Tokayev Hot after Russia’s energy leverage freezes up

  • Tokayev is coming with a huge diplomatic victory.
  • The Kazakh president is adopting a discrete role, diverting from Russia’s sphere of influence.
  • Tokayev is embracing a pragmatic approach making Kazakhstan an alternative to Russia’s energy share in the EU’s market.
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Why is Tokayev hot?

Answer: Tokayev is bringing home a diplomatic victory by adopting a cautious distant approach towards Russia and becoming an energy hub.

The level of unrest fomented by anti-government protests in January 2022 led Tokayev to rely on Russia to keep his power. The incident marked the first intervention of the Russian-led military alliance of six former Soviet states, the Collective Security Treaty Organization. 2,5000 soldiers were deployed to the country as peacekeepers. This move showed Russia’s strong sphere of influence in Kazakhstan´s internal politics. 

However, since February 24th 2022, the onset of Russia’s war in Ukraine, Kazakh leader Tokayev has said he plans to comply with the international sanctions regime against Russia and has denied a request for its troops to join the Russian offensive in Ukraine. Amid US, EU, UK, Canada and other countries’ sanctions against Russia, Tokayev has been looking for opportunities to reorient trade routes in order to bypass Russia. 

Traditionally, Kazakh cargoes that are headed for Europe pass above ground through Russia. However, on March 22nd 2022, Moscow shut down the pipeline due to a storm. This specific pipeline, the Caspian Pipeline, traverses Kazakhstan via Russia and is vital for the Kazakh economy as it transports two-thirds of Kazakh oil and gas flows. This was the first warning for Tokayev to start diversifying Kazakhstan’s energy routes.

Consequently, in May 2022, Tokayev traveled to Ankara. Recep Tayyip Erdogan supported strengthening the transport and transit partnership as well as using the potential of the Trans-Caspian International Transport Route (Middle Corridor), which would bolster trade. Through this initiative, Chinese goods will reach the EU market in almost half the time they would take through maritime trade routes. 

At the same time, Tokayev will have an important alternative for Kazakhstan’s exports of crude oil and gas, thus making Toyakev a key ally for the EU to effectively forego Russian oil and gas. The Trans-Caspian International Transport Route is an energy and trade corridor that connects China, Central Asia with the Caucasus and then across the Black Sea to southeastern Europe, and bypasses Russia.

Thus, as Moscow is losing influence within the European Union, Tokayev is reducing and diminishing Russia’s sphere of influence by deepening new energy and infrastructure projects to make Kazakhstan an energy hub and alternative for third actors.

What is changing Tokayev’s temperature?

Answer: Russia and EU sanctions against Moscow are helping him to solidify his position.

In early 2022, Russia deployed peacekeeping forces to Kazakhstan amid a series of deadly anti-government protests across the country whereby Russian nationalists called for Kazakhstan to be annexed by its northern neighbor.  This is similar to what Russia did with Crimea and is attempting to do with Ukraine. Twenty percent of Kazakhstan’s total population is Russian, many of whom reside in the northern regions of the country on the border with Russia. There are fears now that if Putin is successful in Ukraine, he may turn his attention to Kazakhstan next. This has raised the warnings for Tokayev.

Consequently, Kazakhstan has increased its defense spending and is seeking closer ties with China and NATO countries amid fears of Moscow’s geopolitical ambitions spreading beyond Ukraine. One example is that in May 2022, Tokayev and his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, agreed to boost bilateral cooperation in manufacturing Anka, Turkish unmanned aerial vehicles, in Kazakhstan.

Additionally, on May 20th 2022, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Kazakhstan, Mukhtar Tileuberdi, met with United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken, where energy was the key topic. Tileuberdi noted that Kazakhstan would continue to strengthen cooperation with the US and thus, reduce Russia’s diplomatic weight for Tokayev.  

Kazakhstan gathers around 3% of the global oil reserves and has a developed gas and coal sector. Figures for the EU as a whole show that Kazakh oil has a market share of 7.5%, making the country the bloc’s fifth-largest supplier in 2019. In late May 2022, European Council members agreed to enact its sixth-package sanctions against Russia, including a complete import ban on all Russian seaborne crude oil by the end of 2022. Tokayev has stated that he will help the EU overcome its energy problems as a result of the imminent EU oil embargo against Russia and the current throttling of Russian gas supplies to Europe.

What is driving Tokayev?

Answer: Tokayev is driven by the goal to reduce Kazakhstan’s dependence on Russia and strengthen Kazakhstan’s ties with other actors.

