One of the more puzzling turns in Kazakhstan’s recent cabinet reshuffle was the replacement of Foreign Minister Kasymzhomart Tokayev, a professionally trained and skilled diplomat, by the dark horse Marat Tazhin, who had made an inconspicuous career as a chairman of the Security Council and a domestic policy advisor. The logic in this seemingly ill-considered appointment may be that Tazhin is the best man for a new task: ensuring domestic political stability through promoting active diplomatic ties with other Central Asian states.
Tokayev long neglected Central Asia and favored working with China, the United States, and Russia. His lopsided global view led to a serious deterioration of Kazakhstan’s already fragile relations with its neighbors. Early last year, for example, the Kyrgyz parliament balked at ratifying a friendship treaty with Kazakhstan. The director of border service of the National Security Committee (KNB) Bolat Zakiyev reported that last year 30 clashes took place along the Kazakh-Uzbek border, and 11 of those incidents involved the use of firearms (Liter, January 24).
Following the March 2005 Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan and the May 2005 Andijan revolt in Uzbekistan, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev used his public appearances to constantly stress, “Our foreign policy must serve the interests of stability in the country.” Apparently this maxim went down well with the newly appointed foreign minister, who, speaking at a cabinet meeting, singled out the need to strengthen national security, given the “deteriorating situation along all perimeters of the border.” According to Tazhin, “In 2007 we will pay particular attention to Central Asian countries,” which are among “the spheres of vital interest for Kazakhstan and our neighbors” (Kazakhstanskaya pravda, January 23).
The new foreign minister noted that Kazakhstan had no real enemy in the region and could act as an effective force for integration in Central Asia. This theory is obviously based on the assumption that Kazakhstan’s high rate of economic development allows Astana to render assistance to its poorer neighbors in order to maintain economic and social stability in the region and to prevent a replay of the 2005 Kyrgyz revolution.
But any effort to heal the rift between Kazakhstan and Central Asian nations is constantly hampered by lingering mistrust and military posturing. This year Kazakhstan’s military budget will reach $1.22 billion – double last year’s figure. However, with steady economic growth, Kazakhstan, unlike its neighbors, can easily shoulder this price tag, since military spending, which experts say is the biggest in the Commonwealth of Independent States, makes up only 1.2% of the country’s GDP, while Uzbekistan’s military gobbles up 4.8% of that country’s GDP. Owing to its economic might Kazakhstan could afford to modernize its army by purchasing sophisticated equipment, creating a naval fleet, and professionalizing its army (Centrasia.ru, January 23). But the growing militarization of the region also threatens its stability.
Kazakhstan’s new foreign policy course may be Astana’s way to assert its independence and counteract Russian influence in the region. The once trumpeted “strategic alliance” between Kazakhstan and Russia is gradually giving way to latent rivalry. The recent appointment of Kazakh diplomat Bolat Nurgaliev as the Secretary-General of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) confirms the Kremlin’s suspicion that Kazakhstan is drifting away from Russia’s political orbit. In an interview with Rosbalt, Vladimir Yevseyev, head of the International Relations Center at the Russian Academy of Science, noted that Kazakhstan’s participation in various Chinese-sponsored projects and in the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline are unwelcome signs for Moscow. Kazakhstan’s increasing military strength, built with Western assistance, seriously worries Moscow. Without a close alliance with Astana and Kazakh oil flowing through Russia, many promising economic projects are doomed to failure (Aikyn, January 24).
Moscow was not the only capital to be alarmed when Kazakh Prime Minister Karim Masimov recently demanded the establishment of tight control and regular monitoring over foreign oil companies operating in Kazakhstan. Days later, the government took massive steps to strengthen state-controlled holding companies and promised to ensure the transparency of their financial activities. These measures are quite popular at home.
However, Kazakhstan has a long way to go before its has a genuinely democratic system of governance and economic transparency. Last year the Council of Foreign Ministers of the OSCE postponed consideration of Kazakhstan’s application for the OSCE chairmanship in 2009. But Astana did not abandon its hope to chair the influential organization and is likely to raise the issue at the Madrid session of OSCE Council of Foreign Ministers scheduled for late 2007. The coveted OSCE chairmanship is one of the priorities set by the Foreign Ministry of Kazakhstan. Astana’s diplomatic efforts in this direction may produce a positive impression in the European community. Ironically, it is apparently much easier for Kazakh diplomats to embrace European leaders than to approach their Central Asian neighbors.