Think Tank
Pandemic of Change: Between Geopolitics and Society. A View From Kazakhstan

In order for Kazakhstan and Russia to respond successfully to the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic and international turbulence, its essential that they build and maintain a platform for an interactive dialogue with their respective citizens and attend to their needs. All this will become a strategic necessity, writes Iskander Akylbaev, Executive Director of the Kazakhstan Council on Foreign Relations.

Since the beginning of 2020, a perfect storm has struck international relations. The ongoing crisis in the Middle East, the friction around OPEC and the sharp drop in oil prices, the aggravation of relations between the US and China, the growing dilemma of arms control  all these processes are taking place against the backdrop of the global COVID-19 pandemic. The coronavirus outbreak led certain states and then the world community to self-isolate, reinforcing our awareness of the power of the digital dimension of human interaction, and the necessity of structural reform in public administration. For the first time, international relations and diplomacy couldn’t operate in their usual mode, with handshakes. Summits like G-20 and G-7 are being held online, which can leave a feeling of understatement and incomprehensibility during negotiations, creating “translation difficulties” for political leaders. The so-called “Zoomplomacy” has its limitations.

For Kazakhstan, Russia and Eurasia as a whole, the on-going international and domestic processes are a test of strength. The uncertainty that arose with the spread of COVID-19 has not transported countries to a qualitatively different reality, but may provide an impetus to revise the established rules of the game. Against this background, the further development of integration within the EAEU, participation in the Belt and Road initiative, the SCO and other supranational projects necessitates even more thorough study and close interaction, even despite being in an online format. In this context, the growing long-term confrontation between China and the United States will create new trends and indirect tension in the region. Whereas the “Afghan factor” and continued turbulence will remain in the focus of attention of regional players. In this context, for Moscow and Nur-Sultan, the ability to adapt and manage changes at the foreign policy level is strategically necessary.

Consequently, a further alignment of forces and changes in relations between Washington and Beijing will be a cornerstone of the international balance of power. On May 20, the White House officially published a report titled “The United States’ Strategic Approach to the People’s Republic of China,” positioning Beijing as a long-term threat. It is noteworthy that this document was published on the day of the annual session of China’s highest advisory body – the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) and on the eve of the annual session of the National People’s Congress of the People's Republic of China (NPC) – the highest legislative body of China. Sessions were held on May 21-22, 2020 and determined the further vector of Chinese domestic and foreign policy, where policy towards Washington will play an important role. It is important to note that recent minor skirmishes on the border between China and India, the adoption of the new PRC bill to protect Hong Kong’s national security, and US sanctions on 33 Chinese companies related to the situation in Xinjiang demonstrate the tension in bilateral relations.

The role of Russia will also be important, namely, regarding the further actions of Moscow in the event of a growing deterioration in relations between Beijing and Washington. It may be the position of “neutral force,” ideologically supporting China. Most experts and China-watchers have reached an understanding that Beijing does not seek allies or alliances, preferring partnership. However, the recent attacks and statements by the Trump Administration regarding arms control signal a desire to integrate China into the new military security architecture.



It is important to emphasise that despite COVID-19, the recession in the global economy and the general problems brought about by the pandemic, international politics has entered into a very important negotiation process. The main theme is arms control, where the key actors are Russia, the USA and China, as on February 5, 2021, the Russian-American Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) expires. This agreement provides for the reduction of nuclear warheads to 1,550 units, and limits intercontinental ballistic missiles and ballistic missiles carried by submarines and heavy bombers to 700 units.

At the beginning of May 2020, Marshall Billingsley, Special Representative of the US President for Arms Control, announced that China must also be connected to the extension or signing of the new START Treaty. In turn, Beijing replied that it did not intend to participate in trilateral negotiations on nuclear arms control. Like any experienced negotiator, President Trump purposefully raised the stakes as high as possible by offering new terms for the deal, trying to put his partner in an uncomfortable position under pressure. I’m not too sure that China can be included in the negotiations in this way. However, the US desire to fit China into a system of military control, in addition to imposing trade wars and the high-tech rivalry, suggests that a very difficult geopolitical period awaits the countries of Eurasia.

In turn, Kazakhstan is entering a stage of a new political and socio-economic transformation. The indicated modernisation agenda actualises the need for a constructive rethinking of the country’s foreign policy, and a consolidation of narratives. In this context, the new Concept of Kazakhstan’s foreign policy for 2020-2030 should be a reflection of “proactive multivectorness”, indicating a new stage in the interaction of Kazakhstan with key strategic partners and the international community as a whole.

One of them may be the concept of “inclusive security – comprehensive responsibility in Eurasia.” It should be noted that traditionally regional security issues were viewed through the prism of the “great powers” (China, Russia, the USA), where key regional players took responsibility for the sphere of military-political security. This approach in many ways limits the space for the countries of Central Asia to manoeuvre politically, predetermining their objective niche rather than making them the subject of international relations. The best option is to build an “inclusive security”, where all the countries of the Eurasian space will be included in the process of developing common security measures and visions.

Speaking of new trends, the coronavirus pandemic has forced the world community and individual states to become convinced of the power of the digital dimension of human interaction. The constant introduction of technological changes has seriously affected both the structure of international relations, where the USA and China are competing in the implementation of 5G telephony, and set a precedent for the technological race. So, according to the forecasts of the Alibaba Group, China should become a world leader in the field of AI (artificial intelligence) by 2050, having overtaken the United States. More recently, Sberbank chief German Gref said that the era of programmers has ended, pointing to the dawn of “Artificial Intelligence” and “big data”. In this context, the fear of staying on the side-lines of global trends has compelled countries and societies adapt to new realities. Against this background, Kazakhstan and Russia should author their own digital agenda, including the diversification of the economy, trade relations, social changes, as well as security issues.

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Expert Opinions



Foreign policy and diplomacy in the traditional sense are being transformed. Facebook and Twitter have already become new tools for interaction and political life. However, despite widespread uncertainty, many states are intrigued by the opportunity to look into the future. Drones are no longer considered an innovation, 3D printers are building houses, and the generation born after 2000 does not imagine its life without the Web. The Internet establishes new rules; it generates new authorities and virtual idols. A fear of marginalisation has compelled all countries to adapt to the new realities, where they can send their national ambassadors to global corporations like Google.

The coronavirus phenomenon has accelerated and outlined the need for structural reforms and the modernisation of the state apparatus and standards for business vision, and for improving the level of education and medical services. Against this background, there has been a generational change, both in politics and in society. New life has been breathed into civil society at different levels, namely, the involvement of ordinary citizens in domestic political and social processes. As a result, all this has contributed to the creation of new trends, expectations and inquiries within the population, namely, the establishment of a “new social contract”.

These processes are greatly accelerated amid the digitalisation of public life and the influence of social media on the mass media and youth activity. In the context of the global quarantine, the concept of the “Hearing State”, put forward by the head of Kazakhstan, Kassym-Zhomart Tokayev, aims to improve the dialogue between the state and society; it is currently witnessing its own test of strength.

In general, in order for Kazakhstan and Russia to respond successfully to the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic and international turbulence, it’s essential that they build and maintain a platform for an interactive dialogue with their respective citizens and attend to their needs. All this will become a strategic necessity, not only for increasing the effectiveness of state policy amid the post-quarantine world, but also to ensure the future development of the countries.
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.