecedented Western sanctions.

Dosym Satpayev, a political analyst based in Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city, said Tokayev’s comments on Ukraine at the forum were inevitably aimed at domestic and foreign audiences.

Among Kazakhstan’s diverse population of 19 million, which includes large Russian-speaking and ethnic Russian parts, Moscow’s hyper-aggressive foreign policy has drawn both support and opposition, he said.

Tokayev is also trying to bridge a “legitimacy gap” after questions about his own role in the January violence, Satpayev told AFP.

For his part, the Kazakh leader seemed determined to dampen the hubbub sparked by his comments to Putin during an appearance at another economic forum in Qatar.

Speaking to Bloomberg TV in English on Tuesday, career diplomat Tokayev said Putin was a “stay ally” with whom he had a “very nice meeting” immediately after the St Petersburg event.

Russia news

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