What is Kazakhstan’s position on the Russian invasion of Ukraine? – LEGAL EXPERT – Comment

Roza Nurgozhayeva, assistant professor of law at the Graduate School of Business at Nazarbayev University in Kazakhstan, discusses the geopolitical, economic and social impact of the Russian invasion of Ukraine on Kazakhstan and how this affects the ambivalent position from Kazakhstan to Russia…

When Vladimir Putin decided to invade Ukraine in February, the international community responded with “unprecedented” and “severe” sanctions against Russia. Their expansive scale essentially leads to the economic and even political isolation of Russia. The purpose of the sanctions is clear: to punish Putin’s regime for violating international law and to end its military aggression against Ukraine. The scope of the sanctions targets Russia’s central bank and financial system, its major state-owned enterprises, as well as Russian officials and super-rich (oligarchs). The Russian economy was immediately affected. The Russian ruble collapsed. The capitalization of the Russian stock market has reached a historic low. Russia’s credit rating fell to “C”, indicating “a sovereign default is imminent”. International companies have ceased their activities in Russia. A wave of anti-war protests swept the country, with more than two thousand people arrested. Many Russian citizens are fleeing the country which offers neither liberal values ​​nor economic prospects.

The negative impact on Russia’s development is clear and considerable. However, Russia is not alone in facing the serious consequences of Vladimir Putin’s decision. Central Asia and Kazakhstan, in particular, are also suffering the negative effects of anti-Russian sanctions. What does the war in Ukraine mean for Kazakhstan? What is Kazakhstan’s position on the Russian invasion of Ukraine? The answer to these questions has at least three dimensions: geopolitical, economic and social.

Geopolitical neutrality

Central Asia has been a strategic connection point that maintains balance in the region between powerful states like Russia, China, India and Turkey. Central Asian states have been careful not to choose sides in the complex geopolitical game. The image of Central Asia, and in particular of Kazakhstan, as being neutral has aroused various international interests. This neutrality and a multi-vector policy have been seen as an institutional asset that Kazakhstan has used successfully over the years.

Kazakhstan is the second largest economy in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) region and the second largest recipient of foreign direct investment in the region (after Russia). The country is a member of the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), both led by Moscow. The CSTO was instrumental in suppressing mass protests in Kazakhstan in January, which President Tokayev called a coup attempt. After securing help from Moscow, President Tokayev showed a clear intention to maintain close ties with Russia.

Predictably, Kazakhstan’s political leaders have been reserved in their public discourse on Ukraine. It should be mentioned that none of the Central Asian countries supported the General Assembly resolution on Ukraine and imposed sanctions on Russia. President Tokayev did not share his views until early March when he called on “both states to find a common language at the negotiating table” and offered Kazakhstan as a platform for mediation. Later, Kazakhstan’s Foreign Minister Mukhtar Tleuberdi was more explicit when he mentioned that the country was not considering recognizing the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics as independent states.

At the same time, the ambivalent position of the leaders can retaliate and stir up criticism from the EU and its allies. For example, British MP Margaret Hodge questioned whether sanctions against Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan were being considered given their support for Vladimir Putin.

It appears that Kazakhstan’s political leaders are facing a delicate and difficult decision as, in the meantime, the ripple effect of sanctions has put a strain on Kazakhstan’s economy.

Economic dependency

In June 2021, the share of Russia in the total turnover of Kazakhstan amounted to 23.7%. The share of imports reached 40.8% and exports only 12.1%, which means that Kazakhstan is highly dependent on goods from Russia. In 2021, Russia was Kazakhstan’s largest trading partner, with a total trade volume of $24.2 billion. In addition, Russia is largely represented by its companies in the domestic market of Kazakhstan – almost 7.8 thousand Russian companies, as of August 2021. Finally, the main commodity of Kazakhstan – oil – passes through Russian pipelines. These facts clearly show that Kazakhstan is highly integrated into the Russian economy. Therefore, sanctions against Moscow automatically affect Kazakhstan. The collapse of the Russian ruble caused the tenge, the national currency of Kazakhstan, to fall, causing chaos in the domestic foreign exchange market. Kazakh blue chips traded on the London Stock Exchange have lost about 25% to 45% of their value.

