Testing Maturity: What Awaits Central Asia Amid Transforming Geopolitical Conditions
Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan
List of speakers

The third annual Russia-Kazakhstan Expert Forum, a joint project of the Valdai Discussion Club and the Kazakhstan Council on Foreign Relations, opened on May 14 in the Republic of Kazakhstan. However, this year there are several key differences that will set the event apart from the previous ones: the capital has been renamed to Nur-Sultan from Astana and an election campaign started recently in Kazakhstan, which, of course, gives the discussions a special significance, since the experts will attempt to predict what will happen to the republic in the future and how this will impact its foreign policy.

During the first session of the forum, which was open to the media, the Russian experts and their Kazakh colleagues discussed the prospects for global geopolitical transformation, as well as its impact on Central Asia and on Kazakhstan in particular.

Russia and Kazakhstan share not only the longest land border, but also a rather lengthy common history, so processes taking place in one country can influence the situation in another. For example, Kazakhstan is suffering from the confrontation between Russia and the West, in particular, from anti-Russian sanctions. Fortunately, the forecasts that this confrontation would be decisive in the coming years did not come true. According to Andrei Sushentsov, Programme Director of the Valdai Discussion Club, what is happening now cannot be called a “Cold War”. It is rather a “Phony Cold War” – there is no pronounced aggressor, and no one sees an ideological component in the confrontation. On the contrary, there is a desire to relieve tension. Please note that the expert writes in detail about this situation of uncertainty in his article for

However, if you do not take into account the echoes of the “Phony Cold War”, everything is relatively calm now in the region. If Central Asia is not located in a comfort zone, then perhaps it’s in a risk-free zone. Russia and China, the two major powers that are able to influence the region directly, do not consider themselves opponents in Central Asia. On the contrary, they are experiencing flourishing friendly relations and cooperation. “We are all beneficiaries of the situation that has developed in Central Asia, and that constant maintains political stability and security and relies on mutual understanding between Russia, China and Kazakhstan,” Andrei Sushentsov said. So, now the background situation for the power transition in Kazakhstan is much safer than it may have been considered just a few years ago. 

Andrey Chebotarev, Director of the Alternativa Center for Current Research, Kazakhstan, noted that not only Russia and the West, but Central Asia as a whole is experiencing a situation of peculiar uncertainty. The time for change has come – the pioneers were Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. Now Kazakhstan, which is witnessing the beginning of a transition of power, has also picked up the baton. This makes it possible to develop if not integration, then at least cooperation. Leaders of the new generation, adhering to the principles of continuity, can set a new agenda. According to Chebotarev, one way or another, the states of Central Asia will choose the path towards rapprochement. 

Speaking about the region’s current problems, Ivan Safranchuk, Associate Professor at MGIMO University, member of the Council on Foreign and Defence Policy, turned to recent history. He recalled that in the 1990s each country used the conditions of the open global world to its own advantage. Some post-Soviet states wanted to repeat the experience of the “big powers” (for example, the “Chinese tiger”). It seemed that there were no limitations in the world that hinder prosperity. However, in the 1990s, the Central Asian elites believed that the region did not receive the preferential treatment that it deserves from the major world powers – due to its geographical position, resources. Therefore, the “empowerment instinct” appeared. However, this did not last long. Already in the 2000s, due to circumstances, the region got a lot of external attention. As a result, Central Asia got the “instinct of playing on the contradictions” between the “big powers”. Many learned not only how to play, but also how to get “drivers” in order to play with big bets and get maximum benefits. 

The situation changed after 2008, when the world entered a crisis stage, which first affected the economy, and later took its toll on political relations. Global markets have become somewhat less open, and many opportunities for developing countries have disappeared. The empowerment instinct faltered. An adaptation was necessary, but no one wanted to adapt. In addition, it turned out that it was dangerous and risky to play on the contradictions between the “big powers”. There were examples when those who played on such contradictions, and became casualties of the struggle (Bakiyev, Saakashvili, Yanukovych). As a result, over the last 10 years, Central Asia has faced two questions, Safranchuk said.

The first is how to court external attention while at the same time not becoming the epicentre of other countries’ geopolitical clashes. There is a demand for geopolitical neutrality within Central Asia – the major powers are being requested not to transfer their contradictions to the region. But if you refuse to play, then why will anyone pay attention to you? 

The second question is: how does the region maintain independence and receive opportunities for development? Answering this partly rhetorical question, Ivan Safranchuk agreed with Andrei Sushentsov, who, during his speech, said that the region is now located outside the zone of geopolitical risks. This is true. It has no problems stemming from external players, but also has no potential for development. There are no risks and no external opportunities. In other words, those who don’t take risks, don’t drink champagne. 

The Kazakhstani participants at the forum were interested in how the Russian experts see the situation in Central Asia, in particular, whether Eurasian integration had failed or if everything is going according to plan. Ivan Safranchuk said that everything is in order with the integration of the region as a whole. The problem is that if earlier, after the collapse of the USSR, many in the post-Soviet space were dissatisfied with the proclamations of independence and the closure of borders, then in the last decade, since integration was proclaimed, everyone has been dissatisfied with “open borders”. Politicians missed the exact moment when the border policy was debated. Unfortunately, people have adapted to living in another reality and become used to it, they are wondering why people are unhappy now that their 20-year-old dream has come true. Integration is no longer as relevant a topic as earlier, but nonetheless, it works. 

According to Andrei Sushentsov, Eurasian integration is a voluntary process, and its participants gain more than they lose. An integration crisis now exists between the European powers, but this is a completely different story. If we talk about the countries of the former Soviet Union, Kazakhstan is an example of the golden mean. “Armenia, for instance, is on the frontier of the Russian-Western confrontation, but Kazakhstan is not. Not all have passed the maturity test. Many have been captured by the experiment,” the Russian expert said. 

Andrey Chebotaryov, in his turn, critically remarked that the transition of power in Kazakhstan is far from complete. It can be considered complete when Elbasy moves away from political activities. Ivan Safranchuk agreed with him. He said that among the elites, there is a desire to change a lot. In many issues there is no continuity, and the transition has not yet begun. Will Kazakhstan be able to pass between the hammer and the anvil? Time will show. Presidential elections in the republic will be held on June 9.

Almost all the experts, during the session and on the sidelines, noted that during its three years of operation, the Russian-Kazakhstan forum had become a unique platform that makes it possible to openly discuss common problems and find solutions. The importance of live communication was also emphasised by Yerlan Karin, Advisor to the President of the Republic of Kazakhstan and Chairman of the Kazakhstan Council on Foreign Relations. Countries are changing, societies are changing, and the development of a dialogue between them is essential. In order to go forward, we need consolidation, including at the expert level. 

We remind you that this year the Russia-Kazakhstan forum is taking place in Nur-Sultan on May 14-15. Most sessions are typically held according to Chatham House rules, which imply the anonymity of all discussions. You can find more details about the forum in our social networks. We use Facebook, Twitter and Instagram (@ Stay tuned!