Dr John C Hulsman is the Founder and Managing Partner of John C Hulsman Enterprises, a global political risk firm. He is also a life member of the US Council on Foreign Relations.
Shrewd, knowing, screen legend Marelene Dietrich put it well when she said, “It’s the friends you can call up at 4m that matter.” Having just emerged from its own crisis, the government of Kazakhstan has – to the surprise of many – answered the world’s wakeup call.
Despite its close ties to Russia, it has steadfastly refused to align itself with Moscow over the Ukrainian war, instead neutrally offering its offices to broker a peace deal, even as it refuses to recognize the two breakaway Ukrainian provinces, Luhansk and Donetsk, as separate countries as the Kremlin desires. Instead, Kazakhstan has called for Russia to consider dialogue and peaceful settlement of the war, noting its close ties to both belligerents.
To put it mildly, this is not what Vladimir Putin expected to happen.
Going even further, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, the Kazakh president, has decisively stated that he is cooperating with Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine in coordinating humanitarian programs, while at the same time urging Putin to consider an immediate cease-fire.
In wisely stating that “a bad peace is better than a good war”, Tokayev has somehow kept his country’s traditional, multi-vector foreign policy intact, stressing Kazakhstan’s strategic autonomy despite the immense pressures of a war next door.
However, in turn, Kazakhstan has recently sent London a middle-of-the-night wakeup call of its own. How it responds will condition the UK’s relationship with this pivotal, resource-rich state, and the whole of the strategic Central Asian region, for decades to come.
Kazakhstan has had many achievements over the first 30 years of its independence. With its first president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, at the helm, the country embarked on a programme of strong economic reform and (as a consequence) enjoyed sustained growth.
Equally importantly, Nazarbayev fashioned a true multi-vector foreign policy (with Kazakhstan keeping Russia, China, and the West at arm’s length) despite living in the rough and tumble geostrategic neighborhood of Central Asia. In so doing, he safeguarded Kazakhstan’s strategic autonomy, despite long odds.
Nevertheless, violent riots erupted in the country on 2 January, tragically claiming over 200 lives before they were quelled. While the immediate cause of the disturbance was a rise in fuel prices, the underlying reasons for the unrest also included income disparities, crime, and extremism. Obviously, there is a clear need for further economic reform (moving definitively toward a post-Soviet, market-based economic model) and tackling income disparity, while addressing poverty alleviation and battling corruption.
Yet, as so often is the case, the events of January 2022 are in danger of being grossly misunderstood by a British foreign policy establishment who would rather feel good than do good. In this case, two bastions of old-style, brain-dead, Wilsonian thinking, Chatham House and Dame Margaret Hodge, the Labour MP, have reflexively called for sanctions against Kazakhstan, willfully ignoring what is actually going on in the country.
In the case of Chatham House, in a recent report they admit that the chaotic events of January make it hard to justify specific sanctions on the country due to the violence that occurred. Instead, they confusingly and nonsensically base their preference for sanctions as a policy response on the very income disparity that the Tokayev administration has made it a priority to alleviate.
Disregarding the strategic opportunity that the reformist government of Kazakhstan represents, Chatham instead adopts the usual, dreary paint-by-numbers approach to its domestic upheaval.
As for the scandal-plagued Dame Margaret, the old adage about glass houses and stones would seem to apply.
Rather than discussing her own massive peccadilloes – ranging from making $100 million from the sale of her family’s industrial conglomerate, STEMCOR, in Belarus to China, or to address her horrendous disregard for the horrific abuse of children in Islington’s children’s houses while leader of its council from 1982-92 – somehow, some way, she has the nerve to find Kazakhstan worthy of her moral disapproval.
Instead of seeing further developing ties with Kazakhstan as Britain’s strategic partner in Central Asia, the serially tone-deaf Labour politician is looking for redemption in all the wrong places.
Yet beyond the immediate crisis and the unthinking, censorious comments of its detractors, there is significant, deceptively good political risk news emerging in Kazakhstan. First, despite 30 years’ worth of worries about the durability of the Kazakh state itself, it came through its trial by fire, with the country’s integrity and cohesion never in doubt even as the disturbances raged.
Kazakhstan as a political entity has proven itself to be a genuine, organic country, with a genuine sense of nation and nationhood.
Second, in acting decisively and resolutely in the crisis, Tokayev has made it absolutely clear that he will direct the country’s revived economic reform programme, tackling the very practical underlying issues that people in Kazakhstan most care about, regarding inequality, corruption, and fuel prices.
Moving beyond the first era of Kazakhstan’s independence, it behooves the UK to be part of the second chapter in the country’s ongoing saga. Proposed British sanctions take none of these political risk realities into account, and would only heedlessly damage the UK’s interests.
Kazakstan is doing precisely what every foreign investor has been dreaming of (given its tremendous economic potential and boundless resources of coal, uranium, cotton, and copper), by stabilizing the economy and society. It is committed to maintaining its multi-vector foreign policy, just as the West has great need for friends in Central Asia following the chaotic American pull-out in Afghanistan.
For instance, Kazakhstan has the world’s 12th largest proven oil reserves (approximately amounting to 30 billion barrels), with oil output trebling since 2001, to 1.8 million barrels per day, and going up. Given the grievous need for Europe to find new, safer sources of supply, Kazakhstan amounts to a vital future oil source for a West sorely in need of energy diversification.
Also, in energy terms, Kazakhstan’s uranium will be badly needed as the nuclear industry may experience a renaissance, given the need for clean energy and more, for energy coming from stable, pro-western countries.
Instead of ostracizing Kazakhstan, it is entirely in the UK’s interests to diplomatically ‘lean in’, supporting Kazakhstan’s government. It would seem obvious (though sadly it is not) that when a longstanding ally, through the pressure of overcoming internal crisis, is committed to doing precisely what London urges it to do, more strategic support is both the proper and the practical foreign policy response, not less. It is past time for London to answer Dietrich’s proverbial 4AM phone call.