Kazakhstan and Russia are in the final stages of planning large-scale training of their air defense forces. Shield-2008 will be held in western Kazakhstan as a joint air defense exercise, intended to deter “air raids and missile attacks” on either country. According to Abay Tasbulatov, Commander of the Kazakhstan National Guards, ground systems will be augmented by elements of the Russian Space Troops in order to strengthen the potential bilateral response to such an attack on Kazakhstan or Russia. The planned exercises are another indication of the growing security relationship between Astana and Moscow that appears increasingly dominated by an unclear, but self-interested, Russian agenda. It is impossible to imagine Astana’s concept for the exercise; Moscow planners, on the other hand, appear to be calibrating into their military planning old style conventional warfare that implies an inter-state conflict rather than solely reorienting their forces to combat sub-state threats. Shield-2008 will demonstrate a level of defense and security unity between Kazakhstan and Russia, yet there are signs that this may mask deeper potential fissures within the bilateral relationship in the context of foreign policy (Interfax, October 16).
On October 16 Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov met Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev in Astana to discuss a wide range of issues including trade, cultural and humanitarian cooperation, and particularly the energy and space sectors. Yet, given the Russian military intervention in Georgia in August 2008 and the resulting division between Russia and its international detractors, the issue of Kazakhstan’s support for Russia’s stand over Abkhazia and South Ossetia will also have been raised, if less openly than issues about which there are clear common interests (Interfax-Kazakhstan, October 16). During a meeting with his counterpart Marat Tazhin in Kazakhstan, Lavrov offered support for Astana’s forthcoming presidency of the OSCE. Lavrov stated:
We confirm our readiness to provide comprehensive support to Kazakhstan within the framework of Kazakhstan’s forthcoming presidency of the OSCE. We are conducting close consultations, and we are confident that Kazakhstan’s presidency of this pan-European organization will be successful and fruitful (Kazakhstan Today News Agency, October 16).
Tazhin praised the successful implementation of the Kazakh-Russia joint-action plan for 2007-2008 and confirmed progress on a similar bilateral framework for the 2009-2010 period. “Nowadays it has become fashionable to talk about various ‘road maps.’ There is a road map for 2007-2008, and we can say with confidence that most measures included in this bilateral cooperation plan have been carried out during these two years,” Tazhin said. In this context, he noted that Kazakhstan and Russia had “similar or close positions on key international issues and are taking active measures to develop bilateral cooperation and cooperation within international organizations and forums” (Interfax-Kazakhstan, October 16). If the foreign ministry officials are able to sidestep, at least in public, the thorny issue of Georgia, it is clear that the leadership of the Kazakh military and security structures are much closer to the Russian position.
Commander Tasbulatov, for example, commented publicly that Tbilisi’s foreign policy could force Kazakhstan to suspend the development of economic cooperation with Georgia. Addressing a conference in Astana on “Modern Challenges and Kazakhstan’s Contribution to Ensuring Peace and Security,” Tasbulatov was unusually political in his remarks: “Inconsistency and abruptness in Georgian foreign policy, which occasionally borders on radicalism, stipulate the necessity of suspending economic cooperation and canceling investment plans with the aim of minimizing losses to Kazakhstan’s interests.” It was remarkable insofar as it was an attack on Georgia’s foreign policy, or more exactly its conduct of foreign policy toward Russia, from a senior Kazakh military official. On the other hand, he balanced these comments by highlighting Kazakhstan’s wish to see the stabilization of the military and economic situation in the South Caucasus. “Our country’s stance on this issue is categorical: we advocate the settlement of the situation by diplomatic means and political methods, holding constructive negotiations, and reaching mutual agreement,” Tasbulatov asserted (Interfax, October 16).
On October 5 U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited Astana, underscoring America’s long-term interests in Central Asia and downplaying any sense of competition with Russia in such a strategically important region. Foreign Minister Tazhin assured her that Kazakhstan did not employ “double standards” and regarded Abkhazia and South Ossetia as separatist issues, in the same way that it viewed Kosovo. Yet it is worth noting the changing tone used by U.S. officials during their trips to Kazakhstan. In July U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher called on Kazakhstan “to take energetic measures that would demonstrate its adherence to democracy on the threshold of its chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe,” while by October Rice merely discussed Kazakhstan’s chairmanship of the OSCE in 2010 and “plans for the future” (www.politkom.ru, Moscow, October 6).
In reality, Russia has all the cards to play in its relations with Kazakhstan, and the West will nervously wait to see any sign of Russian pressure on Astana’s OSCE agenda. Support for Russia, evident within the military elite in Kazakhstan, reflects deeper and more widespread sympathy in Astana for Russia’s actions and policy since August. What it also underscores is that Kazakhstan will be reluctant to be courted too far by the West if there is any sense that doing so is intended to pressure or “contain” Russia strategically.