The meeting between Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, in Chelyabinsk on May 17, and the subsequent arrival of Belarus President Alexander Lukashenka for a two-day visit to Kazakhstan the following day, allowed Astana to reiterate its commitment to Kazakhstan’s alliance with the Slavic states within the Commonwealth of Independent States.
However, during his talks with Putin and Lukashenka, Nazarbayev noticeably toned down his usual high-flown rhetoric with the other leaders of the Single Economic Space (SES) and only briefly mentioned a “strategic alliance.” Moreover, Nazarbayev carefully avoided the prospects of political cooperation with Belarus and Russia within the framework of the SES and underlined the priority of economic cooperation.
The political overtures preceding the talks in Chelyabinsk and Astana were not encouraging. Kazakhstan’s leadership is under fire from nationalists accusing the government of engaging in an ambiguous alliance with Slavic nations to the detriment of Kazakhstan’s national interests. Just one day before his trip to Astana, Lukashenka was snubbed at the European Council summit in Warsaw, which practically shut the Council’s doors to Belarus. Russia, in its attempt to mend fences with Europe, also finds it difficult to reconcile itself with the European Council’s “unconstructive” attitude toward Belarus. Russia does not appear to attach long-term priority to its forced friendship with Kazakhstan. The chairman of the Russian Federation Council’s Committee on Foreign Affairs, Mikhail Margelov, recently said that Russia is “committed to all-European values and is an organic part of a single European space” (Belorusskaya delovaya gazeta, May 20).
Given Kazakhstan’s fragile ties with Belarus and Russia, the three leaders sidestepped painful topics, focusing (at least in public appearances) almost exclusively on economic issues. Putin and Nazarbayev easily reached agreement on simplified, visa-free procedures to cross their common border. Russian authorities had initially favored a strict border regime out of fears that Uzbek and Tajik drug traffickers and illegal migrants would enter Russia via Kazakhstan. However, strict border controls made it difficult for Russian citizens to use the 150-kilometer stretch of the Trans-Siberian Railway that passes through Kazakhstan. The simplified regulations eliminate that problem.
Commenting on the agreement, the director of the Russian Institute for Military and Political Studies, Alexander Sharavin, said that the open border leads to real integration and would facilitate mutual military assistance if “trouble spots” appear in the region (Sayasat.kz, May 18).
Russian traders in border areas are likely to be the main beneficiaries from passport-free travel. Tens of thousands of traders make daily forays into Kazakhstan to buy cheap foodstuffs in large quantities.
Seven regions of Kazakhstan share a common border with Russia, and cross-border trade accounts for 70% of the total trade volume, which tripled over the last two years to reach $8 billion (however, Nazarbayev noted the discrepancies in trade statistics provided by Russian and Kazakh sources). Putin and Nazarbayev declared that border trade and the free movement of citizens were more important than recent political events in Central Asia (Izvestiya Kazakhstan, May 18). Russia also expressed its interest in joint projects with the Ekibastuz hydroelectric power station and developing the Kurmangazy oilfield in western Kazakhstan.
This apparent willingness to cooperate camouflages the behind-the-scenes snags in economic relations between Kazakhstan and Russia. The lengthy discussions about unified railway tariffs have come to an impasse. Three rounds of talks in Moscow with the Caspian Pipeline Consortium about transporting Kazakh oil have also led nowhere. There had been hopes that Russia’s Vyborg shipbuilding plant would play a key role in building Kazakhstan’s oil tanker fleet, but the Russian side did not respond positively to Astana’s bid to purchase a 50% stake in the Vyborg plant or to set up a joint venture (Kontinent, May 17).
Lukashenka left Astana with a new fuel and energy cooperation agreement signed by Kazakhstan’s Minister of Energy and Natural Resources Vladimir Shkolnik and Belarus Deputy Prime Minister Vladimir Semashko, which guarantees that Kazakhstan will supply hydrocarbons to oil refineries in Belarus. Kazakhstan also hopes to acquire shares in oil extracting and processing enterprises in Belarus. The two sides also discussed cooperation in developing “competitive military technology” (Novoye pokolenie, May 20).
Despite the dominance of economic topics, political issues did surface during Lukashenka’s visit. Visibly irritated, Lukashenka told journalists that Ukraine did not sign 15 of the 29 “priority documents” fundamental for the creation of the Single Economic Space. Nazarbayev echoed these complaints, adding that Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan would urge Ukraine to cooperate, but if Kyiv obstructs the process other members would continue towards the Single Economic Space without Ukraine (Interfax, May 20).
Increasingly, Moscow sees the Single Economic Space as its last-ditch effort to retain some degree of control over part of the CIS space. But it is dangerous for Moscow to support internationally discredited regimes, particularly Lukashenka’s Belarus. Russia would be well advised to work out a new strategy and revise its diplomacy in the CIS (Izvestiya, May 17). With Ukraine drifting away from the SES and Belarus increasingly isolated from the international community, Kazakhstan sees little to gain from an alliance with the Slavic states.