Geopolitical maneuvering between Russia and the United States is intensifying in Central Asia, with Kazakhstan serving as main arena of competition. In recent years, Kazakhstan has pursued a "multi-vectored" policy that attempts to balance the interests of Russia, the United States and China. But recent developments suggest Astana is starting to tilt in Moscow's direction.
The primary catalyst for closer Kazakhstani-Russian ties was Russian President Vladimir Putin's January visit to Kazakhstan. Since then, Kazakhstani and Russian officials have probed stronger ties in a variety of economic, strategic and even political areas.
At a late January conference on improving bilateral ties, for example Kazakhstani Foreign Minister Kassymzhomart Tokayev voiced enthusiasm about developing a joint space program. Tokayev and other officials also expressed a desire to formulate more efficient tariff policies to facilitate trade. These days, Kazakhstani policy-makers do little to hide a preference for dealing with Russia. "Kazakhstan and Russia are strategic partners and reliable allies," Oralbay Abdykarimov, chairman of Kazakhstan's senate, said at the late January conference, titled Kazakh-Russian Interaction in the 21st Century and the Challenges of Globalization.
In the strategic sphere, Kazakhstani and Russian defense officials signed an agreement in mid-January that allows for common planning of troop deployments under the auspices of the Collective Security Treaty Organization. The agreement also envisions common efforts to develop anti-aircraft defense systems, and, most strikingly, endorses Kazakhstan's desire to build a Caspian flotilla. Moscow has previously been skeptical of Kazakhstan's desire to assembly a naval force on the Caspian.
Behind the push for stronger bilateral ties is a mutual desire to develop a free-trade zone under the auspices of the Eurasian Economic Community [EEC]. The group would include Belarus, Kazakhstan, Russia and Ukraine, with potential membership open to other CIS states down the road. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive]. So far, like many other organizations in the post-Soviet space, the EEC has had trouble gaining enough traction to function effectively. Closer Kazakhstani-Russian cooperation, however, would mark a giant step towards the EEC's viability.
In formulating policy, Kazakhstani officials are well aware that any move to improve ties to Moscow will be cause for consternation in Washington. "Now, we are waiting for the critical reaction of the United States," a government official told EurasiaNet.
From 1993-2003, Kazakhstan attracted roughly $24.5 billion in foreign investment, much of it from the United States, the Interfax-Kazakhstan news agency reported. It would still appear that US capital is needed to develop Kazakhstan's energy infrastructure. Nevertheless, it seems Kazakhstan's enthusiasm for cooperating with Western governments and corporations is diminishing.
A variety of factors are fueling this trend. For one, Astana is reportedly chagrined about an ongoing corruption case in New York in which top Kazakhstani government officials have been implicated. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Officials have also bristled over Western criticism concerning Kazakhstan's human rights practices. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. On top of inter-governmental tension, the relationship between Kazakhstani officials and Western oil companies has soured in recent years over taxation and other issues.
The Kazakhstani government source said that, in the immediate aftermath of the September 11 terrorist tragedy, President Nursultan Nazarbayev and other top leaders hoped that the incident would foster genuine strategic cooperation between Russia and the United States. Astana now has concluded that such strategic cooperation is not feasible, and so, it feels a need to choose between the two. Given the current circumstances, Astana appears prepared to opt for Russia, but does not want to commit itself until it absolutely has to, some Kazakhstani political analysts say.
Russian political observers suggest that Nazarbayev feels more comfortable in dealing with Russia, in part because Moscow is more tolerant of his leadership methods. "The authoritarian style of ruling the state is typical of the CIS," political analyst Alexandr Khramchikhin wrote in a commentary published by the Nezavisimaya Gazeta daily on January 26. "But authoritarianism in Kazakhstan is not an aim in itself; it is being used to carry out radical economic reforms."
Nazarbayev may also prefer dealing with Russia because he can negotiate from a position of strength, Khramchikhin added. "Kazakhstan cannot catch up with our country in terms of absolute GDP volume, but in terms of quality of life, it can overtake us in the coming years," he wrote.
Kazakhstan and Russia are so well matched, Khramchikhin and other analysts have argued, that they would make ideal partners in a political union. "The unification of Russia and Kazakhstan is much more promising than Russia's unification with Belarus," Khramchikhin said.
Tokayev has acted quickly to quash any hopes for political integration, but the Kazakhstani prime minister has made it clear that Astana intends to pursue closer economic ties. "Integration is advantageous for both Kazakhstan and Russia. It is advantageous from both the geopolitical and geostrategic points of view," Tokayev said.
Ibragim Alibekov is the pseudonym for a Kazakhstan-based reporter and analyst.