After more than a decade of independence, the majority of Kazakhs feel deeply disillusioned with post-Soviet development of their country. Many are tormented with gnawing doubts whether Kazakhstan has really become independent of Moscow. The lingering nostalgia of older Russians for the socialist motherland clashes with the patriotic sentiments of Kazakhs. Some Russian residents of Kazakhstan still manifestly hold Soviet passports. Russian, the official language of the country, has actually superseded the state language, Kazakh, in government and public offices and in everyday communication.
However, outwardly official Moscow seems to have abandoned its big-brother pretensions. Speaking in Astana at the opening ceremony of the new Russian embassy relocated from Almaty on June 18, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that in moving its embassy to Astana, Russia demonstrates its “respect for the sovereignty of Kazakhstan.” On similar occasions, Kazakh leadership has not missed an opportunity to demonstrate loyalty to Moscow, stressing the “age-long friendship” between the two nations. The announcement of the year 2004 as the Year of Russia in Kazakhstan reanimated the exchange of economic and cultural delegations.
Seven provinces of Kazakhstan along the 7500-kilometer Russian border concluded cultural and trade agreements with their neighbors. Yuri Kazachenko, Russian trade representative in Kazakhstan stated that, trade revenues increased by 51%, to US$2.2 million, for the first four months of 2004, compared to US$1.5 million for a comparable period last year (Megapolis, June 17). At the same time, government officials admit that trade volume and inter-regional business activities have fallen far short of targets. Local governments involved in cross-border trade have only limited independence in dealing with Russian partners and do not place much importance on import-export activities. “We bring in brick, sand and gravel from Omsk in Russia, while we have the same construction materials in our oblast (region) in abundance. What is the use of such trade?” said Tayir Mansurov, governor of North Kazakhstan region, and Kazakhstan’s former ambassador to Russia. Most economic agreements with Russia lack substance. As if to disguise the poor state of trade and economic relations in the Year of Russia, every border region invites traditional Russian performers to cultural events. But even activists in Slavic ethnic communities, normally proud of their cultural heritage, are increasingly growing weary of the unrestrained infatuation of officials with Russian songs and dances.
Kazakh political scientist Nurbolat Masanov said that Kazakhstan’s efforts to integrate with Russia and other Slavic nations within the framework of Eurasian economic cooperation or Central Asian organizations will le nowhere. “Only bilateral relations can really work in this post-Soviet space. Any multilateral agreement is not productive…. Only states with parliamentary governance system are capable of integrating…. All these leaders sign [agreements] solely in the interests of the political elite” (Navi.kz, June 18).
There are other obstacles to overcome if Kazakhstan and Russia truly want to integrate, including regulating railway tariffs and removing trade and customs barriers. Other issues include drafting a common strategy for joining the World Trade Organization (WTO), creating a joint water and energy resources consortium and other issues remain unresolved. Despite the optimism of advocates for integration within the Eurasian Economic Community, a significant economic and political gap between member countries of this organization is evident. There is little common ground as well between member countries such as Belarus and Kazakhstan, which are geographically distant and ethnically different. At an international conference in Astana, Russian and Kazakh political scientists noted that in reforming domestic policy Kazakhstan has outpaced Russia (Izvestia.ru, June 20).
The widely discussed economic upswing in Kazakhstan, recognized by Russian analysts, would justify Kazakhstan’s ambition to play a leading role in the Eurasian Economic Community. But Russia seems unwilling to accept any Central Asian state as an equal partner. Russian leaders may have toned down the superpower rhetoric of “protecting” 4.5 million ethnic Russians in Kazakhstan and put economic and military cooperation on the agenda. The Kazakh government ratified the agreement on joint protection of Eurasian Economic Community member states’ borders. The agreement allows Russia to freely use air space and landing strips in Kazakhstan under the pretext of combating “criminal gangs” from war zones as well as drug traffickers and weapons smugglers.
Apparently, the Russian-Kazakh border will remain transparent for an indefinite period, although in April, Russia established a 5-kilometer security zone along its border with North Kazakhstan, within which strict passport control is enforced. A sore point in Russian-Kazakh relations is a disputed sector, which makes up only 3% of the border. Russian oil giants Rossneft, Lukoil and Yukos are active in oilfields in West Kazakhstan. Nationalists warn of the danger of the growing assimilation of Kazakhstan into the Russian sphere of influence. These voices, however, get drowned out in calls for integration.