Critics Question Kazakhstan’s Membership in Collective Rapid Response Force

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 35

The Kazakh Interior Ministry recently released a detailed press account of an armed clash between Arlan anti-terrorist detachment and a group of "extremist forces" in the Zelenov District of West Kazakhstan Province. Four soldiers from the Arlan group were reportedly wounded during the fight, but all five members of the gang of alleged extremists were captured. A Kalashnikov rifle with ammunition, a Russian-made hand grenade, and extremist literature were seized (Zhas Qazaq, February 6).

It is yet to be clarified whether those five armed men were real religious extremists or only common criminals, who were also suspected in the armed robbery of a local gas station. The incident serves well to substantiate the National Security Committee’s (KNB) sporadic allegations about the threat of extremism and terrorism, which demands closer cooperation, above all with Russia, within the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO).

For many analysts, however, it is hard to find a rationale behind Kazakhstan’s eagerness to readily join the Kremlin-sponsored Collective Rapid Response Force within the CSTO. It seems strange that President Nursultan Nazarbayev would tie himself to a dubious military alliance with Moscow at a time when, with the long-sought OSCE chairmanship in sight, Kazakhstan’s relations with the United States and European Union were moving in the right direction. The other members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization have a clear motivation to join the Collective Rapid Response Force. Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev was persuaded to close the U.S. Manas Airbase in return for a $2 billion credit, $150 million in financial aid, and promises to write off old debts, although the Kremlin presents the closure of Manas as "an independent decision of Kyrgyzstan." Armenia and Tajikistan have also shown a purely pragmatic approach in joining the Collective Rapid Response Force, benefiting from Russian military assistance to allied states to ensure the security of their borders. Moreover, membership in a new military alliance runs counter to Kazakhstan’s declared multi-vector policy and its strategy of expanding partnership with NATO (Delovaya Nedelia, February 7).

Kazakhstan made a commitment to contribute 4,000 troops into the Collective Rapid Response Force of 15,000. Russia is supplying 10,000 troops. One plausible explanation for Kazakhstan’s decision to join the new alliance lies in the growing geopolitical and economic importance of Astana for the European Union in the context of the current energy crisis and sporadic gas row between the West and Russia. Over the past three years energy cooperation and the transport of Kazakh hydrocarbons to European markets have been the dominant topics of Kazakh authorities’ discussion with visiting EU officials. The dramatic reduction of the Russian gas supply as a result of the gas dispute between Kyiv and Moscow last December, increased the value of Kazakhstan’s energy resources to the European Union; and Western demands for genuine political reform have been pushed into the background. The prolonged tension between Russia and the West enables Astana to use its oil and gas as a bargaining chip whenever it faces a hard political dilemma in dealing with the EU. Apart from this political poker, there are also more pragmatic considerations in Kazakhstan’s move toward the military structure within the CSTO. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Nazarbayev believe that under the new American administration the military operations in Afghanistan will intensify, threatening to set off a military and political crisis that could spill over into Central Asia. Dmitry Rogozin, the Russian ambassador to NATO, stated that to counteract effectively the threat of extremist incursions from Afghanistan, Russia intended to establish an airbase in Kyrgyzstan (Liter, February 7).

Political analyst Murat Laumulin thinks that after the closure of Manas, the United States may try to negotiate the relocation of their airbase to Kazakhstan. This, however, would be almost impossible, as the signatories of the Collective Rapid Response Force are deprived of the right of independent decision-making in military relations with third countries. Thus, in essence the new alliance places all the military activities of its member-states under Moscow’s control (Aikyn, February 7).

Using the escalation of American military operations in Afghanistan as a pretext for creating the Collective Rapid Response Force, Russia has successfully regained its foothold in Central Asia. Only a month ago Moscow’s comeback to its former dominion would have been unthinkable. Nikolai Makarov, the head of the Russian General Staff, suspected the American military of planning to open airbases in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan (Newsinfo, December 19, 2008). Uzbekistan refused to attend the December summit of the heads of the CSTO member-states hosted by Kazakhstan. With the agreement reached on the Collective Rapid Response Force all these differences seem to be settled, but uncertainties about the future of the new military structure within the CSTO remain. The existing rivalry for leadership in Central Asia between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, smoldering interethnic disputes between Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan over the Osh region, and constant quarrels over scarce water resources are not conducive to well-coordinated military interaction within the new pact, which is modeled on the Kosovo Force (KFOR), the NATO-led international peacekeeping force. But for the Kazakh military the broadly defined tasks of the new alliance raise more questions than ready answers.