Humanitarian assistance and Kazakhstan during 2020 COVID-19 pandemic

Posted on:Jul 6,2021


The topic of humanitarian assistance reached a new level of importance during the COVID-19 pandemic. This paper analyzes the relationship between bilateral partners and humanitarian assistance that was provided in 2020 from the point of view of interests. The core question is whether Kazakhstan and its most important political and economic partners have helped each other out during the pandemic. The quantities that countries provided is also analyzed to understand who the biggest donors are. Results have shown that the main partners are amongst the biggest benefactors but also that some partners will choose not to cooperate. Furthermore, evidence is found that there are a few states that might have greater interests than previously thought.

Keywords: pandemic, bilateral relationship, humanitarian aid, interests, COVID-19, Kazakhstan


Humanity, although it has made grade strides in science and technology, still is vulnerable to infectious disease. When these diseases affect large crowds out people they are known as epidemics and when these epidemics have spread to very distant corners of the planet are known as pandemics. History has seen its fair share of pandemics, the most notable one being the bubonic plague. The last pandemic, if we disconsider the ongoing HIV/AIDS pandemic (Quinn, 1996), to be recorded was the Spanish flu of 1918. There were great concerns during the 2013-2016 Ebola epidemic that it might evolve into a pandemic. Scientists have kept warning that a pandemic could easily occur (Mackenzie, 2020) and in 2020 the coronavirus disease 2019, also known as COVID-19, spread like wild-fire across the globe leaving very few countries untouched in 2020. Some governments chose to downplay how dangerous the virus, such an example is Belarus where the President encouraged people that driving a tractor (Euractiv, 2020) and drinking vodka are both ways to heal (Skynews, 2020), while, for instance, Turkmenistan denied it had any cases in 2020 although many outside voiced confirmed this is not the case (Pannier, 2021).

The pandemic is a health crisis that has implications on a societal, economic, cultural level, leaving very few elements unaffected. Although the existence of coronavirus was known and did in fact create epidemics in certain regions (Azhar, Lanini, Ippolito, & Zumla, 2016) it has never developed into a pandemic. Another important aspect is that even though there was knowledge about coronaviruses, it was not known how exactly the strain of COVID-19 was spreading, what treatment to apply. This lack of information created a great strain on the medical system and as information started to arise the situation did not improve since the demand for medicine and equipment that was deemed beneficial in the fight against the virus were in short supply. People, companies, and governments were scouring to find masks (Nierenberg, 2020) and other protective equipment, tests, ventilators, medicine and later for vaccines. This shortage further burdened the humanitarian crisis.

Many countries have provided humanitarian assistance to China, the country that was first hit by the virus, in the beginning of the outbreak when it was still just a local problem. As the virus spread, more and more countries faced increasing difficulties eventually generating a global humanitarian crisis. Resources played a key component in the provision of humanitarian aid; countries that had the necessary means to control the domestic crisis offered aid to other countries.

Providing aid to other countries is part of a countries foreign policy. A definition for foreign policy can be: the sum of policies and approaches a state applies in its relationship with other international actors. Depending on the two main schools of international relations, international actors can be either be just states (according to the realist approach) or states, international organization, and non-state actors (according to the liberal approach). Realists consider states focus on power and thus put national interests at the core of their foreign policy and when providing humanitarian assistance actually do it based on the fact it can provide certain strategic or other benefits (Walt, 2016). The liberal school advocates for ethics, human rights and cooperation thus, from their perspective, neutrality and impartiality are the values behind humanitarian aid portraying it as interest-free (Weber, 2013). Trade has played the most significant role for China when choosing to provide aid, while the UK when providing aid to the Democratic Republic of Congo does not show signs of important strategic, political, or economic interests (Barnaby Willitts-King, 2018).

Humanitarian values and interests have a complex relationship that cannot be considered static but context-specific, multi-layered, and non-linear. The meaning of values is also not fixed as they tend to have different meanings in different geographic locations, different cultures and contexts and the same can be said about interests since they are continuously altering due to the changes of global power dynamics (Barnaby Willitts-King, 2018).

Humanitarian assistance embodies the high-level relations between states and government donorship. Material and financial contributions can be given on a bilateral level or a multilateral level both of which are part of donorship (Barnaby Willitts-King, 2018). This paper focuses on states as direct donors during the coronavirus epidemic in 2020 Kazakhstan.

The author has the following hypothesis:
H1- Kazakhstan will receive aid from its main political and economic bilateral partners and/or will provide aid to them.
The reason behind the hypothesis has to do with the fact that very few countries have not faced issues caused by the pandemic since no country was prepared.


Qualitative and quantitative methods are applied in the research. Through the use of statistics when analyzing trade and political ties the author wishes to demonstrate the relationship between humanitarian aid and interests.

