Photograph: Ninara via Flikr
In September this year, Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan travelled to Astana, the gleaming capital of the Kazakh steppe which has come to embody the ambition of the country’s leaders for the future. To many, a Turkish minister in a Central Asian city may seem to represent a relatively minor act of diplomacy, but it actually symbolises a flourishing relationship between two states whose links and history run far deeper than is often appreciated. The deepening ties between Kazakhstan and Türkiye remain an integral component of Astana’s distinctly multi-vector foreign policy.
When Kazakhstan declared independence in 1991, Türkiye was the first state to recognise this move. This marked the start of a budding relationship which has developed and solidified over the past thirty years. The governments of both states have recently extended this bond yet further, designating their relationship an “enhanced strategic partnership.” In this instance, political fanfare rests upon solid foundation. These new arrangements are set to significantly alter the nature of the Kazakh-Turkish partnership, bringing inter-state trade to levels totally unrecognisable when compared to previous years. Having already achieved a bilateral trade volume of $5 Billion USD as of 2022, Ankara and Astana are projecting a figure of as high as $10 Billion USD in the coming years. In the context of this enhancing of diplomatic relations, 15 new agreements have been signed in various fields, from military intelligence to agriculture, bringing the states closer together still through far-reaching co-operation. Steps were taken, furthermore, to increase the number of air links between the two states, something which has already borne fruit, with the number of flights significantly increasing in the past year from 40 to over 90 weekly connections. In appropriate fashion, the arrival of this Turkish delegation in Astana was preceded by a visit of Kazakhstan’s President Tokayev to Türkiye earlier in 2022.
These developments, and the cordiality of Kazakh-Turkish ties more broadly, can be understood through several lenses of analysis. Certainly, throughout the twentieth century, Kazakhstan’s place in the Soviet world distinctly stunted its ability to engage internationally beyond Moscow’s constraints; Central Asia remained politically and economically dominated by the Kremlin. Since the Fall of the Soviet Union, however, Türkiye’s role in the region has significantly expanded, and the recent strengthening of ties represents a culmination of three decades of co-operation.
Firstly, the relationship is supported by deep cultural and linguistic commonalities. The Kazakh language is a Turkic language. The notion of a common Turkic identity has been emphasised by the political class of both states throughout the existence of their diplomatic relations. Both Türkiye and Kazakhstan are founding members of Organisation of Turkish States and Kazakhstan’s first president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, helped to create the Cooperation Council of Turkic-speaking states. Aside from deep-rooted cultural commonalities, an alignment of geopolitical priorities and realities has helped to further bring the Turkish and Kazakh states together.
In contrast to their larger neighbours, both Türkiye and Kazakhstan could be regarded as regional powers. Kazakhstan remains the largest economy in Central Asia, while Türkiye has continued to manifest a role as a regional power at the crossroads of Europe, Africa and Asia, exercising influence across the Eastern Mediterranean, the Caucasus and the Middle East. Both states are uniquely positioned, maintaining cordial relations with both Western states and Western adversaries. Therefore, Türkiye in many ways shares the multi-vector foreign policy which characterises Astana’s conduct of international relations. For example, NATO-member Türkiye and Kazakhstan, a significant recipient of Western foreign direct investment, simultaneously maintain regular dialogue with both Moscow and Beijing. Both states have furthermore actively encouraged the membership of one another in wider, multinational organisations, with Kazakhstan providing support for Türkiye’s bid to become an EU member state and Türkiye reciprocally supporting Kazakhstan’s bid to join the World Trade Organisation.
The mutual benefit that a closer Turkish-Kazakh union may bring manifests itself through numerous variables. The geography of Central Asia itself bolsters the potential for cooperation. Kazakhstan possesses rich deposits of resources, chiefly oil, gas, and coal, yet its landlocked status has long prevented these abundant resources from reaching global markets without having to abide by the rules of another power. This can be seen for example with the Russian Black Sea port of Novorossiysk, through which abundant Kazakh oil previously passed conditional upon the consent of Kazakhstan’s former colonial overlord. Türkiye’s location within the wider so-called ‘Middle Corridor’, which spans Central and Western Asia, may prove to be a crucial artery in the network of infrastructure allowing Central Asian resources to reach the global market more quickly and easily. Through another Turkic nation, Azerbaijan, Kazakh resources could flow westwards in greater quantities. Whilst having faced its own set of challenges, including a lack of suitable infrastructure, cargo shipments along this route have recently swelled to as high as 3.2 million tons in 2022.
The ‘Middle Corridor’ illustrates how regional powers can establish robust links and assist one another in developing mutual rather than exclusive prosperity. As Russia’s behaviour in the Caucasus becomes noticeably more erratic, seen through Moscow’s relative inaction during the recent violence in Nagorno-Karabakh and a public distancing with its historical ally Armenia, Türkiye may form a key component of a wider structure which could steward Kazakh goods to the world.
It could be argued that supply chains traversing Türkiye rather than Russia could simply re-purpose the same problem of Kazakh economic subjugation, now simply under the sway of another state. However, it is the nature of the ‘Middle Corridor’ as a wider, multinational supply chain which could help to fundamentally dilute the power of a single state and afford greater autonomy to participants. Such cooperation was seen in late 2022, when Georgia, Türkiye, Azerbaijan, and Kazakhstan all came together to establish and agree upon the terms and measures needed to reduce bottlenecks along the ‘Middle Corridor’.
While some commonalities remain deeply seated, a further alignment has developed in recent years between Ankara and Astana through linguistic evolution. As part of a period of transition from 2023 to 2031, the Kazakh language will slowly transfer from Cyrillic to Latin script, a move which reflects the actions of other Central Asian states such as Uzbekistan. Anar Fazylzhanova, director of the Akhmet Baitursynov Institute of Linguistics, has said that the transition of the Kazakh language to the Latin alphabet will help to ‘integrate it better in a global cultural context.’ The Latinization of the Kazakh language could consequently help to create yet another commonality between it and the rest of the Turkic-speaking world, a symbolic alignment to compound already-existing linguistic understanding.
Through a significant re-arranging of Kazakhstan’s social, economic, and linguistic architecture, Astana is setting the stage for greater cooperation with Ankara through a variety of channels. Astana’s continued relationship with Moscow and other larger states exists alongside a deepening Kazakh-Turkish partnership, illustrating how one relationship is not simply the replacement for another. The widened opportunities for bilateral cooperation, which such a multi-vector approach brings, may help to afford the Kazakh state greater room to manoeuvre. This greater geopolitical flexibility represents a new step on a path towards political autonomy, which began over thirty years ago with the Fall of the Soviet Union. Thus, Central Asia’s shift towards a greater multipolarity of power may be further accelerated, affording greater prosperity and political freedom for the region’s states.