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Ukraine crisis threatens Moscow's relations with Astana

With its own sizeable ethnic Russian minority, Kazakhstan has watched the Kremlin's meddling in east Ukraine with a growing sense of dread

Russia's interference in Ukraine is costing it influence in Central Asia, where Kazakhstan, long a loyal ally of the Kremlin, is starting to doubt the benefits of the relationship.

The two countries have enjoyed cordial relations since the break-up of the USSR in 1991, with Kazakhstan designating Russia as a strategic partner and taking part in all Moscow's initiatives within the Commonwealth of Independent States, including the Collective Security Treaty Organisation and the Customs Union of Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus, which will be transformed into the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) on 1 January 2015. This has enabled Astana to adopt a 'multi-vector' foreign policy - an effort to keep good relations with all foreign powers.

But it is the EEU - the brainchild of Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who floated the idea of closer Eurasian integration 20 years ago - and, specifically Russian President Vladimir Putin's vision of it, that could now play the spoiler in bilateral relations between Moscow and Astana. Putin appears to be using the free-trade bloc as a vehicle to push Russia's geopolitical aspirations and is seeking to include within it as many former Soviet states as possible.

Economic ties

Kazakhstan sees the EEU as purely economic. By 2025 the EEU will create common markets for gas, oil and petroleum products, and, most importantly, for oil and gas transport systems. This means Russia, at least on paper, won't be able to limit access for Kazakh oil and gas to its pipeline networks and or dictate the price of gas it buys from and sells to Kazakhstan.

The announcement in 2013 that Armenia would join the bloc took the Kazakh and Belarusian leaders by surprise. It angered Nazarbayev, who tried - and failed - to block Armenia's accession to the union. Russia has also tried to impose a political dimension on the union by suggesting the member states adopt a common domestic and foreign policy, common citizenship, migration and visa policy and cooperate on security issues. The Kazakh opposition is against the union, claiming that deeper economic integration with Russia will eventually lead to a loss of economic sovereignty and could, ultimately, see the country cede political sovereignty to Moscow.
The Ukraine crisis has brought an edge to the debate. Although Astana recognised the Kremlin's annexation of Crimea, it has also repeatedly called for the territorial integrity of Ukraine to be respected.

With Russian support for separatists in eastern Ukraine in mind, Kazakhstan has reasons to fear similar meddling from the Kremlin in its territory. Kazakhstan is home to a sizeable Russian minority (21% of the total population, with the share of ethnic Russians reaching 35-50% in northern and eastern regions) and many in the country dread the consequences should Astana adopt policies Putin dislikes - giving Moscow grounds to protect ethnic Russians inside Kazakhstan.

Standing alone

Pandering to Kazakh nationalists, Nazarbayev said in August that if the EEU threatened the country's independence, Kazakhstan would leave it. Putin's swift reaction was to say that independent Kazakhstan had become all about one man, Nazarbayev. This suggested the country's status was at stake should Nazarbayev's successor pursue a different course in Kazhakstan's relations with Russia.

By taking his country too close to Russia in recent years, Nazarbayev may well have constrained Kazakhstan's future foreign policy manoeuvres. Putin's own policies in Ukraine, however, are meanwhile casting the Astana-Moscow relationship into more dangerous territory. Can an increasingly isolationist Russia afford to lose its only staunch ally?

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