Summing up the main events of the widely hyped “Year of Russia in Kazakhstan,” policymakers on both sides of the border have good reason to be disappointed. Even on the secondary level of inter-parliamentary contacts, leaders are not pleased with the state of bilateral ties.
Speaking at a joint meeting of Russian and Kazakh parliament members in Almaty, Kazakhstan Senate Chairman Nurtay Abikayev said that the past decade was a time of “serious ordeals” for both states. “Since the cornerstone of [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s policy is defending the interests of the Russians in the post-Soviet space, it is natural that the attention of our neighbor is focused on Kazakh-Russian relations. But what did we get from the Year of Russia in Kazakhstan?” asks political analyst Gulbigash Omarova. To maintain normal relations, Omarova says that first, Putin and his political environment should stop calling ethnic Russians in Kazakhstan “compatriots” and, second, Kazakhstan must effectively counter the Russian media’s interference in Kazakhstan’s domestic affairs. (Turkistan, December 16).
Some Russian analysts feel disillusioned by the unfulfilled aims of the Year of Russia in Kazakhstan program, which was designed to draw Kazakhstan closer to the Russian sphere of political and economic influence. Political observer Andrei Kurtov notes with unconcealed regret that Russia has missed many rare opportunities to reinstate its superpower status in Central Asia. According to Kurtov, Western media propaganda has significantly helped to smear Russia’s image in the region by depicting it as an “evil power” and belittling the value of the Russian language and culture in the face of the unrestrained spread of American economic and political influence in the region. Kurtov believes, “The sooner Russia becomes aware that the position of an outside observer may in fact mean the catastrophic loss of its influence in the region, the more realistic is the hope that Moscow will, at least, manage to minimize these losses” (novopol.ru, December 28).
Given Russia’s weakened position in Ukraine in the wake of presidential elections there, Kazakhstan is increasingly regarded as one of Russia’s last bastions in the CIS. While pursuing a multi-vector policy in security and economic issues, Kazakh officials always stress their country’s loyalty to Moscow. During his December 22 visit to Moscow, Kazakhstan Prime Minister Danial Akhmetov assured his Russian counterparts that Russia, as before, is Kazakhstan’s top foreign policy priority. Akhmetov and Russian officials discussed a wide range of issues relating to space research, joint construction of a fuel and energy complex, and joint development of the oil and gas sector. The most important of these issues is the planned joined development of the Kurmangazy oil field in West Kazakhstan on a production-sharing basis, a lucrative deal long sought by Russia. Government delegations also considered the possibility of Kazakhstan’s state Kazmunaygaz company and Russia’s Gazprom setting up a joint venture to process the Karachaganak gas from Kazakhstan at the Russian gas processing plant in Orenburg (Panorama, December 24).
Many of the issues discussed in Moscow during Akhmetov’s visit, however, contain nothing new. Talks on Caspian oil, construction of new highways, and tariffs have dragged on for many years. It is hardly surprising, given the bureaucratic machinery in both countries, why so little has been achieved despite so much effort.
Kazakhstan sees economic and political integration with Russia as a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it needs Russia as an economic partner (Kazakhstan’s imports from Russia in 2003 totaled $3.27 billion) and security ally. On the other hand, it is reluctant to sacrifice its economic independence for the sake of integration. One illustration of this drive for greater independence from Russia is the construction of the new railroad linking Altynsarino in Kostanai region (North Kazakhstan) and Khromtau (in West Kazakhstan). Previously Kazakh trains had to cross Russian territory to use this route. At the same time, the Kazakh government severed the 1994 accord on the transit of Russian military cargo through Kazakhstan, arguing that it was an economic burden for the country, as the agreement allowed Russia to use the transit route without paying customs duties (Interfax-AVN, December 10).
Russia’s interest in Kazakhstan is not limited to geopolitical and economic considerations. Kazakhstan also plays a prominent role in Moscow’s demographic policy. In the early 1990s thousands of ethnic Russians from Kazakhstan flooded Russian cities, exacerbating the already complicated housing and employment problems. But now the process has reversed. In 2003 28,668 Russians from CIS countries migrated to Kazakhstan for permanent residence. In 2004 the figure rose to 32,228. Russians are flowing in mainly from Uzbekistan, where they feel increasingly discriminated against on ethnic grounds (Central Asian Monitor, December 24).
Despite contradictions and uneasy relations, Kazakhstan and Russia need each other more than any other neighbors in the region. There is no other alternative for them other than to build good neighborly relations.