Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbayev recently gave a state-of-the-nation address that was far more than a list of achievements and an enumeration of policy prescriptions. He set out a fundamental long-term strategy for his administration, by which he also hopes to return to power in next year's elections.
The domestic policy initiatives outlined in his February 18 address underscored Nazarbayev's faith in the reform-from-above concept. They also suggested that he favors a political system rooted in a type of paternalistic Singaporean-like leadership, aiming to sustain Kazakhstan's spectacular economic growth and to preserve socio-political stability. Nazarbayev made it clear that he seeks not only to ward off the specter of terrorism, but also to prevent the kind of insurgent democratic movement that led to the downfall of Askar Akayev's regime in neighboring Kyrgyzstan. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
The foreign policy components of the speech were especially interesting, as Nazarbayev evidently wants to achieve a delicate geopolitical balance to free Kazakhstan from dependent relationships with Central Asia's main players China, Russia and the United States. Nazarbayev appears to view great-power neo-colonialism as a threat equally dangerous to his administration as international terrorism and the "democracy-from-below" phenomenon. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Nazarbayev clearly feels that Russia, China, and the United States each wish to dominate Central Asia, and he is determined to preserve his administration's autonomy in the face of this and other threats.
Perhaps the most striking aspect of the speech, at least from the point of view of American policy makers, was the virtual lack of any reference to the United States as a factor of Kazakhstan's foreign policy. Although relations among Kazakhstani government officials and American energy firms remain strong, it is clear that Nazarbayev has embraced a new political line emphasizing a certain distance from Washington. In comments designed to expand upon Nazarbayev's state-of-the-nation address, Kazakhstan's ambassador to the United States, Kanat Saudabayev, indicated recently that the main spheres of US-Kazakhstani cooperation were trade and nuclear non-proliferation. Like Nazarbayev, Saudabayev refrained from mentioning security cooperation or joint activity in the global anti-terrorism struggle, even though Kazakhstan has sent military personnel to Iraq.
The Kazakhstani government is sending a clear signal of its displeasure with the Bush administration's efforts to globalize democratic values. Indeed, the US emphasis on democratization is apparently viewed by many in Astana is ill-considered and destabilizing. Thus, American policy continues to push Nazarbayev away from America and closer to Russia and China, two countries that are unlikely to complain to the Kazakhstani leader about corruption, human rights abuses and the attempt to pass on political power to his children, just as Akayev attempted to do, and former Azerbaijani leader Heidar Aliyev succeeded in doing.
Nazarbayev has for several years pursued a "multi-vectored" foreign policy. His drift toward Russia and China, however, intensified after the Ukrainian revolution. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Nazarbayev and Russian leaders seemed to interpret the Ukrainian revolution in a similar manner: it was "stage-managed" from abroad by the United States, and designed to install a more pro-American leader in Kyiv. This perspective, it should be noted, was similar to the views expressed by Russian officials, including then-foreign minister Igor Ivanov, when Eduard Shevarnadze's regime crumbled amid Georgia's Rose Revolution of November, 2003.
Given the prevailing opinion, many in Astana see support for democracy not as a demand of intrinsic merit or a reflection of the popular will, but as a threat, if not a conspiracy, orchestrated from outside. Operating via non-governmental organizations, US officials are perceived to be working for the overthrow of Central Asia's existing political order and the installation of pro-Western or pro-American regimes. While this view betrays woeful ignorance of American politics and policy, it also shows how disconnected some of Central Asia's authoritarian-minded regimes are from reality. The Kyrgyz revolution showed this precisely because of the hysterical and ultimately empty threats that Akayev's regime made against the opposition, including the view that it was all a foreign plot that would not be tolerated. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
In this context, Nazarbayev's foreign policy statements are most instructive. He emphasized Kazakhstan's continuing "activist, multifaceted, and balanced" foreign policy to defend the country's independence and national interests. He placed priority on relations with Russia, China, the United States and the European Union in that order, and reiterated Kazakhstan's commitment to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and the single Eurasian Economic Community (EEC), Russia's pet project for integrating Central Asian economies under its auspices. During discussions with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on April 8, Nazarbayev emphasized that the EEC was "developing very well."
While those two organizations were established by treaty, in fact they have produced next to nothing in regard to the tangible protection of anyone's interests, except possibly China's right and growing capability to project military power into Central Asia under terms of the Shanghai Treaty of 2001. This outcome cannot be mere happenstance. And it is likely that Nazarbayev, as he has done for almost 15 years will laud Eurasian integration schemes, sign all kinds of treaties to that end, and then quietly see to it that Kazakhstan remains a free agent not overly committed to anyone.
To help diminish the potential influence of outside powers as well as to contain the threats posed by terrorism and narcotics trafficking -- Nazarbayev proposed in his state-of-the-nation address to establish a union of Central Asian states. This Central Asian union is likely the only regional integration effort that Nazarbayev truly supports, as he seems to believe that closer cooperation among states in the region is the best formula for promoting stability, regional progress, and economic-military-political independence for Kazakhstan and, presumably, its Central Asian neighbors.
Nazarbayev didn't mince words in outlining what he sees as the long-term, and probably most insidious threat facing Kazakhstan outside efforts to control the regional economy. He did not name specific powers in connection with this threat, but it would seem that Nazarbayev regards China, Russia and United States as posing similar dangers to Kazakhstani economic and political sovereignty.
"Today we are witnessing superpower rivalry for economic dominance in our region. We have to address correctly this global and geo-economics challenge," Nazarbayev said. "We have a choice between remaining the supplier of raw materials to the global markets and wait [ing] patiently for the emergence of the next imperial master or to pursue genuine economic integration of the Central Asian region. I chose the latter."
Thus, Nazarbayev's intended domestic reforms seek to wean the Kazakhstani economy from its dependence on the oil and gas sector, while enhancing the country's ability to remain an independent geopolitical actor. Within this context, the US-Kazakhstani relationship will almost certainly continue to cool, while contacts with China and Russia could intensify.
Stephen Blank is a professor at the US Army War College. The views expressed this article do not in any way represent the views of the US Army, Defense Department or the US Government.