Kazakhstan before COVID-19

The Republic of Kazakhstan has the most developed economy among the states of the Central Asian region (Vasa, 2018), benefiting from a very sustainable endowment with natural resources that it has cleverly used as a vector of a new economic development model. The path that this country has to follow in the context of complicated political, economic and social turbulence, regionally and globally, has been outlined in two strategic documents, namely: “The Road to the Future” (Nurly Zhol) and “The Plan of the Nation” (100 of concrete steps). Its foreign policy can be simply summarized as multivector, a policy that aims to foster mutually beneficial relations with all the international actors. The decision makers opt to have good relations on both bilateral and multilateral levels. Clarke considers that the First President’s multivector policy is mainly focused on offsetting Russian hegemony by means of diversifying political and economic ties with other major international players (Clarke, 2015). Deyermond claims that the country’s foreign policy revolves around the multileveled regional hegemonic competition amongst the great powers on one level and a sub-regional competition between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan (Deyermond, 2009).

In terms of bilateral relations Kazakhstan’s most important partners are Russia, China and the United States and the EU. Russia and China are both neighboring countries that have deep economic, political, cultural, strategic interests concerning Kazakhstan. The United States is also an important actor similar to the aforementioned, but the partnership exists since the dissolvement of the USSR thus cultural and historic ties are not as deep and the economic aspect predominates their relationship. Other important bilateral relations would be those with its smaller neighboring countries with whom it also shares historic and cultural ties. The European Union, due to its complex structure will be analyzed as a state. Kazakhstan’s most important economic partner is the EU to Kazakhstan but has similar ties like the United States in terms of history and culture (Vasa, 2020). Regarding the other nations, Kazakhstan has a special relationship with Turkey and the UAE (MOFAIC, 2020) while with the rest of the it does not have a specific entity with whom it would not foster friendly relations, there is no state with whom Kazakhstan chooses not to have diplomatic relations.

Due to Kazakhstan’s resources and geostrategic location, many countries have interests in this region. Russia sees Central Asia as part of its sphere of influence (Page, 1994), China as an integral part of its Belt and Road initiative (WB, 2020), the EU as an important source of resources (Mantel, 2015), the US as a geostrategic hub (Aliyev, 2020). Kazakhstan through its multivector policy seeks to have close relations with all of the above-mentioned countries but also its position in Central Asia as the leader (Beloborodov, 2020).
In order to better visualize Kazakhstan’s most important bilateral partners the author collected the most recent trade available from 2014-2018 and analyzed all the high-level interactions (state visits, phone calls with officials) the leaders of Kazakhstan had in the period 2014-2019. Kazakhstan’s most important trade partners and political partners are shown in the table below.

The countries that were previously discussed are also present in the table above thus confirming their importance. As previously discussed, according to the realist perspective, interest and humanitarian aid are interconnected. As such one would expect that the top economic partners and top political partners would provide, in a time of crisis, aid to one another. The following chapter will focus on the toll the coronavirus pandemic had on Kazakhstan and how its main bilateral partners cooperated in this period.

Kazakhstan during the pandemic

On March 13th, 2020, the virus was confirmed for the first time in Kazakhstan. The first cases were two citizens in Almaty who had prior been in Germany (Ensebaeva, 2020). A state of emergency was declared on March 15th by the president of Kazakhstan, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev (RIA, 2020). Nur-Sultan and Almaty were later quarantined, and people were prohibited from entering or exiting the cities (Arailym, 2020). Later other regions and cities were placed under quarantine.

In April 2020 three hospitals were urgently built connected tot he pandemic (Furlong, 2020).

During spring the representatives of Clinical Medicine had a positive attitude towards the control of the outbreak in Kazakhstan (Bakhytbek Zhalmagambetov, 2020).

On May 11 2020 the quarantine ended in all regions but was reintroduced in July due to the increasing number of confirmed cases (Reuters, 2020).

As a result of the goverment meeting on 26 January 2021 Kazakhstan entered the Red zone due to the increasing number of cases. Furthermore Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev expressed his concerns about the health care system performed in 2020: “All systemic problems in the field were revealed. At the same time, it caused damage to other medical services, which immediately affected the health of the population” (Satubaldina, 2021).

Bilateral relations and humanitarian aid during COVID 19

In 2020, compared to previous years not much stands out in terms of bilateral relations since events of significance were quite rare due to the ongoing crisis. From the analysis conducted by the author when trying to find what high-level meeting occurred during 2020, it was noticed that calls have gained a new level of importance in the period of the outbreak since high-level visits were considered of too high security risk for officials since they would be exposing themselves to the possibility of contracting the coronavirus. Since high-level meetings were did not occur in the period the author considered phone calls to be equally relevant. The only difference compared to previous years was that due to the outbreak bilateral partners offered several types of humanitarian assistance. It is also important to mention that Kazakhstan also provided aid to its partners.

