The Policy of the Golden Mean: Kazakhstan’s Experience for Greater Eurasia

One of the important aspects of leadership is the ability to ensure continuity of the political course pursued by the leader. In recent months, Kazakhstan has gone through a difficult election campaign with credit. We are pleased that Kazakhstan will now be represented by President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, a longtime associate of Nursultan Nazarbayev, and an outstanding diplomat who is well known in Russia as a reliable partner.

The early presidential elections held in Kazakhstan in June approved interim leader Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, an experienced diplomat and close associate of the country’s first president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, as President of Kazakhstan. Russia followed the political transit in Kazakhstan with interest and concern, as the two countries are closely interrelated, and political practices applied in one country are often relevant and can work effectively in the other one.

It would not be an overstatement to say that to a large extent, Kazakhstan’s development has been closely connected with the personality of its first president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, as the top official’s decisions always play a decisive role when a country is choosing its own path, vision, and strategy. The early transfer of power to the new-generation elite was clearly one such decision, with Nazarbayev’s constitutional term of office allowing him to legally remain in power for several more years. Kazakhstan’s experience is especially interesting for the states of Eurasia, since it is a model of a kind of golden mean policy – a way of finding the desirable middle between two extremes for the sake of maintaining stability and creating conditions for growth.

The initial circumstances in which Kazakhstan found itself after the collapse of the Soviet Union were far from favorable. As a land-locked state, Kazakhstan’s only outlet to the sea was the isolated Caspian, which had no modern transport infrastructure in the early 1990s. Its only link with the outside world was Russia, which also faced most difficult challenges at the time, including political instability in the North Caucasus. Soviet defense enterprises had played a huge role in the country's industry, as Kazakhstan was home to more than fifty military industrial facilities, which were no longer used after 1991. In 1992, about 60% of the country’s population plunged below the poverty line, and inflation exceeded 2000%.

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However, between 1998 and 2005, the average annual growth of Kazakhstan’s GDP was 10.4%. At present, according to International Monetary Fund estimates, Kazakhstan ranks second after Russia among the post-Soviet states in terms of nominal GDP, and 54th in the world, while such indisputable leaders among the Soviet republics as Ukraine and Belarus lag behind it, Ukraine at 57th, and Belarus, 76th. Kazakhstan also ranks second after Russia in the post-Soviet space in terms of per capita GDP.

These economic successes came about not so much because of Kazakhstan’s natural resources, as its effective policies. Even if we take the oil and gas industry as the driver of the national economy in Kazakhstan, it developed in its current form not in the Soviet period, but after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Even in the early 1990s, the country adopted the long-term “Strategy of Establishment and Development of Kazakhstan as a Sovereign State,” which listed among its key priorities the integration of Kazakhstan into the world economic space and the attraction of foreign investment. No other post-Soviet country even tried to formulate its development strategy at that time. In 1997, Nursultan Nazarbayev announced the Kazakhstan-2030 program. Fifteen years into the program, the national economy had grown 16 times in money terms; people’s incomes had increased 16-fold, and industrial production was 20 times higher. By 2018, the country received about $ 300 billion in foreign direct investment, making its per capita FDI level the highest in the post-Soviet space.

Geographically, Kazakhstan represents the deep continental regions of Eurasia, located, in fact, in the middle of the continent. This “middle-ground” concept – or the golden mean concept – underlies Kazakhstan's strategy. It is no coincidence that back in 1992, President Nazarbayev proposed Central Asia as a new name for the region, and one which naturally stuck to it.

The golden mean involves balance. Kazakhstan is located in between two global powers, Russia and China, different in their cultural character and historical path. However, the country has successfully avoided the fate of many other states located on the boundaries of civilizations. The Russian-Chinese border is a zone of cooperation, in contrast, for example, to the cross-border areas between Russia and the West. A large part of the credit for the development of that cooperative international order in Central Asia is due to Kazakhstan. Kazakhstan’s relations with both Russia and China show that countries located between major centers of power can play a truly constructive role in international affairs.

Although Kazakhstan’s geographical position is not conducive to much foreign policy influence, the skillful diplomacy and enormous prestige of its leader have made it possible to increase the country's political influence to a significantly greater degree than what would arise from its material capabilities. Nursultan Nazarbayev was a mediator in the Armenian-Azerbaijani negotiations during the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. He played a major role in restoring relations between Russia and Turkey in 2016. Finally, it was Kazakhstan that contributed to the creation of the most recent and most productive format of the Syria settlement talks. It was in the capital of Kazakhstan that the parties with different, sometimes conflicting interests began to negotiate peace in the Middle East.

Naturally, Kazakhstan maintains friendly relations with key Western countries. Russia is not even jealous of that. Kazakhstan has always conducted an open foreign policy, involving an honest and direct defense of its national interests and has never attempted to play on the controversy between major centers of power.

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One of the sources of deep mutual trust between Russia and Kazakhstan is their similar approach to building national identity. Both Russia and Kazakhstan see themselves as multi-ethnic states. Nationality is not seen in a narrow ethnic sense, but as a wider civil loyalty to the state and its people in all their cultural diversity. This is all the more important considering the evils that aggressive ethnic nationalism has brought to many post-Soviet countries. We appreciate that Kazakhstan has given official status to the Russian language and we see this as one of the manifestations of its golden mean policy, which has always been characteristic of Kazakhstan. The choice in favor of multi-ethnicity made by both Russia and Kazakhstan is a weighty contribution to peace and harmony in Greater Eurasia.

Kazakhstan was the first supporter of Eurasian integration and has been very consistent in this, always correctly finding the fine line between mutually beneficial economic and political rapprochement and preserving its state sovereignty. Despite all the global political and financial storms in recent years, Eurasian integration has got going, with Kazakhstan and Russia undoubtedly forming its axis.

The bulk of Kazakhstan’s oil exports to foreign markets go through Russia. On the other hand, partnership within the EAEU helps both countries develop the structure of their economies in the manufacturing segment. Industrial cooperation between Russia and Kazakhstan includes engineering, mining and metals smelting, and the chemical industry. Our interaction is also progressing as part of the Eurasian technology platforms. Cooperation in space research, including the Baikonur space center, is the most successful example of our joint activities related to high technologies.

Interregional cooperation, including cross-border ties, is among the foreign economic priorities between Russia and Kazakhstan, which is logical, since the two countries have one of the longest onshore borders in the world. A number of branches of Russian universities operate in Kazakhstan; a lot of Kazakhstan citizens are getting their university degrees in Russia, including at MGIMO University. The latter is especially important because both of our countries are committed to developing education, and integrating our universities and research centers into world science.

One of the important aspects of leadership is the ability to ensure continuity of the political course pursued by the leader. In recent months, Kazakhstan has gone through a difficult election campaign with credit. We are pleased that Kazakhstan will now be represented by President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, a longtime associate of Nursultan Nazarbayev, and an outstanding diplomat who is well known in Russia as a reliable partner. We are confident that the country’s golden mean policy will continue, and this should be a guarantee of both countries’ prosperity.
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.