March 11, 2016

Cooperation with the EU as One Element of Kazakhstan’s Multi-Track Foreign Policy

Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbayev waves as he arrives for his annual address to the nation in Astana, Kazakhstan, November 30, 2015.
Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbayev waves as he arrives for his annual address to the nation in Astana, Kazakhstan, November 30, 2015.

Astana has undertaken a thorough modernisation programme.

In the early stages of the independence of the Republic of Kazakhstan, the main directions of foreign policy were determined as tasks connected with strengthening national sovereignty, territorial integrity, the inviolability of borders, economic and environmental security and socio-political and ethno-political stability.1 On this basis, priority was placed on Eurasian integration processes: President Nursultan Nazarbayev suggested creating the Eurasian Union (during a visit to Moscow in March 1994), the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA) (proposed at the 47th Session of the UN General Assembly in October 1992), and corresponding structures in Central Asia.
In parallel, Kazakhstan began to build relationships with its neighbours—Russia,2 China3 and the states of Central Asia.4 A dialogue with the US5 was started and cooperative relationships were created with leading international and regional organisations (the OSCE,6 the European Union, NATO7 and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation8). It is worth remembering that Kazakhstan joined the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons as a nuclear-weapon-free country in 1994,9 thereby making its contribution to international security.
Integration with global economic groupings—“the only means of … survival [for] nation and state”10—became topical for Kazakhstan at the dawn of the new millennium. For this reason, relations with the EU began to gather momentum, which in turn strengthened Kazakhstan’s position in the system international community.
This time marked a momentous period in Kazakhstan’s development. The state had to solve issues of guaranteeing national security and constant economic growth that would be based on an open-market economy and the high level of foreign investment and international deposits, as well as better use of energy resources and the creation of a corresponding infrastructure. In the situation that emerged, the Kazakhstan foreign ministry, which had been the country’s central diplomatic institution for a decade,11 was given the task of activating relations with the EU.
The first step in this direction was taken in 2000, with a visit to Brussels by President Nazarbayev. During negotiations with Romano Prodi, President of the European Commission at the time, the Kazakhstan president suggested developing a Central Asian cooperation strategy together. This was intended to include:
● expanding trade, economic and investment connections
● guaranteeing goods and services access to the European market
● cooperation in the field of energy
● cooperation in the field of the extraction and processing of natural gas
● cooperation in the field of transport, communications, finance and banking.
A general strategy was also needed—the 1994 partnership and cooperation agreement did not take into account the problems Kazakhstan was facing in the new millennium.
The suggestions for the general strategy highlighted the need to support the Central Asian integration processes in the interests of a unified Europe in order to guarantee the balanced development of the area. Kazakhstan strived to achieve mutual understanding in key issues: joining forces to fight present-day problems and dangers (the fight against terrorism, organised crime and the illegal drug trade), and furthering the EU’s cooperation with international organisations and structures already active in Eurasia (the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, CICA and the Eurasian Economic Community).12 Even though Astana and Brussels were unable to coordinate their positions completely and compile a joint document, the Kazakh initiative enabled Europe to understand the interests of one of the most important states of Central Asia, which made it easier to develop the EU–Central Asia Strategy Paper for 2002–6.
In 2005, the EU felt the need to develop a new strategy. Central Asian analysts saw that the EU’s interest was related to the difficulties it was facing in transporting Russian gas to Europe due to Ukraine’s transit issues in early 2006.13 It may also be that one of the reasons was that conclusions were drawn on the basis of decades of past relations with the states of the region.
