Kazakhstan has evolved from a stable investment partner to a strategic ally for Türkiye, providing a crucial link in Central Asia, with diplomatic harmony fostering ongoing cooperation
It is widely acknowledged that Türkiye and Azerbaijan are often described, using the words of former Azerbaijani President Heydar Aliyev, as “one nation and two states.”
The kinship between the two has been on full display in recent years, most especially with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan‘s congratulations to Azerbaijan following its victory in the disputed territories of Karabakh. What is less commonly appreciated is the degree of Turkish economic, political and cultural influence in the strategic region of Central Asia and the extent to which this influence has been slowly built with willing partners since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The Organization of Turkic States (OTS) showcases the quiet trend of Türkiye’s growing reach. Türkiye informally heads the OTS, which includes Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. The composition of the OTS, straddling the “Middle Corridor” from China to Europe, puts the region and its members at the forefront of a multitude of geopolitical trends.
Russia’s waning influence among its southern neighbors, growing Chinese influence in Turkic states, Beijing’s desire to connect overland with European markets, transformative domestic reforms, sectarian conflicts, tensions with Iran and Afghanistan, and more are pushing the OTS into an unexpectedly critical role in the international system.
One pillar of the OTS is obviously Türkiye. The second, less appreciated pillar is not just Azerbaijan – however close Baku and Ankara remain – but Kazakhstan.
When the Soviet Union collapsed and Kazakhstan declared independence, Türkiye was the first state to formally recognize its independence and immediately engage with its resurgent Turkic cousins. The first president of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, invited a Turkish delegation to Kazakhstan, making it the first foreign delegation to visit sovereign Kazakhstan. The two states have a long history defined by strong linguistic, cultural and historical ties. However, it was not just cultural similarities or ethnic connections that defined emerging Turkish-Kazakh relations and have made Ankara and Astana so close.
One of the primary objectives of Turkish foreign policy since the 1990s has been to strengthen ties with Central Asia to allow commodities to flow to Türkiye and the global markets via the Caspian and Azerbaijan without transiting through Russia. This economic strategy is why, after independence, with Nazarbayev’s enthusiastic support, Türkiye and Kazakhstan established extremely close relations, culminating in a “strategic partnership” in 2009 and an “enhanced strategic partnership” in 2022 under the current President Kassym-Zhomart Tokayev. Ankara and Astana have subsequently entered into an array of cooperative agreements in everything from tourism to energy to agriculture.
In 2022, the trade volume between Kazakhstan and Türkiye surged to $6.3 billion (TL 188.62 billion), establishing Türkiye as Kazakhstan’s fourth-largest trading partner. This economic collaboration is further underscored by Türkiye’s substantial direct investments in Kazakhstan’s economy, which passed $5 billion and solidified Türkiye’s position among the top 10 investors in the country.
In January-September 2023, Kazakhstan’s exports to Türkiye decreased by 18.4% to $2.92 billion, while imports from Türkiye surged by 40.4% to $1.51 billion. The overall external trade, influenced by a decline in Türkiye’s imports, showed a more balanced trend with a significant 40.4% increase in Türkiye’s exports, as per the September 2023 data from the Statistics Agency of Kazakhstan.
Most of this economic activity is energy-centric, revolving around the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline network. Since the war in Ukraine, Kazakh oil has been diverted increasingly to Türkiye, with significant quantities moved in 2023.
Also noteworthy is Turkish-Kazakh cooperation in the defense-industrial sector. As Kazakhstan upgrades its aging Soviet arsenal, it increasingly turns to Turkish arms suppliers rather than Russian or Chinese competitors. In 2023, Kazakhstan purchased a significant quantity of Turkish armored vehicles and launched talks for assembling Turkish Anka drones under license.
