Western pundits offer advice on Kazakh geopolitics
On the fringes of the Astana International Forum (AIF), former high-level diplomats positively assessed Kazakhstan’s cooperation potential with the EU, advising the union against being overtaken by China, a much more assertive geopolitical player.
Two sources, Stefano Stefanini, ex-Italian representative to NATO, and Jean de Ruyt, former Belgian ambassador to the UN and the EU, told EURACTIV that the inaugural forum was well-timed to emphasise the importance of Kazakhstan on the EU agenda.
“Kazakhstan is pursuing the best foreign policy, given the circumstances”, says Stefanini, who has a long career in bilateral and multilateral diplomacy, including posts in Moscow and Washington.
Reminding that Kazakhstan is a vast but landlocked country, rich in natural resources, with a small population and two overly powerful neighbours, Russia and China, he said that its leadership was aware of its interest in engaging with the West as a need to counterbalance geography.
At the same time, he said, this relationship was a balancing act with Kazakhstan’s relations with Moscow and Beijing.
“Strategic neutrality is not easy, but Kazakhstan is doing it, and we need to help this country maintain this balance”, he said.
In Central Asia, Kazakhstan was “the more equal among equals”, said Stefanini, comparing the country with Uzbekistan, with a larger population, or with all the remaining three other Central Asian states, all former Soviet republics, namely Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan. Indeed, Kazakhstan’s economy is now almost one-third bigger than the economies of other Central Asian countries combined.
The former Italian diplomat shared insight that Italy, which will take over the rotating G7 presidency in 2024, was considering bringing Kazakhstan as a third country to the summit, as recently, the current G7 president Japan invited the leaders of Ukraine, India, Brazil, and Indonesia.
The EU needs 30 rare earth materials, such as beryllium, tantalum, and niobium, of which Kazakh companies currently produce 16, with the potential of soon producing them all.
Asked about a possible clash between the EU and China, which also needs critical raw materials, Stefanini said the EU should be aware that its competitor in this field, China, was using “business methods” the EU would never use, alluding to undue pressure or corruption.
“The EU doesn’t do these things, but China does”, he said.
But he stressed that if Kazakhstan surrendered to Chinese interests, the country would lose its strategic independence.
But Stefanini said the EU was obviously slow and less ambitious in making offers, mentioning a recent meeting in Almaty where the EU put €9 million for financing projects on the table.
“The day after, China, at a similar meeting in Beijing, put up $22 billion, not million”, he said.
Asked if the EU was naïve, he said it was more a matter of constraints, while other geopolitical payers were free of such.
“The US can do it, Russia can do it, China can do it, the EU can’t”, he said.
But he added: “Germany can do it”.
Incidentally, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier is expected to visit Kazakhstan in the coming days, including the Caspian Sea port city of Aktau, seen as the gateway of the Central corridor- crucial in the context of Western sanctions making traffic via Russia or Iran impossible or at least very problematic due to the sanctions on these countries.
“That will be fundamental”, the Italian diplomat said.
Jean de Ruyt, Former Belgian ambassador to the UN and the EU, said that EU member states could be more reactive than EU institutions, considering their own negative experiences. Belgium had such with experience with the Democratic Republic of Congo, a former Belgian colony where China got hold of the cobalt mining, much needed for car batteries.
He said that a Belgian delegation had recently visited Kazakhstan and that they had shared their concerns back home.
“The Belgians certainly don’t want to be screwed up by the Chinese in Kazakhstan as they were in Congo”, he said.
De Ruyt argued it was in the EU’s interest to move forward via member states instead of waiting for Brussels’ institutional decision-making. He expressed his hope that Kazakhstan realised the advantages of dealing with a player that could bring know-how and added value instead of depleting the country’s wealth.
“But I think the Kazakhs realise the risk with China, and this wants they would like to see our investors coming here because they know we will not monopolise their resources”, he said.
Asked what he would advise Commission President Ursula von Der Leyen if he had the chance, or his compatriot Charles Michel, the Council president, he said that “clearly the EU should be more than pro-active” vis-à-vis Kazakhstan.
De Ruyt warned against errors in communication or disinformation, which could lead to EU distancing to the benefit of China, or others, based on possibly fabricated accusations of Western sanctions breaches.
“Kazakhstan has become geopolitically very important and follows an international policy subtle enough to attract our attention. Our duty is to help them follow this path, we should not turn them against Russia or China”, he said.