By that time, Kazakhstan had reached a new level of socio-economic modernisation and political democratisation,14 which was signified by making it into the top 50 of the world’s most competitive and dynamically developing states. New priorities called for adjustments in relations with the EU. Kazakhstan was interested in activating cooperation in the fields of regional and international security, the economy, and social and cultural communication. Astana was willing to create favourable conditions for EU investment, promising projects and the implementation of modern technology.15
By February 2006 the EU had prepared suggestions for a new strategy, primarily in the areas of trade and the economy. With this in mind, as well as the fact that Kazakhstan had also presented its views about the possible direction of mutual relations, Germany (which held the EU presidency in the first half of 2007) suggested that Astana present its own proposals.
Kazakhstan delivered its proposals in June 2006. The government stressed the need for mutual cooperation in the fields of regional integration, economic development, democratisation, energy and security. Astana wished to consider the needs of the states of the region, as some Central Asian countries still had problems in creating the institutions of a market economy and diversifying their economic systems. The focus was to be on supporting effective economic management, developing the private sector and human potential, efficient state management, improving the investment climate, attracting new technologies and creating high-technology and export-oriented production.16 The proposals dedicated to economic issues included possibilities for cooperation in the fields of agriculture, construction, metallurgy, tourism, construction of equipment for the oil and natural gas industry, food, chemicals and textile production. The need was highlighted for cooperation in the creation of special economic zones and technology and infotechnology parks, the development of small and medium-sized enterprises, and the provision of transport and logistics services. The need for an energy dialogue was discussed (i.e. the potential development of a joint EU energy policy in Central Asia). Discussions were suggested on the use of hydro energy, creating the conditions for developing research-intensive and high-technological sectors, and increasing the volume of non-governmental investments in the field of research. It was noted that the democratisation of Central Asia needed to take place on a step-by-step basis and that foreign pressure was unnecessary.
The EU’s opinion on Kazakhstan’s proposed new strategy was positive, as was confirmed by José Manuel Barroso, the then President of the European Commission, during his visit to Astana in December 2006. The states in the region reacted positively to the EU’s new strategy. In Kazakhstan, specialists appreciated the diversity of the priorities, which included cooperation in the fields of politics, the economy, the environment and culture. At the same time, the strategy clearly reflected the EU’s own interests—avoiding possible threats to its energy security and creating the conditions necessary for the unhindered supply of energy.
After adopting the EU strategy, Kazakhstan proposed the creation of a position of coordinator of EU cooperation in the Central Asian states. In addition, Astana presented its comments on an EU document that reflected Europe’s vision of the “priorities” of various states in realising the strategy.
In 2008, after receiving international recognition and the news that it would chair the OSCE in 2010,17 Kazakhstan proposed a further new initiative. In his annual address (“Growth of welfare of Kazakhstan’s citizens is the primary goal of state policy”), President Nazarbayev tasked the country’s foreign-policy institutions with creating a special “Path to Europe” programme.18 The EU supported Kazakhstan’s initiative in a special declaration on 28 February 2008 during Slovenia’s presidency.
Astana’s new suggestions were connected to the need to ensure Kazakhstan’s successful OSCE chairmanship. The proposals were developed, and helped to strengthen connections with European states and guarantee the republic’s internal development.
During this work, which was initially carried out by a group of specialists from the Kazakhstan Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the key parameters of the document were decided—the programme’s state-backed status, its three-year timescale, and the initial six priorities:
● stimulating technical cooperation
● energy dialogue
● development of the institutional base using European experience
● helping small and medium-sized enterprises
● strengthening the role of humanitarian issues
● developing the priorities of Kazakhstan’s OSCE chairmanship.
Further work was carried out by an inter-agency working group of representatives from 24 ministries and departments, who also developed other priorities:
● cooperation in the field of transport
● cooperation in the field of technical standards and metrology
● commercial and economic relations
● cooperation in the field of the quality of life.
