NATO Secretary General George Robertson's working visit to Kazakhstan on July 4 may have reassured Kazakhstan of NATO's support. But now more than ever, Kazakhstan should resist the urge to embrace NATO and the Secretary General's pledges of partnership "in every possible way." It should instead choose carefully between primary alliances with NATO or with Russia.
The United States and western European countries created NATO to counterbalance the post-war socialist bloc led by the USSR. Since the collapse of the Warsaw Pact bloc in 1989-91, NATO has scrambled to enlarge its influence in the east.
The expansion was bound to irk Russia. Although the Cold War is unquestionably over, the traditional rivalry between Russia and the West has remained. Russia, a nuclear power, still presents a potential threat to NATO states. The West still has to weigh Russia's response to crises, just as it did with the USSR.
In addition, NATO has already scraped Russia in battle recently. Russia's military involvement in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, in opposition to NATO, and in Chechnya demonstrated that Russia is ready to defend militarily what it perceives as its sphere of influence.
Third, Russia is actively befriending China. Considering that China's relations with NATO members, and the US in particular, are much more strained than with Russia, the danger that a Russian-Chinese alliance poses to the West is difficult to overestimate.
Russian and NATO interests have repeatedly collided in the CIS, where Russia retains deep historical influence. The power play over Kazakhstan is therefore particular important as a test case of how these competing interests can be resolved.
Since gaining independence, Kazakhstan has pursued a complex foreign policy based on the principle of "being friends with everyone." In March 1992, Kazakhstan entered the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council (EAPC), which comprised thirty-eight Western and former communist countries. In May 1994, Kazakhstan joined NATO's Partnership for Peace program, which entailed political consultations and joint military operations. Since 1997, NATO troops have also taken part in joint annual military training of Central Asian troops.
To be sure, NATO's enlargement to the east does not present any significant threat to Kazakhstan's national security. First of all, there is Russia standing in the way of this enlargement. Second, even though Kazakhstan is not aspiring to membership in NATO, it counts on the further development of good relations with this organization because it views NATO as one of the potential guarantors of its sovereignty and national security.
NATO's interests in Kazakhstan may, in fact, be even more compelling than Kazakhstan's in NATO. Increasing its presence in Central Asia is particularly important to NATO following its loss of influence in the Middle East (Iran and Afghanistan). Kazakhstan represents a good a springboard for NATO influence in Russia, China, and the other countries of Central Asia.
In addition, NATO members view oil-rich Kazakhstan as a zone of their economic interests. As a military organization, NATO regards democratic development and human rights in Kazakhstan and other post-soviet states as a secondary matter.
Given the high stakes and the complexity of each side's interests, it is not surprising that relations between NATO and Kazakhstan are somewhat strained. NATO hardly approves of Kazakhstan's multi-dimensional foreign policy, particularly its flirtations with Russia and China and its sale of military planes to North Korea in 1999.
Likewise, Kazakhstan is wary of NATO's relationship with Uzbekistan, which NATO chose as its chief strategic partner in Central Asia. Kazakhstan's unease with the alliance is understandable, considering that Kazakhstan often faces pressure and even territorial disputes with Uzbekistan that have military overtones.
Kazakhstan's political elite may be actively sabotaging that country's cooperation with NATO. According to information from the Kazakh Ministry of Defense's Center for Supervision of Arms Reduction, Kazakhstan still has 6,000 military tanks, 1,500 armored personnel carriers, and 7,000 artillery weapons, which should be annihilated in accordance with the Weapons Reduction Treaty. It is possible that many in the military headquarters were trying to preserve these weapons and prevent their destruction. NATO has raised concern over Kazakhstan's plans for the arsenal.
While friendly visits from NATO leaders put pressure on Kazakhstan to make its strategic alliances clear, it is in Kazakhstan's interests to maintain a complex foreign policy in order to protect its own national interests.