From the Soviet Gulag to the UN Security Council: Kazakhstan’s emergence as a middle power has lessons for Canada

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s campaign team for a seat on the UN Security Council should take note of how this former Soviet republic managed to exert its independence and find enough diplomatic 'mojo' to gain a seat on the powerful body, writes Steven Staples.

As Prime Minister Justin Trudeau lobbies for Canada to win a seat on the United Nations Security Council in the next vote in 2020, Steven Staples says he heed the advice and experience of current council member and fellow 'middle power' Kazakhstan. Photograph courtesy of the United Nations

PUBLISHED :Thursday, Jan. 4, 2018 4:32 PM

Kazakhstan may not immediately leap to mind as a country that has much to teach Canada about diplomacy. But Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s campaign team for a seat on the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) should take note of how this former Soviet republic managed to exert its independence and find enough diplomatic “mojo” to gain a seat on the powerful body.

On New Year’s Day, the former Soviet Republic of Kazakhstan assumed the role of president of the UNSC, kicking off the second half of its current two-year term. It won the non-permanent seat in 2016, besting Thailand in two rounds of voting.

Speaking to government representatives, as I did recently on press tour of Kazakhstan organized by the government, the pride of being the first Central Asian country to win an election for a non-permanent Security Council seat is palpable.

“We went where we had never been before,” said one Foreign Affairs Ministry official, speaking of the country’s campaign for support from UN member states. Kazakhstan started its campaign late, and found that many nations had already committed to Thailand. But by reaching out to regions where it had few relationships, such as Africa, enough votes moved from Thailand to Kazakhstan in the second round to give it the required two-thirds majority.


It’s a huge achievement for this once impoverished and brutally oppressed nation. Its path from the 1930s Soviet-run Gulag to the United Nations Security Council in 2017 has many lessons for Canada as it seeks its own non-permanent seat on the UNSC in 2020 for 2021-2022.

Canada is often described as a “middle power” politically-speaking, but Kazakhstan is a middle power literally, wedged between Russia and China to its north and east, and ringed by the Muslim world to the south—along the route of the ancient Silk Road.

Kazakh officials bristle at any suggestion the country remains in the Russian sphere of influence, however. They point out that Kazakhstan has been independent for over 25 years, and the EU is now its largest trading market, mostly for exports of oil and gas, although China and Russia are its two largest trading partner countries.

Being a “middle power” certainly contributed to its ascent to the United Nations Security Council. Living on the Steppe, at the crossroads of former empires and religions, has imbued Kazakh foreign policy with the importance of remaining friendly with all its neighbours and promoting ethnic and religious harmony. Like Canada, open borders, religious pluralism and multiculturalism are essential for Kazakhstan’s political and economic prosperity.


When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Kazakhstan found itself sitting atop the world’s fourth largest nuclear stockpile and a toxic, radioactive open-air nuclear test site at Semipalatinsk. It’s newly established government returned the weapons to Russia and closed the nuclear test site. As well, enough highly enriched uranium to make a few dozen nuclear bombs was quietly shipped to the United States, building a new partnership with the Americans.

Promoting peace and nuclear security and disarmament have become central themes of Kazakhstan’s foreign policy. In July, it defied the demands of the nuclear weapons states and voted in favour of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, also called the Nuclear Ban Treaty.

Interestingly, Kazakhstan does not consider its seat on the UN security Council as an impediment to pursuing its nuclear disarmament agenda. Kazakhstan’s Ambassador to Canada, Konstantin Zhigalov, told Parliamentarians in Ottawa recently that in January, as the chair of the Security Council, Kazakhstan’s long-serving President Nursultan Nazarbayev is planning to host a special high-level UN SC meeting in New York on weapons of mass destruction.

By comparison, Canada, falling in line behind the United States, voted against the Nuclear Ban Treaty. Even worse, when questioned in the House to explain his hostility to the Nuclear Ban Treaty, Prime Minister Trudeau frustrated peace groups by calling the landmark deal “sort of, useless” because the United States and other nuclear states disagreed with its aims, despite more than fifty countries signing the treaty in September.


Kazakhstan, on the contrary, embraced peace groups this year and hosted a meeting of the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Pugwash Movement, the international disarmament group founded in Nova Scotia at the height of the Cold War.

In its campaign for the UNSC seat, Canada may attempt to burnish its international disarmament credentials. But our nation’s accomplishments are fading into history, such as the Landmines Treaty, born from the famous “Ottawa Process,” that occurred nearly twenty years ago.

Today, Canada’s contribution is nearly unrecognizable amongst UN efforts to resolve major international conflicts. Its disappointing commitments on UN Peacekeeping at the recent Vancouver Defence Ministerial meeting hosted by Canada represented another lost opportunity to showcase our commitment to the UN.

By comparison, Kazakhstan just hosted the seventh round of Syrian peace talks in its capital, Astana, which has helped to establish de-escalation zones in the protracted Syrian War. That same week, the Kazakh president awarded King Abdullah II of Jordan the Nazarbayev Prize for a Nuclear-Weapons-Free World and Global Security for his contribution to “regional stability, global security and steadfast stance against war and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.”

The countdown is ticking on Canada’s bid for a UN Security Council seat in 2020, where it will face tough competition from Ireland and Norway for the single available seat and two-year term. It’s not too late to take a page from the Kazakh playbook and distinguish ourselves as a true middle power, separate from our domineering nuclear-armed neighbour to the south, and a champion of the UN’s values of peace and international cooperation.

Steven Staples is the President of Public Response, a policy research and advocacy group based in Ottawa.

The Hill Times