A total of US$68 million was allocated to the 86 enterprises connected with the programme’s implementation. The president signed the decision to create the “Path to Europe” programme for 2009–11 on 29 August 2008.
Experts reacted to the programme with great interest.19 It is worth recalling the opinion of Belgian diplomat René Boissin, who stressed that the programme was intended for unhindered modernisation and ensuring the country’s economic growth.20 Jos Boonstra, of the Europe think tank FRIDE, believed that Kazakhstan’s “Path to Europe” showed potential for creating closer ties with Europe.21
The implementation of the programme allowed the following to be achieved:
1. giving the impulse for cooperation with many EU member states. Kazakhstan entered into strategic partnership agreements with France, Italy and Spain. An intergovernmental action programme was signed with Germany in the framework of a future partnership;
2. trade with the EU increased by 30% a year. In 2009 the volume of trade was US$28.8 billion, in 2010 $38 billion and in 2011 $50 billion;
3. steps were taken to amend legislation. Laws adopted in February 2009enabled the Majilis (the lower house of the Kazakhstan parliament) to admit multiple parties after the 2012 parliamentary elections.
All in all, 30 laws and other legislative measures were developed, supplemented and adopted, regulating various fields of the state and society. In addition, 82 technical regulations were established and 1,847 standards developed using the EU’s experience.22 All of this was done in only three years.
“Path to Europe” systematised Kazakhstan’s priorities in cooperation with the EU and enabled the specialists at the foreign ministry to prepare a new agreement. The need for this was highlighted by the changes that had occurred in both the EU and Kazakhstan over the previous 12 years, which affected practically all spheres of mutual relations.
The EU viewed the proposal positively, acknowledging that the new agreement should incorporate the priorities included in the new EU partnership strategy with Central Asian states for 2007–13 as well as those in the “Path to Europe” programme.
Kazakhstan officially proposed entering into a new agreement in 2009, at a meeting of the EU–Kazakhstan Cooperation Council. At the 11th meeting of the Council, a consensus was reached in which mutual relations no longer adequately reflected the level of partnership that had been reached during the previous few years.
The initial view was that the new agreement should be concise and flexible; it was intended to be a treaty that regulated relations in various fields. The possibility was discussed of a framework contract that would determine the main directions and basis of cooperation. In that case, relations in specific fields would have been covered by separate agreements, which would have helped to avoid duplication and optimise control over the performance of agreements.
Without waiting for the EU’s agreement on starting discussions over the new agreement, in late 2008 the Kazakhstan foreign ministry had initiated expert consultations with the foreign-policy officials of several European and Central Asian countries that had very diverse experiences in dealing with the EU. Exploring and analysing the experience of Russia, Ukraine and Israel, including in the preparation of necessary agreements, showed that Kazakhstan needed to aim for an all-inclusive document. The new agreement had to include as many potential areas of cooperation as possible. Having realised the problems of creating such an agreement, the Kazakhstan foreign ministry and other ministries prepared the concept for a new agreement, which was introduced to EU states and other relevant structures in the first half of 2009. The document took into consideration the experience gained from relations between Kazakhstan and the EU from 2000 to 2009—years of active and fruitful cooperation. It may be that the creation of the concept influenced Brussels enough to initiate discussions; it also coincided with the implementation of the “Path to Europe” programme, making an additional tool for pressuring the EU.
On 23 May 2011, the European Council authorised the European Commission to hold negotiations at foreign-minister level on preparing an “advanced partnership and cooperation agreement”. Even though the EU did not support all parts of the concept, it still carried out its task, and on 12 October 2011 negotiations on the new agreement began in Astana. On 9 October 2014, a document signifying the completion of discussions on the project was signed in Brussels by Erlan Idrissov, Kazakhstan’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, in the presence of President Nazarbayev and European Commission President José Manuel Barroso. The new agreement, which will replace the 1999 agreement, was formally signed on 21 December 2015 in Astana by Federica Mogherini, High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy/Vice-President of the European Commission, and Mr Idrissov.


