Ukraine’s new president-elect, Petro Poroshenko, has promised to open talks with Moscow on repairing the frayed Russia-Ukraine relationship. With fighting continuing in the eastern parts of the country, the economy headed toward collapse and Western rhetoric of support unmatched by concrete deeds and dollars, Poroshenko and his team might want to consider learning from how another mid-sized Eurasian state has managed its relationship with the Russian bear. This week, in a ceremony in Astana overshadowed by the events in Ukraine, Kazakhstan’s president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, signed the agreements formally creating the Eurasian Economic Union, along with the presidents of Russia and Belarus.
On the surface, this is precisely the fate most Ukrainians want to avoid. After all, the Eurasian Union is seen as but a vehicle to re-establish Russian domination over the former Soviet Union. Yet Nazarbayev has no particular interest in surrendering his sovereignty or becoming a client dependent on Moscow. As in Ukraine, many Kazakh businesses depend on trade with Russia and access to Russian markets. Kazakhstan also has large Russian-majority areas that could be susceptible to the same tactics of “special war” that Moscow has employed in Crimea and eastern Ukraine. Kazakhstan has also had to cope with some of the same issues regarding the status of the Russian language while at the same time pursuing “de-Russification” policies. Finally, just as the breakup of the USSR left a critical naval base—Sevastopol—on the territory of Ukraine, post-Soviet Russia’s spaceport at Baikonur sits on Kazakh soil, requiring a long-term rental agreement for Russia to retain control over and access to the facility. The delicate balancing act Kazakhstan has engaged in has been how to deepen mutually beneficial economic ties with Russia—and to harness the leverage that association with Russia gives to Astana in relation to China—without being turned into a vassal.
Behind the scenes, Kazakh negotiators drove hard bargains with their Russian counterparts in structuring the proposed union. In contrast to Russian preferences for weighted decision-making, which would advantage Moscow given the size of its economy and population, Kazakh Foreign Minister Yerlan Idrissov stressed that “the union’s bodies will comprise equal numbers of representatives of each of the member states.” Meanwhile, another official, Vice Prime Minister Bakyt Saginatayev, stressed that “noneconomic provisions” were deleted from the draft agreement; the focus remains on creating a free trade zone, not a political alliance. Finally, the Kazakh side made sure that the agreement would not preclude Kazakhstan from entering into political or economic arrangements with other states or give Moscow a veto over Astana’s ability to continue pursuing a multivector foreign policy.