During 25 years of its independence, Kazakhstan has been pursuing balanced and pragmatic multi-vectored foreign policy. Due to the country’s proactive participation in global nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament efforts, Kazakhstan has earned a reputation of a responsible partner in the issues of regional and international security. Being a tolerant multiethnic society domestically, the country has been vigorously promoting confidence building measures between nations, as well as the dialogue among cultures and civilizations. In particular, to increase understanding, trust and cooperation between different religions, Kazakhstan has been convening the Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions since 2003. Another important step of Kazakhstan’s diplomacy in promoting peace, security and stability was the establishment of the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia, the intergovernmental forum which contributes to the mitigation of mutual distrust between its members.
Kazakhstan is also well-known for its efforts to serve as a diplomatic mediator in a number of conflicts and crisis situations. The country accumulated its initial experience in the peacemaking field in the 1990s when Kazakhstani diplomats attempted to facilitate Azerbaijan-Armenia negotiations over Nagorno-Karabakh and were involved in the settlement of the civil war in Tajikistan. Later, serving as the chair of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in 2010, Kazakhstan tried again, albeit unsuccessfully, to break the impasse in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict (Kosolapova, 2015). In the recent years, Kazakhstan has consistently intensified its mediation activities, with the cities of Astana and Almaty gradually turning into the major diplomatic hubs of Central Asia.
In particular, Kazakhstan made a significant contribution to the comprehensive settlement of the Iranian nuclear issue by hosting in Almaty two rounds of high-level negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 group (the five permanent UN Security Council members and Germany) in February and May 2013. These meetings were helpful in bridging differences between the parties and creating a foundation for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the international agreement on Iran’s nuclear program agreed in July 2015. It is expected that Kazakhstan will continue to provide a platform for multilateral negotiations on this issue, including the review of the JCPOA implementation (Ruleva, 2016).
When the crisis around Ukraine unfolded in 2014, the Kazakhstani leadership offered Astana as a venue for the Normandy format negotiations to help resolve the conflict in eastern Ukraine. President Nazarbayev even practiced a shuttle diplomacy by visiting Kiev and Moscow and having telephone conversations with other stakeholders to promote the peace talks (Daly, 2015). While the Belarusian capital, Minsk, was chosen to host the negotiations, Kazakhstan’s participation was valuable in the search for possible solutions to deescalate the crisis, including the Minsk One and Minsk Two agreements.
In 2016, Kazakhstan and personally President Nazarbayev played a crucial role in normalizing the Russian-Turkish relations that had worsened after the November 2015 jet shoot-down incident. The crisis between Moscow and Ankara was especially challenging for Kazakhstan which has strong political, economic, historical and cultural ties with both Russia and Turkey. At the same time, it was a perfect opportunity for Astana to demonstrate its full diplomatic potential as an unbiased broker. Acting along with Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan managed to assist Russia and Turkey in reducing mutual tension and resuming cooperation (Putz, 2016). This case can be regarded as the most prominent achievement of Kazakhstan in international mediation so far.
In its latest peacemaking endeavor, Kazakhstan is contributing to the settlement of the Syrian civil war. In January-March 2017, the country hosted three rounds of peace negotiations in Astana, bringing together for the first time the Syrian government and some selected armed opposition groups fighting on the ground, not just political figures living in exile (Voloshin, 2017). It is worth mentioning that in May and October 2015 Kazakhstan also hosted two rounds of talks involving representatives of the Syrian opposition (Astana Times, 2016). The Astana format is interlinked with the Geneva platform as each round of talks in the Kazakhstani capital is followed by more substantial negotiations in the Swiss city. Being an integral part of the Syrian peace process, the Astana meetings are not designed to replace the UN-mediated diplomatic negotiations in Geneva. Instead, their role is to complement and facilitate the Geneva talks by helping all the interested parties to find common ground and creating favorable conditions for the political settlement of the Syrian crisis under the auspices of the UN. In addition to the diplomatic mediation, Kazakhstan has a vested interest in ending the conflict in Syria as religious extremism has become a growing security threat for the country.
Kazakhstan’s aspiration to become an international diplomatic mediator is firmly based on a number of factors. First, Kazakhstan proved itself to be a trustworthy and reliable counterpart in world affairs, and the global community views favorably the country’s efforts to contribute to the strengthening of international peace and security. Second, Kazakhstan is a country that maintains balanced relations with virtually all external actors and does not have any particular geopolitical agenda, and is therefore capable to be an independent and impartial broker in solving existing and potential conflicts. Third, being a secular multiethnic country with the large Muslim population, Kazakhstan is well-positioned to serve as an effective communication platform between the East and the West. Moreover, Kazakhstan’s diplomacy has already acquired relevant professional experience in the field of mediation and demonstrated meaningful results in addressing complex international issues.
It is understandable that in many instances Kazakhstan’s role as a mediator in diplomatic negotiations is essentially limited to providing a venue for dialogue as well as administrative and protocol arrangements. However, these functions themselves are not easy to fulfil, and not every country is ready to engage in complex conflict mediation and spend resources on such efforts. Besides, in order to create an environment conducive for an agreement, a potential mediator must be accepted by and enjoy full trust of all conflicting parties and stakeholders. Moreover, providing mediation also involves risks for a mediator in case of a negative outcome. In addition to investing personnel, time, energy, and other resources, Kazakhstan also puts its national prestige at stake, especially if negotiating parties are not genuinely committed to making compromises and reaching a sustainable diplomatic solution. While successful mediation may elevate Kazakhstan’s profile in the world and have other long-term benefits, failed attempts would significantly damage the country’s reputation. Therefore, international mediation has its pros and cons that must be carefully weighed.
For Kazakhstan as a relatively small state in the global arena in terms of political influence, economic power and military might, it is very important to find its niche and role in the international community of nations. Becoming an ambassador of peace and a center of reconciliation is a complicated task for Kazakhstan, given present-day multidimensional threats and challenges. However, Kazakhstan’s strong commitment to multilateral diplomacy, constructive dialogue and cooperative relations provides an effective framework for the success of its mediation activities. Kazakhstan’s election as a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council for a two-year term starting January 2017 provides additional opportunities for expanding the country’s peaceful initiatives, including mediation efforts. Through skillful use of mediation as a foreign policy and soft power tool, Kazakhstan may gain a broad recognition on the global arena, help ensure the country’s independence and promote its national interests.
Elena Kosolapova. (2015). Kazakhstan can help in Karabakh talks but unable to resolve it.
 The Normandy format is referred to diplomatic negotiations of senior representatives of France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine on the situation in eastern Ukraine. The format takes its name from the location of the first June 2014 meeting – at the Operation Overlord’s 70th anniversary celebrations in Normandy, France.
Note: The views expressed in this blog are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the Institute's editorial policy.
Dauren Aben holds a Master’s in International Relations from Kainar University, Almaty, Kazakhstan, and a Master’s in International Policy Studies and certificates in nonproliferation studies, conflict resolution, and commercial diplomacy from the California-based Monterey Inst