Kazakhstan’s President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev is certainly on a path to enhance his country’s diplomatic profile by turning it into a “middle power,” a concept born during the Cold War to characterize states that “punch above their weight” in world politics. Considered to be neither big nor small powers, these countries can project a global significance that transcends a merely regional profile. Canada is the prototypical middle power. Australia is also frequently mentioned in this context.
Middle-powers are frequently associated with economic significance (for instance, due to their energy resources) combined with what scholars call their “norm entrepreneurship.” They typically do not exert influence through military force but rather through diplomatic means, often involving their role in conflict resolution.
Kazakhstan has all the classical characteristics of a middle power: strategic location, abundant natural resources, and commitment to international principles and cooperation. Kazakhstan has continuously emphasized multilateralism and conflict resolution in its international diplomacy.
One of the key factors contributing to Kazakhstan’s emergence as a middle power is its commitment to hosting and participating in international political conferences. In recent years, Kazakhstan has positioned itself as a neutral ground for dialogue and mediation. For instance, in January 2017, the country hosted high-level talks on the Syrian Civil War in Astana, bringing together the Syrian government, opposition forces, and regional stakeholders such as Russia, Iran, and Turkey in the Astana Process, which has since had a key role in promoting ceasefires and facilitating humanitarian aid.
In 2013, Kazakhstan also facilitated the negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 countries (the United States, Russia, China, France, the United Kingdom, and Germany), which culminated in the signing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in 2015. As a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) from 2017 to 2018, Kazakhstan emphasized such crucial issues as non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, conflict prevention, and counterterrorism. Likewise, it was instrumental in addressing the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan after the country’s political turmoil in 2021.
Kazakhstan has coined its position on the Ukrainian crisis, a policy of non-recognition of Donetsk and Lugansk as independent states. Such courageous consistency in pushing strategic neutrality in a region neighboring Russia and China has contributed to efforts to strengthen the UN principles in support of the world order, as well as the regional prospects for greater multilateralism.
It is remarkable that Kazakhstan is emerging as a middle power on the eastern shore of the Caspian Sea at the same time as Azerbaijan is also doing so on its western shore. The promotion of their bilateral cooperation is driving deeper integration in the region, reinforcing its security structure. The recent agreement with Azerbaijan to leverage the full capacity of the Trans-Caspian International Transport Route (TCITR) is an example. The TCITR, also known as the Middle Corridor, runs from China to Europe through Central Asia and South Caucasus.
The latest bilateral meeting between Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan follows the 2021 transformation of the Turkic Council into the Organization of Turkic States (OTS). Established in 2009, the Turkic Council was initially a platform for dialogue and collaboration between Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkey. The creation of the OTS was a natural development from the Turkic Council’s evolution, over the years, into a more comprehensive organization encompassing economic, cultural, educational, and security affairs.
Kazakhstan’s diplomacy was a driving force behind both the foundation of the Turkic Council and, under Tokayev’s leadership, its more recent institutionalization as the OTS. This shift has enabled countries like Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan to develop stronger ties and to work together more effectively on regional challenges. The OTS’s November 2022 Samarkand Declaration, adopted on occasion of its ninth summit meeting, laid out a broad but grounded multilateral program for cooperation in the foreign policy and security fields as well as in the economy and people-to-people relations and the reinforcement of the institutionalization of Turkic-world activities.
The country is well-placed to cooperate with Azerbaijan to play key middle-power geopolitical and geoeconomic roles in the Caspian Sea region. Each is the economic powerhouse of its area with vast energy resources and a stable political climate, making it an attractive partner for regional and global powers. Similarly, Azerbaijan is a crucial player in the South Caucasus, an important transit hub for oil and gas supplies, connecting Europe and Asia, including the westward transit of energy from Kazakhstan. Their recent bilateral agreement is in line with the 2022-2027 roadmap for the Middle Corridor’s development that Kazakhstan proposed trilaterally among Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Turkey in Aktau last November at the foreign-minister level.
It is worth mentioning that Kazakhstan was among the first to rally for greater regional and intra-regional cooperation to confront global challenges arising from increased polarization and fragmentation. It has reached out to the middle powers around the world, as well as business and academia with the call to convene in Astana at the Astana International Forum on June 8-9. The forum will provide a new means to amplify voices standing for nonviolence in international politics to ensure sustainable economic growth, peace, and security. There is a hope that the call will resonate among “middle powers” to find the path back to peace.
Kazakhstan has pursued a multi-vector foreign policy aimed at maintaining the balance between major powers while advancing its national interests. This pragmatic foreign-policy approach, pioneered by Tokayev as the country’s foreign minister and prime minister in the 1990s and 2000s, has allowed it to thread the needle between Russia and China while deepening its ties to the West as well as to other Asian powers and regional players. This is the policy of an archetypal Eurasian middle power.
Harun Karčić is a journalist and political analyst covering the Balkans and Turkey. Over the past decade, he has authored numerous articles on Islam and foreign influence in the region, including Saudi, Iranian, Turkish, and more recently Chinese and Russian. He also regularly reports on Muslim minorities in Europe and rising right-wing nationalism. He tweets @HarunKarcic.