1. All of Kazakhstan’s proposals on cooperation with the EU were exceptionally well-ordered and came at the right time. They are an illustration of Kazakhstan’s views of the potential directions of cooperation with the EU, which were closely connected to the level of mutual relations in a certain period of time and the task of ensuring Kazakhstan’s economic and political development.
2. The signing of the advanced partnership and cooperation agreement reflects the level achieved in Kazakhstan–EU relations. At the same time, it should not hinder Astana’s moves in the further development of Eurasian integration processes. There is no doubt that the aforementioned agreement will sow the seeds that will bear dignified fruit in the vast Eurasian space in developing cooperation within the various existing integration structures.
1 U.T. Kasenov. Main results and priority tasks of foreign policy activity of the Republic of Kazakhstan. Almaty, 1994, p 22.
2 The Agreement of Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance with Russia was entered into in 1992. In 1994 president Nazarbayev paid his first visit to Moscow, during which 22 documents on cooperation in the fields of politics, the economy, defence, technology, research and culture were signed.
3 In April 1994 Kazakhstan signed a border treaty with the People’s Republic of China.
4 By early 1995 friendship and cooperation agreements had been signed with all neighbouring countries.
5 In February 1992 a US–Kazakhstan Strategic Partnership Charter was signed in Washington.
6 Kazakhstan became a member of the OSCE in 1992. During the organisation’s 1994 summit in Budapest, nuclear powers guaranteed Kazakhstan’s security.
7 Kazakhstan joined the Partnership for Peace programme in February 1992.
8 Kazakhstan became a member of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation in December 1995.
9 Kazakhstan inherited the world’s fourth largest (after Russia, US and Ukraine) nuclear arsenal. It included 104 intercontinental SS-18 ballistic missiles and 40 Tu-195 strategic bombers with cruise missiles, a total of approximately 1,410 nuclear warheads. Pavel Podvig (ed.). Russian Strategic Nuclear Forces. Cambridge (Massachusetts), 1994, pp 150–67.
10 N.A. Nazarbayev. Address of the President of the Republic of Kazakhstan to the people of Kazakhstan. 14 December 1999. N.A. Nazarbayev. Strategy of independence. Almaty, 2003, p 74.
11 In July 1992 the head of state approved regulations governing the main tasks of Kazakhstan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, embassies and ambassadors. The number of employees in the central institution was set at 476 (without taking into account the employees and staff of state institutions). S.A. Kurmanguzhin. 45 years in the diplomatic service: Memoirs. Almaty, 2003, p 320.
12 European leaders admitted the need for such cooperation only 15 years later, after events in Ukraine.
13 H.G. Komilova. Central Asia and European Union: new realities. Contemporary Europe 2009, 2, p 56.
14 N.A. Nazarbayev. Kazakhstan is on the threshold of a major breakthrough in its development. Kazakhstan’s strategy of joining the world’s 50 most competitive countries. Address to the people of Kazakhstan. 1 March 2006. N.A. Nazarbayev. Selected speeches. Volume V, Book 1: 2006–2007. Astana, 2010, pp 32.
15 In 2005 changes were made to the concepts of Kazakhstan’s foreign policy, which helped to focus strategy on the economy.
16 R.S. Kurmanguzhin. Kazakhstan’s contribution of elaboration of “The EU and Central Asia: Strategy for a New Partnership for 2007–2013”. Tomsk State University Journal 2012, 360, p 91.
17 Support from Russia and other CIS countries was especially important for reaching this goal.
18 N.A. Nazarbayev. Growth of Welfare of Kazakhstan’s Citizens is the Primary Goal of State Policy. February 6, 2008. – N.A. Nazarbayev. Selected speeches. Volume, 2nd book: 2008–2009. Astana, 2010, pp 82.
19 R.S. Kurmanguzhin. From the history of development of the Kazakhstan state programme “Path to Europe”. – Law and Politics 2012, 2, pp 273–81.
20 R. Boissin. La Gazette Diplomatique 2008, p 59.
21 J. Boonstra. The EU’s Interests in Central Asia: Integrating Energy, Security and Values into Coherent Policy. EDC 2020 Working Paper, 2011, 9, p 4.
22 Bulletin of the Accounts Committee for Control Over Execution of the Republican Budget. No. 31. 1st quarter 2012.


This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.

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