Kazakh Prime Minister Karim Masimov visited Baku on April 4, his first foreign tour since being appointed as head of the government in January. The trip followed the “EU Troika–Central Asia” meeting of foreign ministers in Astana on March 29, which was part of belated European efforts to win the favor of Central Asian states in order to alleviate the West’s appetite for energy and minimize their dependence on Russian gas.
Masimov’s trip to Azerbaijan might raise hopes among EU member states regarding the possibility of an energy alliance with Kazakhstan. In Baku the Kazakh prime minister called Azerbaijan a “strategic partner,” terminology Astana more commonly uses regarding the major players in Central Asia. The current global energy situation has increased Astana’s interest in Azerbaijan as a major gateway to European oil and gas markets.
Unlike relations with Europe and Russia, Kazakh-Azeri relations are free from political and economic differences. Since independence in late 1991 more than 70 inter-governmental agreements have been signed, covering agriculture, transport, communications, and other vital spheres. Speaking in Baku, Kazakhstan’s minister of energy and mineral resources, Baktykozha Izmukhambetov, said the two sides were currently focusing on the logistical problems related to delivering Kazakh oil to the new Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, and he reported that the two countries would resolve the issue by next year. At the same time, Masimov downplayed the importance of the proposed Trans-Caspian gas pipeline from Kazakhstan’s Tengiz oil and gas fields to Erzurum, Turkey, passing through Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, as a “matter of the distant future, which is, however, being currently discussed” (Express-K, April 5).
Masimov’s statement hardly came as a surprise in Baku. He merely echoed comments made earlier by Foreign Minister Marat Tazhin, who told journalists at the press conference following the “EU Troika–Central Asia” meeting that it was too difficult to talk of the Trans-Caspian pipeline until the legal status of the Caspian Sea is defined. The economic rationale of the project also raises doubts, he added.
Tazhin’s pessimistic statements did not go unnoticed in Moscow, although Gazprom officials did not comment on the Kazakh foreign minister’s subtle pro-Russian gesture. Moscow has every reason to hope to bring Kazakhstan’s energy sector back to its fold. Kazakhstan’s oil output is expected to rise to 20 billion cubic meters in the next decade. Under current conditions, Kazakhstan’s only market option is to increase its oil delivery volumes to its next-door neighbors — China and Russia (Vedomosti, March 29).
Russia has repeatedly expressed its disapproval of the Trans-Caspian sub-sea pipeline project, citing environmental reasons. But Astana did not fail to see the purely political implications of Moscow’s attitude. When Polish President Lech Kaczynski came to Astana last week to discuss energy cooperation between Kazakhstan and the European Union, Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev promised to mediate an energy dialogue between the West and Russia (see EDM, April 5).
Apparently, Moscow is not averse to using Kazakhstan’s intensifying links with the European Union to mend faces with the West. If Kazakhstan attends the energy summit in Warsaw scheduled for May, Russia would have good reason to participate as well. Nazarbayev already did a great deal to reconcile the Kremlin’s political ambition with European demands for energy safety. Last December the Kazakh president made it clear to the head of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Durao Barroso, that the proposed Trans-Caspian pipeline from Kazakhstan to Azerbaijan was doomed to failure as long as the legal status of the Caspian Sea remains unsettled. Masimov sent a message in the same vein to the Kremlin from Baku, reiterating, “Our interests do not run counter to the interests of a third party” (Kazakhstanskaya pravda, April 5).
The Kazakh prime minister attended the opening ceremony of a new grain terminal in Baku, a joint venture that symbolizes the multiple common economic interests of Baku and Astana. The terminal has the capacity to process up to 800,000 tons of Kazakh grain, which is to be shipped onward to Europe and the Gulf region. So far, the main importers of Kazakhstan’s grain are Iran and Russia. The prime ministers of Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan also discussed problems related to transport infrastructure, including direct flights between Astana and Baku. After Baku Masimov traveled on to Tbilisi, where he got support from the Georgian parliament for Kazakhstan’s bid to chair the OSCE in 2009 (Khabar, April 5).
Kazakhstan’s multi-vector foreign policy has allowed it to successfully maneuver among the complex global battles for energy resources while advancing its own interests. The German-initiated EU strategy for Central Asia may produce positive results for long-term energy cooperation with the five states of the region, but only if the West takes Kazakhstan’s interests into consideration. Leaders in Astana are aware of their country’s growing economic and political importance for European energy security. But there are at least two reasons for Kazakhstan to adopt a cautious attitude toward the EU. First, so far the European Union has done little or nothing to substantiate its declared strategy of promoting law-governed states in the region and regional integration, something Nazarbayev also aspires to achieve. Second, and perhaps most important, Kazakhstan needs to maintain equally good relations with China and Russia due to its geopolitical position.