Since Russia launched its offensive on Ukraine, Western nations have tightened the screws on Moscow through severe sanctions. In consequence, dozens of international companies have abandoned or scaled back their operations in Russia. Kazakhstan has become a pivotal alternative for foreign companies to relocate their businesses from Russia.

For instance, the US-based Honeywell, a manufacturer of electronic systems, opened its first assembly plant for advanced automation and safety equipment in Almaty. Among other foreign companies planning to relocate to Kazakhstan from Russia are WEG, a Brazilian electrical equipment producer or Carlsberg, a Danish brewing company.

Tokayev has bolstered its trade ties with other actors. One example was with Israel. Both countries have focused to deepen their bilateral cooperation in trade, healthcare, and tourism, among Israel’s interest to start importing Kazakh wheat. Another important actor worth reminding is Turkey. In May 2022, Kazakh President Tokayev traveled to Ankara where Recep Tayyip Erdogan supported strengthening the transport and transit partnership. During this meeting Turkish and Kazakh officials signed agreements on simplified customs control and intermodal freight transport.

The energy sector is pivotal for Tokayev. Hydrocarbon output constituted 21% of GDP and about 70% of exports in 2020. Although Kazakhstan gathers around 3% of the global oil reserves and has a developed gas and coal sector, Tokayev is highly economically dependent on Russia, especially with oil exports. 

On July 5th 2022, the Caspian Pipeline Consortium, which takes oil from Kazakhstan to the Black Sea, was ordered by a Russian court to suspend activity for 30 days. The pipeline carries over 80% of Kazakhstan’s total oil.

At the same time, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) is set to invest in the Kazakhstan Railways to develop an alternative corridor from China, crossing Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey into the EU bypassing Russia and elevating trade and energy exports. 

In order to downgrade Russia’s leadership in the Caspian Sea, Tokayev has also boosted its ties with Azerbaijan. On July 4th, 2022, both Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan agreed to expand cooperation in the transit of hydrocarbon fuels and energy efficiency and thus, making Baku a key point to bypass Russia.
At the same time, Tokayev is looking for alternatives throughout all of these examples. It may be clearer in China.

Beijing makes up more than 18% of Kazakh foreign trade. China is a key economic partner for Kazakhstan. Consequently, Tokayev has instructed the government to take measures to increase the capacity of the Atyrau-Kenkiyak and Kenkiyak-Kumkol oil pipelines, which flow toward China.

What does this mean for you?

Answer: Tokayev’s cautious approach shows how Central Asia is diverting from Russia and highlights the relevance of new energy suppliers. 

As previously stated, Kazakhstan has a vastly developed gas and coal sector. Two days after a Russian court ruled to suspend operations on a pipeline that Kazakhstan uses to export the bulk of its oil, Kazakhstan’s president has pleaded for assistance from U.S. companies in developing his country’s energy routes across the Caspian Sea to circumvent Russia. Additionally, Kazakh authorities announced plans to block sanctions, dodging parallel imports to Russia via Kazakhstan’s customs checkpoints, which stopped Moscow’s decision to halt Kazakh oil flows exports via Russia.

On July 4th 2022, in a telephone conversation with EU Council President Charles Michel, Tokayev pledged to make Kazakhstan’s “hydrocarbon potential available in order to stabilize the situation on global and European [energy] markets.” 

Additionally, Kazakhstan’s President Tokayev, Uzbekistan’s President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov, Tajikistan’s Emomali Rahmon and Turkmenistan’s Serdar Berdimuhamedov signed a joint declaration to bolster regional cooperation. 

Within this joint declaration, the principle of territorial integrity and the inviolability of their state borders are key. It signifies that the Central Asian states seek to express their collective stance regarding any potential external incursion. Moreover, the Central Asian leaders emphasized the necessity of diversifying trade routes under the current difficult geopolitical context by highlighting the importance of South Asia. This move comes in an attempt to reduce Russia’s grip in Central Asia and thus, minimize any attempt by Moscow to take any military action in the region. 

During the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine, Tokayev plans to comply with the international sanctions regime against Russia, and Tokayev has denied a request for its troops to join the offensive in Ukraine.  On June 17th, at the plenary session of the 25th Saint Petersburg International Economic Forum, Tokayev openly stated that he would not recognize the Moscow-backed and self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic and Lugansk People’s Republic.

These moves reveal how Kazakhstan, the key actor in Central Asia and a member of the Russia-led Eurasian Union and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), is turning its back on Moscow. In the near future, we could witness whether Russia manages to keep its leading role in Central Asia or if, on the contrary, Moscow’s sphere of influence in post-soviet regions keeps diluting.