According to the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Kazakhstan, Tileuberdi Mukhtar:

“Our country was one of the first to send medical humanitarian aid to Wuhan. Food and medical assistance was provided to Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Hungary, and Italy.

In turn, we accepted humanitarian assistance to fight the pandemic from countries in Europe, North America, Asia, Australia, the Middle East, and the CIS. I would also like to note the arrival of significant groups of medics from Russia and China, who provided important practical assistance to their Kazakh colleagues in the fight against Covid-19.’’ (Times, 2021)

By analyzing the previous statement made by the Minister of foreign affairs of Kazakhstan we can note that he wishes to highlight the importance of Russia and China which can be interpreted as the main partners in the crisis.

Since the beginning of the outbreak, the Republic of Kazakhstan has received assistance from private entities from 14 countries and aid from 20 governments around the world. The analysis will only consider the aid provided by governments. It can be argued that in certain cases companies can be to a smaller degree or higher degree influenced by government bodies however to prove this requires a careful analysis of each country’s domestic affairs and company structure. Thus, for reasons of accuracy only aid provided explicitly by governments is taken into consideration.

According to realist theory, as previously discussed, the motivations behind aid giving is an ongoing tussle between meeting the recipient needs and satisfying donor interest. Empirical research has shown that countries offering aid achieve higher foreign economic security and political objective then the needs of the recipient country (Maizels, 1984).

The hypothesis laid down by the author stated that Kazakhstan will receive and/or give aid to its main bilateral partners. The following table will present if aid was sent between these countries.

From the table above we can see that the first hypothesis is not confirmed since there are three countries that stand out, Belarus, Turkmenistan, and Armenia. All other countries with whom Kazakhstan shares deep economic and/or political ties has either sent or received aid. One might argue that the partners that have closest ties to Kazakhstan, EU, China, and Russia did fulfill this criteria however it is also worth analyzing the top 10 partners since this might show some peculiarities. This is the case with the three countries that stand out, although they share economic and political ties, they do not receive nor give aid. This table also shows that during this time of crisis 85% of Kazakhstan’s main partner countries did in fact cooperate and helped each other. Turkmenistan’s and Belorussia’s position can be explained by the fact that both countries have chosen to downplay the epidemic. Armenia’s condition does however not have a clear explanation.

Based on the table above that contains Kazakhstan’s main partners, a further analysis will be done in order to evaluate if those countries have been the main aid providers. The aim of this is to see if there is a correlation between main partners and main countries that provided aid. The analysis will look at the amount of safety medical equipment provided (gloves, masks, overalls, disinfectancts, etc) ventilators, medicines, and tests since these were of great scarcity during the pandemic. Also, it might show if certain countries not previously mentioned have interests in the region.

It would be expected in case of a correlation between the amount of aid provided and that of their economic and political relationship that China, Russia, and the EU would be the main providers of such aid. The table below shows the main providers of this sort of aid.

Based on the table above the presumption that there is a correlation between amount of aid provided and their economic and political partnership is disproven. These numbers might reveal which countries have certain interests in connection to Kazakhstan that have not been previously highlighted (Georgia, Qatar, Pakistan, and India). This should not be interpreted that for instance Georgia has higher interests in Kazakhstan than the EU, since the analysis does not include for instance multilateral aid that the EU in collaboration with other organizations have provided and the programs developed with Kazakhstan. The analysis merely shows which countries provided most of the specific items in 2020. The fact that Uzbekistan donated such a quantity that is greater than the rest combined might be an indicator of a shift from competition to cooperation.

A topic for future research could represent as to what are the interests of Qatar, Georgia, Pakistan and India in the region.


After analyzing the most important trade partners between 2014-2018 and political partners between 2014-2019 it can be concluded that in the year 2020, Kazakhstan and its main partners have helped each other out in fighting the pandemic with the exception of Belarus, Turkmenistan and Armenia. If simply analyzing by the amount of aid consisting of items that were a vital tool in combating the spread of the disease, it is visible that the main partners are not necessarily the main providers of such help. By equating humanitarian assistance to interests it was demonstrated the global powers, China, Russia, the EU and the US do have interests in Kazakhstan but are not the only parties demonstrating this. Furthermore, the analysis showed that the global powers are not the only countries that provided significant aid, since Uzbekistan for instance gave more units of safety equipment than the world powers combined and some countries that are not Kazakhstan’s main partners provided significant aid.


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Ioan Alexandru Gherasim
Ph.D. candidate, Corvinus University of Budapest, Hungary,