In May 2022, Erol Oğuz, Defense Industries and Turkish Aerospace Industries (TUSAŞ) officially announced plans to assemble Anka drones in Kazakhstan, with discussions ongoing regarding further investments in the project. According to the memorandum signed in May 2022, Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI) will produce Anka combat drones in partnership with Kazakhstan Engineering, marking Kazakhstan as the first production partner for Anka outside Türkiye. The collaboration involves technology transfer and manufacturing in Kazakhstan, fostering military cooperation. Anka drones, in service with the Turkish Armed Forces since 2017, are versatile and equipped for intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and target engagement missions. This joint activity has culminated in a military cooperation plan for 2024, which promises further cooperation.
Multi-vector foreign policy
Kazakhstan complements Türkiye’s foreign policy objectives with trade and defense cooperation and its own “multi-vector foreign policy.” This strategy, the brainchild of Nazarbayev, strongly emphasizes cooperation and economic expansion by promoting cordial relations and foreign direct investment (FDI) from multiple international actors. Kazakhstan’s extensive and indefensible borders with Russia and China are best secured by ensuring extensive FDI from the West, expansive cultural and international ties, and diplomatic cooperation and leadership.
For the multi-vector foreign policy to build up diplomatic capital, Kazakhstan took an active role in international peace and arbitration wherever possible. This push to be a “Steppe Switzerland” prompted Kazakhstan to abandon its nuclear arsenal inherited from the Soviet Union, at the time the world’s fourth largest arsenal, the creation of the Astana Process to negotiate an end to the Syrian civil war, the convening of the Leaders of World and Traditional Religions Congress to promote religious pluralism which has met every three years since 2003 under the auspices of the Nursultan Nazarbayev Center for Development of Interfaith and Intercivilization Dialogue, pushing for the U.N. International Day Against Nuclear Tests and many other initiatives.
This multi-vector foreign policy, which must keep Astana equidistant from the principal poles of global power, reflects much of Kazakhstan’s policy priorities, which are focused on social and economic development. These same policies helped make Kazakhstan the most desirable partner for Türkiye in Central Asia.
Kazakhstan maintained calm and avoided the ethnic violence that plagued many post-Soviet states by embracing a multiethnic identity while simultaneously embarking upon a state and nation-building project that the Turkish republic’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, would recognize.
Upon independence, Nazarbayev pushed for the “Kazakhfication” of civil society and the bureaucracy, helping to revive the Kazakh language without displacing the Russian language, with hopes of encouraging a complete transition of the Kazakh language away from Cyrillic and to the Latin alphabet in 2031. This will make Kazakh script more compatible with Turkish, Uzbek and Azeri languages. That revival was paired with an educational policy that stressed the best practices from the West, study abroad for bachelor’s and master’s students, and a push to import modern technology.
The results of this state-building project have been noticeable, especially when compared to its neighbors. In gross domestic product (GDP) per capita, the GINI Index, and almost any other demonstrable measure, Kazakhstan outcompetes its Turkic rivals (except Türkiye itself). Since Kazakhstan’s independence, there has been a notable demographic shift, with the state and society becoming more ethnically Kazakh. The titular Kazakh population increased from 40% in 1989 to 68.5% in 2020, leading to Kazakhs forming majorities in cities like Almaty and Atyrau. This shift signifies a significant change in the ethnic composition of the country.
Now, ethnic Kazakhs compose almost 70% of the population, with Russians a decreasing minority and less threatening to the internal stability of Kazakhstan due to Russian ethnonationalism, as seen in Crimea or the Donbas.
Nazarbayev skillfully navigated the challenges posed by the post-Soviet transition. Internally, his policies played a crucial role in steering the country through economic and political changes. Externally, Nazarbayev has demonstrated adept diplomacy by maintaining a delicate balance in relations with major global players, including Beijing, Moscow, Brussels and Washington. This diplomatic finesse has positioned Astana as a significant player on the international stage, often finding common ground with Ankara.
For Türkiye, Kazakhstan has emerged as more than just a stable partner for investment; it has become an underappreciated ally and a strategic conduit for influence, particularly in Central Asia. The alignment of diplomatic interests between Ankara and Astana reflects their shared objectives and mutual benefits in the evolving global landscape. As both countries continue to adapt to the quickly evolving international system, this quiet alignment between Ankara and Astana is likely to persist, fostering continued cooperation and collaboration.