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Kazakhstan to Europe: Let’s be friends

Kazakhstan is pitching itself as the top Eurasian partner for Europe now that Russia has become a pariah state.

Despite having friendly relations with Moscow, the Central Asian country is careful to avoid being seen as purely a Russian ally, and wants to let the West know that it’s open for business.

“Kazakhstan is tied to Russia by millions of human ties and by very strong commercial, economic and political ties,” Deputy Foreign Minister Roman Vassilenko told POLITICO. “At the same time, Kazakhstan has maintained relations with Ukraine.”

Since the war broke out, Kazakhstan has had to delicately balance its relationship with Moscow and Europe, risking the ire of both. 

During a visit to St Petersburg in June, Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev said he would not recognize the two breakaway republics in Ukraine. Then, former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev branded Kazakhstan an “artificial state” — before claiming his social media account was hacked.

Meanwhile, Kazakhstan wants Europe to keep investing in the country and assures that it is scrupulously enforcing Western sanctions, even as it brands itself as a workaround.

The Kazakh commission that tracks sanctions since February “[has] not found any cases of violation by any of the entities in Kazakhstan,” the deputy minister said. “We are very strict.”

The country also says it could supply Europe’s energy needs as it looks for alternatives to Russia.

In July, shortly after Tokayev pledged to European Council President Charles Michel that Kazakhstan would help stabilize European energy markets, Russia temporarily suspended the Caspian Pipeline Consortium’s operations, through which Astana exports the vast majority of its crude oil.

Kazakhstan is now in discussions with Azerbaijan to start exporting some of this crude through alternative pipelines operated by Baku that would circumvent Russia, even if starts with smaller volumes.

“We want to have a diversified, robust, reliable system that uses all opportunities to deliver our oil to the international markets,” said Vassilenko.

The Central Asian country is also looking for an image boost as it considers moving away from its authoritarian model.

The country will change back the name of its capital from Nur-Sultan — after the country’s authoritarian leader, Nursultan Nazarbayev, who stayed in power for nearly three decades — to Astana.

Nazarbayev resigned in 2019 after mass anti-government protests and gave up his position just this year on Kazakhstan’s Security Council, which advises the president on security matters following further protests. Lawmakers are in the process of altering the constitution so that future presidents only serve one term.

“Kazakhstan wants to move along the path of greater democracy,” Vassilenko said. “And it will be important that Kazakhstan’s earnest efforts along these paths are welcomed and supported.”

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