The Steppes to the States

Since 1990, Mongolia has pursued a multidirectional foreign policy, forging strong ties with such global players as the United States, the EU, Japan, South Korea and India. This so-called 'third-neighbor policy' has given Mongolia much greater reach than many expect of it. But there is one country notably missing from Mongolia's list of 'third neighbors': Kazakhstan. The limited engagement between Mongolia and Kazakhstan is indicative of Central Asia's failed regionalization and Mongolia's ability to opt-out of regional affairs.

Mongolia is separated from Kazakhstan by a thin strip of land less than 40 kilometers wide. There are approximately 160,000 Kazakhs living in Mongolia, most of them in the far western province of Bayan Olgii. Some 60,000 ethnic Kazakhs living in Mongolia returned to Kazakhstan as part of the Oralmandar program from 1990–92. From this number, about 10,000 have returned to Mongolia, finding 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. But their proximity, population ties, and cultural similarities seem to count for little in contemporary affairs.

Mongolia established formal diplomatic relations with Kazakhstan in 1992, and Kazakhstan remains the only country in the region to host a Mongolian Embassy. But a brief look shows that relations between the two countries remain underdeveloped. 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 US$43 million ($26 million in exports from Mongolia; $18 million in imports). Only five Mongolian students study in Kazakhstan annually. Direct investment from Kazakhstan stands at only about US$12 million, making Kazakhstan only the 35th-largest investor in Mongolia.

These minimal relations between two states so culturally and geographically close to each other are initially perplexing. But 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, which had the effect 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 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 countries 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. This historical legacy still complicates relations today.

Second, while Mongolia is determined to balance out Russia and China through the use of 'third neighbors,' Kazakhstan has been more willing to accept and even encourage close relations 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 Commonwealth of Independent States, Collective Security Treaty Organization, Eurasian Economic Community and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. From Mongolia's perspective, balancing Russia means avoiding close cooperation with the Russian Federation's principle allies and partners, including Kazakhstan.

Third, Mongolia has focused on developing close relations 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 a lot of time into the United States and EU members, participating in NATO's Partnership for Peace, hosting military exercises such as Khaan Quest, and joining the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in 2012. Establishing too close a relationship with an authoritarian state, no matter how close, would call into question Mongolia's democratic values and credentials.

These same barriers influence Mongolia's relations with the remaining states of Central Asia, reflecting the difficulty of forming a cohesive region in Inner Asia. Central Asian instability throughout the 1990s made any effort toward regionalization futile. Today, the Central Asian states continue to forego regional cooperation and joint action in favor of independent agendas. Mongolia, for its part, had no interest in rejoining the post-Soviet sphere, and chose to avoid any one regional affiliation by focusing its foreign policy in multiple directions. The failure of regionalization in Central Asian states means Mongolia has no incentive to pursue relations with Kazakhstan or the other Central Asian states.

(Brandon Miliate is a PhD student in Political Science at Indiana University in the United States. This was written for the East Asia Forum)