Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 2 Issue: 9

On January 12 Russian President Vladimir Putin arrived in Almaty for a two-day official visit, his first foreign trip of the new year. Abandoning the usual practice of announcing upcoming visits by state leaders, Kazakhstan’s official media refrained from publicizing Putin’s visit prior to his arrival. In short press releases, the government outlined the agenda of the upcoming talks, which include joint development of energy resources, border delimitation, cooperation within the framework of the Single Economic Space and Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the situation in Iraq, and most importantly, problems related to the legal status of the Caspian.

President Nursultan Nazarbayev, slighted irritated by rumors surrounding Russian-Kazakh border talks, reiterated that the border authorities of both Russia and Kazakhstan have no intention to separate their people by closed borders. Furthermore, actual border delimitation, which is to be completed this year, will not restrict in any way the free movement of residents in the border areas. A Russo-Kazakh border delineation agreement is expected to be signed during Nazarbayev’s visit to Moscow next week. President Nazarbayev, speaking to reporters in Kazakh, stressed, “We recognize Russia as our main partner” (KTK TV, January 12).

These words presumably were used as a token of diplomatic courtesy to President Putin. In reality everything suggests that Kazakhstan remains committed to its multi-vector foreign policy. Just a few days before Putin’s visit Kazakhstan Foreign Minister Kasymzhomart Tokayev said that Kazakhstan would not give up “multilateral and balanced politics” among China, Russia, and the United States, adding at the same time that “pursuing a one-dimension policy would have been much easier than seeking a balance among the interests of major powers” (Kazakhstanskaya pravda, December 30).

The most important issue on Putin’s agenda is likely to be Caspian oil. He expounded on this topic in interviews with journalists and said that this issue, which in principle cannot be solved in bilateral format and requires the involvement of all littoral states on the Caspian, would be part of his private talks with Nazarbayev. Putin said that there should be unanimity on this point among all states concerned (KTK TV, January 12).

Many political observers in Kazakhstan look with growing suspicion toward Iranian-Russian cooperation, particularly in military affairs. Pessimists argue that Iran is not interested in eliminating obstacles in talks regarding the legal status of the Caspian and is actually reinforcing its naval fleet in the Caspian Sea. Referring to a November 24 IRNA news agency report about the second session of the joint Russian-Iranian commission on military cooperation, analyst Bakhytzhan Kosbarmakov noted that what makes Iran potentially dangerous to the Central Asian states is its alliance with Russia, a former empire that is reluctant to lose its grip on former colonies (Aikyn, December 8).

Evidently Moscow’s tactical move is not limited to securing Kazakhstan’s support in advance of the upcoming summit of Caspian leaders in Tehran. Russia has already laid a solid foundation for its success in Tehran by signing an agreement with Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan on the division of the seabed in northern Caspian Sea. But to reach an agreement in Tehran, even a verbal understanding, will not be an easy task for either Kazakhstan or Russia.

Regardless of the outcome of the Tehran talks, Russia is pushing forward to the Kashagan oil fields in Kazakhstan. Earlier talks with the Russian Rosneft and Zarubezhneft oil companies have revealed serious divergences over tax issues. But Russian Industry and Energy Minister Viktor Khristenko paved the way for a preliminary agreement on a production-sharing agreement for the Kashagan fields. Some analysts believe that Kazakhstan’s government made concessions to Russian companies out of a fear of losing much-needed Russian investment in the oil sector of the country, although such an agreement runs counter to Kazakhstan’s tax policy (Turkestan, December 9). For its part, Russia looks jealously at Kazakhstan’s naval build-up in the Caspian. In these complex circumstances, it is hard to talk of mutual trust between the partners.

For all the ambiguity surrounding Russian policy in the region, Kazakhstan currently has no reliable investor to develop its long-outdated oil infrastructure other than Russia. Kazakhstan has little hope of joining the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline project any time before 2008. With its huge oil resources to bring to market, Kazakhstan cannot afford to waste time searching for partners. It is hard to tell how much time will be wasted on the fruitless talks with Azerbaijan on the BTC transport route. Earlier Kazakhstan had declared its readiness to supply the BTC pipeline with 20 million tons of oil annually. Kazakhstan suggested laying pipeline on the Caspian seabed to deliver its oil to the outside market, but this plan met with Russian disapproval. Russians argue that a leaking pipeline could cause an ecological disaster in the Caspian Sea (Panorama, December 30).

There are hopes that President Putin’s visit to Kazakhstan will be productive in most areas of bilateral cooperation. But eliminating the obstacles undercutting Russian-Kazakh political and economic relations and building mutual partnership based trust between Moscow and Astana will take much more than high-level talks.