01.03.2024 Author: Boris Kushhov

Kazakhstan and Italy: a model for partnership with the EU?

On January 19, 2024 the President of Kazakhstan ended his official visit to Italy.

During his visit to Italy Kassym-Jomart Tokayev held talks with Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, as well as Italian President Sergio Mattarella. During his meetings with his hosts, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev noted the dynamic development of trade between the two countries, which reached $14.5 billion by the end of 2023. He expressed the hope that the figure would increase to $20 billion in the coming years. If that happens, then Italy will account for about 1/6 of all of Kazakhstan’s foreign trade, compared to its present level, just over 10%. Nevertheless, Italy is already Kazakhstan’s largest export partner and an important foreign investor in the country.  Kazakhstan supplies Italy with wheat, ferroalloys, coal and titanium.

For Kazakhstan, Italy has a special status – it is the only EU member state to have signed a strategic partnership agreement with the Central Asian republic.

Kassym-Jomart Tokayev described the reconstruction of Almaty’s Thermal Power Plant-3 as a particularly promising joint venture between the two countries. This project is the first stage of a large-scale program to gradually convert Kazakhstan’s thermal power plants from coal to gas as part of its commitment to fighting climate change. While Kazakhstan has entrusted the creation of new gas facilities to its partnership with the Russian Federation, the reconstruction of the Almaty thermal power plant is being carried out through joint ventures with European partners. In their talks, the two heads of state also exchanged views on the development of the Trans-Caspian international transportation route, in which Kazakhstan and its Caspian Sea ports will play a key role. This project will enable both Kazakhstan and Italy to play a larger role in the transit of goods between Asia and Europe.  There are also prospects for cooperation between the two countries in relation to the sale of uranium, of which Kazakhstan is the world’s largest exporter. In particular, Italy plans to reopen nuclear power plants which it shut down following its 1987 referendum, and build new nuclear facilities.

Kassym-Jomart Tokayev extended his trip to Italy in order to participate in a joint Kazakh-Italian Business Forum. In his speech at the forum, the Kazakh President talked about plans for a major reform of the Republic’s laws, which will make it as attractive as possible for foreign investors. The tangible results of the forum included the signing of several major deals, including agreements on the construction of a gas processing plant in the Mangystau Region, a sulfuric acid plant in the Turkestan Region, and a plant for the production of thermal insulation materials in the Aktobe Region. In total, the parties signed 18 documents with a total value of more than $1.5 billion during their meeting. And after the end of the trip, it was announced that Kazakhstan’s Samruk-Kazyna (National Welfare) Fund and the Italian group Cassa Depositi i Prestiti plan to create a joint investment fund to finance industrial projects.

While Kazakhstan is Italy’s main partner in Central Asia, it is not its only one – in November 2023 the Italian President visited Uzbekistan. In addition, a Central Asia-Italy meeting, to be hosted by Rome, is planned for 2024.  This fact only emphasizes Italy’s long-term interest in cooperating with Kazakhstan, the largest economy in the region.

The President of Kazakhstan was also received by the Pope, to whom he presented a mosaic depicting Lake Karakol and a small souvenir, a “Bird of Peace.” The Vatican’s links with distant Kazakhstan are actually stronger than one might expect – in 2022, the Pope visited Astana, which was hosting the VII Congress of World and Traditional Religions. There was also limited contact between the Vatican and Kazakhstan in 2023, when the pontiff, who was heading to Mongolia, sent letters of greeting to the leaders of all the countries he flew over on his long flight to Ulaanbaatar. In recent years, Pope Francis’ foreign policy has included a desire to establish dialog with other faiths and cultures, and in this regard, Kazakhstan is a rare example of an Asian state in which the traditions of both European religions, such as Orthodox Christianity, and Asian religions, such as Islam and Tengriism, are allowed to flourish and intermingle.

Kassym-Jomart Tokayev also had a meeting with Qu Dongyu, Director-General of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), which has its headquarters in Rome. There are several possible reasons for Kazakhstan’s interest in this meeting. First of all, Kazakhstan has an ambitious plan to increase national agricultural exports. This program, it appears, is of significant importance for the President of Kazakhstan himself – it was one of the main commitments in his election program. Another reason may be Kazakhstan’s desire to parry criticism by Western politicians for its decision to expand industrial cooperation with the Russian Federation, specifically its imports of fertilizers and seeds. Kazakhstan argues that cutting links between Russia and Kazakhstan could lead to a worsening of the global food crisis – and avoiding such a scenario is among the FAO’s key objectives.  The Kazakh President also discussed the prospects of further cooperation on the agriculture sector with the President of Italy.

In summary, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev’s visit to Italy turned out to be more than just productive and effective. He discussed Kazakhstan’s wide-ranging relations with both Italy and the Holy See, and laid the foundations for future cooperation in a number of sectors of mutual importance.  We can also see his visit to Italy as a follow-up to his meetings with other EU leaders – in 2023 he held talks with the Chancellor of Germany and the President of France.

One significant difference between his Italian trip and his visits to Germany and France was the strong focus on bilateral trade and economic topics, with no mention of global political issues. Importantly, unlike his colleagues from France and Germany, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev’s Italian hosts did not try to pressurize him to sign up to the prevailing EU anti-Russian political agenda. Of course, this may be a sign of Italy’s more restrained stance on the Ukrainian crisis. However, the failure of Emmanuel Macron and Olaf Scholz in their Russophobic appeals to Kazakhstan could also be behind Italy’s refusal to “push” this topic.


Boris Kushkhov, Department of Korea and Mongolia, Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook

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