SEnECA Blog Post: Spain’s relations vis-à-vis Kazakhstan: so far apart but so friendly

Spain’s main foreign policy priorities —namely North Africa, the EU and Latin America— are far away from Central Asia. Nevertheless, the country does have a significant interest and presence in one of the five Central Asian countries: Kazakhstan.

Since the break-up of the Soviet Union and the independence of Kazakhstan in December 1991, the relations between Astana —now Nursultan— and Madrid have been outstanding. The two countries established diplomatic relations in early 1992 and have opened embassies in Madrid and Astana respectively. Kazakhstan hosts Spain’s only diplomatic mission in Central Asia. Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan matters are managed by it as well, while Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan related issues are directed by the embassy of Spain in Moscow.

The good relations between the two countries have mainly been a result of the friendly relations of their former heads of state, King Juan Carlos I and Nursultan Nazarbayev. King Juan Carlos I boosted the relations between the two countries with a state visit to Kazakhstan in 2007 and his son, and current King of Spain, Felipe VI, followed this path with an official visit to Astana in 2017. Likewise, both former Spanish Prime Ministers Zapatero and Rajoy have visited the country and met with Nazarbayev in an official capacity. On the other hand, Nazarbayev paid official visits to Spain in at least two occasions, 2008 and 2013. Conversely, no Spanish head of state, nor prime ministers have visited any other Central Asian country in an official visit, albeit Felipe VI met with president of Uzbekistan, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, during the International Exposition in Astana in 2017 (Expo 2017).

The positive development in the bilateral relations between the two countries translated into the mutual support in different political and cultural initiatives. Spain, for instance, supported the Kazakh presidency of the OSCE in 2010 and the Expo 2017 Astana’s candidacy. In addition, numerous bilateral agreements have been signed between the two countries, emphasizing the establishment of a strategic partnership in 2009. This agreement covers cooperation in a wide range of topics, such as culture, defence, science, technology and trade.

The volumes of trade between Kazakhstan and Spain are also significant, particularly compared to the other four Central Asian states. The main reasons being, inter alia, the advanced economic situation and legal security of Kazakhstan. Kazakhstan exported goods worth 2 billion Euros to Spain in 2018, while its imports reached 120 million from Spain in the same year. This meaningful trade imbalance is primarily the result of the Spanish need for unrefined oil, which represents nearly 94 per cent of Kazakh exports to Spain. Spanish exports to Kazakhstan are, on the other hand, electronic devises sold by Talgo —the main Spanish manufacturer of trains—, Indra —a Spanish information technology and defence systems company—, and Airbus.

In total, sixty-six companies with Spanish capital are registered in Kazakhstan. They are not only businesses working in the energy, construction and infrastructure sectors, but also in the fashion and textile industries, which have notably grown in the last years. Although other European countries such as Italy and the Netherlands are still ahead in the ranking, Spain is one of the ten largest trading partners of Kazakhstan nowadays.

The transition of power from Nazarbayev to Tokayev in June 2019 is unlikely to impact the good relations between Spain and Kazakhstan. Both administrations seem to be committed to increase and deepen the relations between the two countries in the future. Recently, in March 2019, the Spanish authorities announced the opening of a Cervantes Institute, the Spanish state-agency responsible to promote studying and teaching Spanish around the world (the first one in Central Asia), while Kazakh authorities have already communicated its intention to intensify business relations between the two countries.

SEnECA blog contribution by Pol Vila Sarriá, project officer at the Trans European Policy Studies Association (TEPSA) in Brussels.