September 23, 2014 / 1:43 PM / 4 years ago

Exclsuive: Kazakhstan balanced between Ukraine and post-NATO Afghanistan

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Looking at the neighborhood around Kazakhstan on a spinning globe, the Central Asian nation’s foreign minister sees both partnerships and peril in the form of the Russian-Ukraine crisis and the coming NATO pullout from Afghanistan by year end.

Foreign Minister Erlan Idrissov used the globe in the country’s Mission to the United Nations on Monday to illustrate the geopolitical conditions it faces, with perhaps the biggest influence coming from Russia, its former Soviet overlord, to the north.

Kazakhstan, which is rich in oil and minerals, is five times the size of France but populated by just 17.3 million people, of which between 21 percent and 22 percent are ethnic Russians. There is also a sizeable minority of 300,000 ethnic Ukrainians.

Like other former Soviet satellite states, Kazakhstan has taken note of how Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in March. Moscow is seen by Kiev and the West as meddling in the internal affairs of Ukraine by supporting pro-Russian separatists.

“We as a matter of principle support an independent, sovereign, forward-looking, advancing politically and economically Ukraine. That is the core of our policy towards Ukraine,” said Idrissov.

“We take no sides,” he said, explaining that Russia, Ukraine, the United States, and the European Union were all good friends of Kazakhstan.

Unlike Ukraine, whose political ructions began when protesters ousted then-President Viktor Yanukovich for pulling out of a trade deal with the European Union, and turned away from Moscow, Kazakhstan along with Belarus signed a treaty in May with Russia to create a new trading bloc called the Eurasian Economic Union. It comes into force Jan. 1.

“We have a strong bilateral relationship with Ukraine,” Idrissov said. However, “economically, we used to have burgeoning trade, until the crisis.”

Idrissov insisted Kazakhstan would not suffer a “Ukraine scenario” of Russian intervention. He cited an economy that grew over 6 percent last year, and a multi-ethnic society that has known relative stability under the leadership of President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who has been in power since 1989.

“The crisis prevents the entire area from focusing on economic development and delivering well being to the population,” he said.

On the opposite end of the country, the impending pullout of NATO-led troops from Afghanistan is a worry in the nation’s capital, Astana.

“Kazakhstan is not immune to any unexpected developments, like any other country. Afghanistan poses a serious threat because it is a very unstable country ... We are much concerned about the post-2014 scenarios,” Idrissov said.

NATO combat troops will withdraw at the end of the year, leaving the fight against Taliban insurgents to Afghan forces.

According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, around 80 percent of the world’s opium and heroin are produced in Afghanistan, with the drug trade accounting for up to 15 percent of its gross domestic product.

“We are very much concerned by the inefficiencies of international steps to curb drug trafficking and organized crime. Drug trafficking is fueling lots of bad activities, including extremism and terrorism in Afghanistan. Lack of economic development is of great concern.”

Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe

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