Kazakhstan’s armed forces face a new shake up in 2008, designed to facilitate progress toward greater efficiency. Military reform in Kazakhstan has been underway for several years, resulting in structural changes and other, more targeted, reforms linked with manpower, such as “professionalizing” a proportion of its total personnel. However, this latest initiative appears to concentrate on military education, not only pointing to a serious investment in the skills and educational standards of officers and soldiers, but underscoring a new sense of confidence in the power ministries, buoyed by the decision to award the chairmanship of the OSCE to Kazakhstan in 2010.
Defense Minister Daniyal Akhmetov chose to announce these plans during a visit on January 8 to the National University of Defense and the Shokhan Valikhanov cadet corps. Akhmetov praised the achievements of Kazakhstan’s armed forces, focusing on military education. He promised that colleges will equipped with modern training equipment and software that meets international standards, while curricula will be reformed.
On January 8, multi-level training courses for officers began throughout Kazakhstan, with classes held at military colleges, army training centers, and other military establishments. Defense officials hope to train more than 3,000 officers. These courses included: “combat readiness training for commanders,” geared towards officers from platoon commander to battalion deputy commander, a “commanders’ training course” for higher command-post officers from battalion commander to subdivision commander, as well as courses for officers up to brigade commander (Ekspress-K, January 9). Akhmetov may be using these schemes to signal to the Ministry of Defense that President Nursultan Nazarbayev intends 2008-2010 to be a period of intensive modernization for Kazakhstan’s armed forces.
This reform drive comes at a significant moment for Kazakhstan. Following its OSCE victory, Astana has also agreed to a new five-year bilateral military cooperation plan with the United States, cementing these cooperative arrangements through 2013. Equally, U.S. – Kazakhstan cooperation will be increased in the security and nuclear non-proliferation spheres, according to Senator Richard Lugar (R-IN). Lugar observed Astana’s steadfast commitment to continued cooperation as part of the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program. “From the very beginning, we have been working with Kazakhstan on reducing nuclear armaments,” he stressed. “In recent years, biological projects have been actively developed for an information exchange on dangerous pathogens to ensure security in Kazakhstan and all over the world. The cooperative threat reduction program was extended by another seven years. Therefore, we hope for a continuation of joint efforts,” he concluded.
Lugar also used this opportunity to highlight the importance of energy security cooperation, which is vital to U.S. national interests, and he discussed this with senior government officials in Kazakhstan, before pursuing a similar agenda in Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, and Ukraine. As these security ties deepen with Washington, the government in Astana is also busy deepening its ties to Russia as a strategic partner and its commitments to the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). On January 9 President Nazarbayev signed a decree ratifying an agreement on the rapid deployment, use of, and comprehensive support to the CSTO rapid reaction forces in Central Asia, providing a legal basis for use of these forces (Kazakhstan Today, January 10; Interfax, January 9).
A December 2007 article in Kazakhstan’s Delovaya nedelya newspaper publicized the deepening U.S. interests in Kazakhstan. It noted that the U.S. Senate and Congress had allocated $400 million to the State Department in 2008 for its work in the former Soviet Union. According to the article, the increased funding is largely based on promoting U.S. interests in Central Asia and the South Caucasus at Russia’s expense, promoting democracy and human rights almost as a tool to push aside Moscow’s interests in these regions. That perspective also highlighted an unusually confident assertion that Kazakhstan’s national interests differ strongly from those of both Russia and the United States. Delovaya nedelya portrayed Washington’s fiscal plans in Central Asia as aimed at undermining the Caspian Gas pipeline agreement among Russia, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan. Yet U.S. State Department funding will inevitably result in counter initiatives by Russia. However, the article advocated that Nazarbayev should “milk” both powers, attempting to extract as much benefit from Washington and Moscow, while pursuing only Kazakhstan’s interests.
“In these circumstances what is to be done by Central Asian countries, particularly Kazakhstan, which is branded by Moscow and the USA as the most ‘charming and attractive’ political ‘baby’ in the region, sitting on oil and gas?” asked the newspaper. “Well, it probably has to continue to do what other Central Asian countries have so far been doing with great success, that is, to ‘milk’ both outsiders and at the same time do its best to prevent a situation where ‘implacable friends/partners’ in Moscow and Washington will finally fall out because of another oil pipeline or new prices for 1,000 cubic meters of natural gas,” the article asserted (Delovaya nedelya, December 28).
Such a volatile political climate is unlikely to result in Astana having to choose between either Russia or the United States in developing its energy resources and conducting its foreign or defense policies, while allowing the Kazakh elite to maximize their own interests in dealing with these powers. Akhmetov’s emphasis on military education as a means to foster greater military efficiency also reinforces the idea that Kazakhstan’s government intends to play a tough game; officers will benefit first from national education and training programs, while only a small proportion will receive any foreign education and training. In this context, Kazakhstan may prove to be much more resilient to the plans and initiatives of the U.S. State Department.