On the other hand, some experts believe that the current crisis opens up new opportunities for the country despite serious risks. Russia’s isolation could make Kazakhstan the most attractive and reliable destination for international investors in the region. Yet the strong economic integration of the two states is one of the main reasons why Kazakh authorities have been cautious in expressing their views on the war in Ukraine. However, this approach does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Kazakh society.

national identity

Most Kazakhs are sympathetic to Ukraine. Not so long ago, President Putin said that Kazakhstan’s statehood began with the first President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who “created a state on a territory where there had never been a State” and mentioned that Kazakhstan is still part of the Russian world. Moscow’s political elite echoed the remarks of Putin’s colonial master outraged Kazakh society. The language sounds very similar to what Russian leaders say about the Ukrainian state these days. Russia’s act of expansionism triggers a painful analogy among the people of Kazakhstan who have built their identity as an independent nation for centuries.

More than two thousand people marched in a government-sanctioned anti-war rally in Almaty to show their support for Ukraine. Civil society and businesses in the country have launched national and local humanitarian initiatives. First, the Ukrainian Embassy announced a fundraising campaign, and later various activists united to collect donations and humanitarian aid for the Ukrainian people. On March 11, two trucks carrying 40 tons of goods collected by Kazakhs left the capital of Kazakhstan. At that time, 25 tons of cargo had already been shipped to Ukraine by air, thanks to the efforts of citizens. One of the civil initiatives, El Bolashagy, reported that individuals and organizations had already transferred 150 million tenge to Ukraine on March 4. Amid civil initiatives and public pressure, state authorities finally sent the first official humanitarian aid to Ukraine on March 14.

It may seem that by sending humanitarian aid and approving civil rallies in support of Ukraine, Kazakhstan’s political leaders are responding to growing domestic and international criticism of their ambivalent approach to the Russian invasion. However, the extent to which citizens can voice their opinions could still depend on how Moscow reacts. This week, two activists who spoke out against aggressive attacks by Russian politicians, opposed Kazakhstan’s growing integration with Russia and actively opposed the war in Ukraine, were each sentenced to five years in prison for their “radical” views undermining the order of the state. This court ruling draws a parallel with another example – the detention of a Kazakh activist in 2019 who faced seven years in prison for his opposition to China’s Xinjiang policy towards Muslim and Turkish minorities. Eventually, he was released by the Kazakh court in exchange for ending his activism against the Chinese authorities. These two examples represent an effort to balance relations with the major powers in the region. However, they also appear to be an attempt to restrain dissenting opinions and growing national feelings about the situation in Ukraine.

Today, Kazakhstan’s business community, civil activists and independent experts are increasingly arguing that the country should abandon its integration with Russia, which is dragging the Kazakh economy into a deep and prolonged recession. They call for suspending or even withdrawing the country’s membership in the Moscow-led CSTO and the EAEU, which could become extremely costly for the country’s economic system and international image. If not for public sentiment and political will, the harsh economic consequences of integration and the prospect of extended restrictions in Kazakhstan could jeopardize the leaders’ own political survival, forcing them to abandon their ambivalence traditional.

Roza Nurgozhayeva is Assistant Professor of Law at the Graduate School of Business at Nazarbayev University in Kazakhstan.

Suggested quote: Roza Nurgozhayeva, Where does Kazakhstan stand on the Russian invasion of Ukraine?, JURIST – Academic Commentary, March 22, 2022, https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2022/03/roza-nurgozhayeva-russia- ukraine-invasion-kazakhstan/.


This article was prepared for publication by Raghu Gagneja, Associate Editor of JURIST. Please direct any questions or comments to him at [email protected]


The opinions expressed in JURIST Commentary are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of JURIST’s editors, staff, donors, or the University of Pittsburgh.

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