Why Hasn’t Mongolia Developed Stronger Ties with Kazakhstan?

By Brandon Miliate
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Since 1990, Mongolia has pursued a multidirectional foreign policy, forging strong ties with such global players as the United States, European Union, Japan, South Korea and India. This so-called “third neighbor policy” has given Mongolia much greater reach than might be expected as a small state sandwiched between Russia and China. Still, there are notable holes in Mongolia’s foreign relations. While the almost non-existent relations with remote Africa and South America are perhaps not surprising, the fact that Mongolian-Kazakhstani relations remain at a bare minimum is not as easy to explain.

Mongolia is separated from Kazakhstan by only a thin strip of land, less than 40 km across. There are approximately 160,000 Kazakhs living in Mongolia, most of them in the far western province of Bayan-Ölgii. Some 60,000 Kazakhs returned to Kazakhstan as part of the Oralmandar program from 1990-1992. From this number, about 10,000 have come back to Mongolia, finding life in Kazakhstan too difficult for non-Russian speakers. Kazakhs and Mongolians have a shared history as nomadic pastoralists, with many cultural similarities remaining to this day. Yet factors such as proximity, population ties and cultural similarities seem to count for little in contemporary affairs.

Mongolia established formal diplomatic relations with Kazakhstan in 1992, and it remains the only country in the region to host a Mongolian Embassy. However, a brief look shows that relations between the two countries have been unimpressive. A number of high-level visits between heads of state have failed to result in economic or institutional engagement. Trade currently stands at a little over $43 million ($26 million in exports from Mongolia; $18 in million imports). No more than five Mongolian students study in Kazakhstan annually. Direct investment from Kazakhstan stands at only about $12 million, making it the 35th largest investor in Mongolia, with only 34 Kazakhstani companies operating in the country.

These minimal relations between two states so close to each other culturally and geographically are initially perplexing. However, there are three primary barriers to political and economic ties: historical political boundaries, Kazakhstani-Russian relations and the limitations of authoritarian-democratic interaction.

In the 1800s, the territory of modern day Kazakhstan was integrated into the Russian Empire, effectively beginning the process of closing off the Kazakh people from the outside world, including Mongolia. With the establishment of the Soviet Union and the subsequent division of Central Asia into ethnic republics, Russia had effectively made the region its own. True, Mongolia was closely aligned with the USSR, but Soviet economic planners had more direct control over Kazakhstan and dealt with the two separately. By the time Mongolia and Kazakhstan were free to pursue their own relations, history had taken its toll. The original ties between the Kazakh and Mongolian peoples had been effectively severed, complicating any foundation for relations today.

Second, while Mongolia is determined to defeat geographic destiny and balance out Russia and China through the use of “third neighbors,” Kazakhstan has been more willing to accept and even encourage close ties with the Russian Federation. Of course, Kazakhstan has also pursued deeper ties with the United States, China and Turkey, but it remains enmeshed in Russian-led institutions such as the CIS, CSTO, EurAsEC and SCO. From Mongolia’s perspective, keeping the role of Russia balanced means avoiding close cooperation with the Russian Federation’s principle allies/partners, including Kazakhstan.

Third, Mongolia has focused on developing links with the world’s leading democracies, and although it has officially declared that it will not cut ties with communist or authoritarian states, it also does not go out of its way to develop relations with such regimes. Mongolia has invested effort in developing close relations with leading democracies, such as the United States and European Union members, participating in NATO’s PfP, hosting military exercises such as Khaan Quest, and joining the OSCE in 2012. Getting too close to an authoritarian state, even one that is a near neighbor, would call into question Mongolia’s democratic values and credentials.

In the foreseeable future, Mongolia and Kazakhstan will continue to share close cultural ties and develop more people-to-people relations. As Mongolia continues to develop economically, Kazakhstan may become more important as a fellow resource-based economy. However, political and/or military ties are unlikely to develop, given Kazakhstan’s continued close engagement with the Russian Federation and authoritarian government, coupled with Mongolia’s reluctance to befriend such states.

Brandon Miliate received his M.A. in Asia Pacific Policy Studies in May 2013 from The University of British Columbia, and will be a PhD Student at Indiana University starting August 2013.

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