View of downtown Astana, the new capital of Kazakhstan. Photo: Almas Dissyukov/ World Bank
View of downtown Astana, the new capital of Kazakhstan. Photo: Almas Dissyukov/ World Bank

On Sunday, 4 October 2015, representatives of disparate Syrian opposition groups concluded three days of meetings in Astana.  29 of the 37 participants generally agreed on possible measures to resolve the crisis in Syria and called for more meetings.

They thanked President Nursultan Nazarbayev and the Kazakh government for providing a platform for dialogue and expressed willingness to hold the third round of talks in Astana in the next 2-3 months.  The group also met in Astana in May.

But hold on a minute!

Kazakhstan is hosting the Syrian opposition groups?  Astana is more than 4,750 kilometres (2,950 miles) away from Damascus – a greater distance than New York to Los Angeles, and Kazakhstan has precious little to do with Syria.  What’s going on?

Well, the fact is that Kazakhstan is punching well above its weight in the arena of international politics and diplomacy.  This is really remarkable.  Kazakhstan is, after all, a small country in terms of its population.  It is in the category of Guatemala, Ecuador, Zambia, Mali and The Netherlands.  The difference, perhaps, has something to do with (a) Kazakhstan’s vast natural resources and (b) its strategic location between Russia and China.

And the reason for much of this has to do with the foresight and energy of President Nazarbayev.  Critics may say that some of this work is ineffective – no historic breakthroughs and few tangible results can be claimed for efforts in the Ukraine separatist crisis, the Syrian civil war, or the Iran nuclear negotiations – but at the very least Kazakhstan has been playing an active role.

In the case of Syria, Kazakhstan has the additional advantage of being a predominately Muslim country that promotes religious harmony and has the benefit, in this case, of not being involved in the civil war in Syria.  Moreover, Kazakhstan has been earning a reputation for trying to help in the peaceful resolution of disputes.

Now that Russia has taken an active military role in Syria, Kazakhstan may soon be assuming a larger role and have a relevance that wasn’t there before.  After all, President Nazarbayev knows Russia’s President Putin very well and could be called upon to play an intermediary role in future negotiations.

For whatever reasons, Kazakhstan stands out in Central Asia as a regional leader, and it is playing a role in international affairs that is remarkable.  It is helped in this by having good relations with Russia, China, the United States and many European countries, making it an attractive option for diplomacy, particularly in the post-Soviet space.

The Syrian peace initiative is representative of the country’s ambition to stand tall in the international community of nations:

Participation and hosting of Ukraine Peace Talks.  President Nazarbayev has played an active role in seeking peace in eastern Ukraine, such as by visiting President Poroshenko in Kyiv followed by a meeting with President Putin in Moscow and also by hosting peace talks in Astana attended by the “Normandy Four” (Ukraine, Russia, Germany and France).

Hosting of Iran Nuclear Talks.  The P5+1 group (China, France, Russia, United Kingdom and United States plus Germany) held negotiations with Iran in Geneva, Istanbul, Baghdad and Moscow but also in Almaty on two occasions, February and April 2013.

Nuclear Disarmament.  Kazakhstan is a leader in urging nuclear disarmament.  Shortly after independence in 1991 it gave up 1,410 nuclear warheads and destroyed the related silos and other weapons systems that were on its territory when the Soviet Union collapsed.  The country signed international non-proliferation treaties, and President Nazarbayev has often spoken out to encourage other nations to give up nuclear weapons and to discourage others from seeking them.

OSCE Chairmanship.  Kazakhstan lobbied for and succeeded in gaining the chairmanship of the OSCE for 2010.  Despite the reluctance of some members, based on concerns about human rights and freedom of the press, it became the first post-Soviet, primarily Asian and Muslim state to be so honoured.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe promotes security among its 57 member states by addressing a wide range of security-related concerns.  These include arms control, confidence-building measures, human rights, national minorities, democratization, policing strategies, counter-terrorism and economic and environmental activities.  Each year, one of the member states is elected to chair the organization.

Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. Kazakhstan was one of the five founding members in 1996 of what was called the Shanghai Five, the others being China, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Tajikistan.  The group was re-named as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation when Uzbekistan joined in 2001.   SCO is a political, economic and military organisation but it seems not to aspire to be an equivalent in Eurasia of NATO.  In its early period, the Central Asian countries might have looked to the organisation to balance Russia’s continuing grip on the USSR’s former sphere of influence.  Recently, however, countries like Kazakhstan might hope that membership will help counterbalance China’s economic prowess.

Eurasian Economic Union.  As early as 1994, President Nazarbayev suggested the idea of creating a regional trading bloc.  Various steps were taken over the years culminating in the formal signing of an agreement by Belarus, Kazakhstn and Russia that came into force on January 1, 2015.  Armenia and Kyrgyzstan subsequently became members.

Promotion of Religious Tolerance.  The country hosts the Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions every three years.  The forum welcomes Muslim, Russian Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist and other religions’ representatives.  It aims to nurture discussion on how the spiritual and moral potential of world religions can be used to prevent international conflicts and address global threats, xenophobia and intolerance.  Kazakhstan aims to have the forum function as a permanent international organization mandated with the implementation of decisions taken collectively by influential spiritual leaders.

UN Security Council Non-Permanent Member.  Kazakhstan currently is lobbying to be elected to the UN’s Security Council as a non-permanent member representing the Asia-Pacific bloc of states.  The election will be held when the General Assembly meets in June 2016.  Thailand has also put itself forward as a candidate for the seat.

The UN Security Council has 15 members of which five are permanent members with the power of veto.  They are China, France, Russian Federation, the United Kingdom and the United States of America.  The 10 non-permanent members are elected by the General Assembly for 2-year terms.

Hosting of International Sporting Events.  It was in the country’s character that Almaty bid to host the 2022 Winter Olympics.  The city had a lot of natural advantages over Beijing but lost out on July 31, 2015 when Bejing garnered 44 votes to Almaty’s 40.  Nevertheless, Almaty looks forward to hosting the 2017 Winter Universiade.  Previously, Almaty and Astana jointly hosted the 2011 Asian Winter Games.


Learn more about Kazakhstan by reading my book – West Meets East in Kazakhstan.  This consists mainly of articles I wrote for The Almaty Herald newspaper in the 1990s and later years.  The book is about my perceptions as an American expatriate of life in and around Almaty in the 1990s. The book is available in soft cover or as an E-book through publisher AuthorHouse, and the websites of Amazon  and Barnes & Noble.

In some countries, the book may not be available through Amazon or Barnes & Noble if they do not store copies in their overseas warehouses.

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