With Kazakhstan expecting its first recession since 1998, the president has called for early parliamentary elections in the hopes that he can reaffirm the government’s mandate before things deteriorate too much. Kazakhstan is important to keep an eye on because, behind the domestic headlines, the country is fast becoming a battleground for a fight between Russia and China over who will have greater influence in Central Asia. Over the past decade, Kazakhstan has been exporting more and more oil to China, and the countries have also been cooperating rather closely on defense. As The Diplomat explains, China’s growing influence in Kazakhstan poses a threat to Russia:
Kazakhstan’s gradual pivot towards China is also linked to its broader desire to dilute Russia’s monopoly over the provision of its security. Northern Kazakhstan possesses a concentration of ethnic Russians and the 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea, which was partially justified by the need to protect Russian civilians, increased alarm among Kazakh policymakers about the possibility of a Russian military foray into this region.
Kazakhstan’s prominence as an oil supplier for China due to pipeline constructions that commenced in the mid-2000s has increased its profile as a competitor to Russia, which signed a $400 billion energy deal with China to counter Western sanctions. To redress Kazakhstan’s concerns that deepened economic integration with Russia resulting from EEU membership will compromise its sovereignty, Kazakhstan has welcomed China’s military assistance so it can be prepared in the event of a Russian intervention on its soil.
Not only is Kazakhstan looking to diversify its security relationships by reaching out to China, but the country is actually now in direct competition with Russia for oil contracts with Beijing. (Russia passed Saudi Arabia as the top supplier of crude to China last year). Russian President Vladimir Putin wants to keep the old Soviet states close—particularly those with large Russian populations.
As China pursues its One Belt One Road strategy and tries to create land ties that can help it circumvent the U.S.-dominated seas, Beijing will continue to try and strengthen relationships in Central Asia. Weak but resource-rich states like Kazakhstan are the perfect target: they need cash and security, and China needs resources. Moscow doesn’t really have the capabilities to push back.
What’s happening in Kazakhstan is a leading indicator of Russia’s rather dim future: its ambition to play the role of a major power is far bigger than its ability to actually do so. Russia manages to cause trouble by preying on weak states—Syria, Ukraine, Georgia—but it ultimately cannot compete with the great powers. That doesn’t mean Putin will necessarily let Beijing pick off Soviet bloc states without a fight. In the coming years, we may see Central Asia get rather messy.