On October 28 the president of Tatarstan, Mintimir Shaimiev, met in Astana with Kazakhstan’s president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, and prime minister, Danial Akhmetov. The leaders discussed ways to deepen bilateral trade and economic links. Kazakh leaders view Tatarstan as one of their most important trade partners in the CIS, trailing only Ukraine and Belarus.
Upon his departure, Shaimiev told journalists that he had been given a “very warm brotherly welcome” and that the meeting had been a success. Talks, described by local observers as “constructive,” mainly focused on increasing cooperation in petrochemicals, engineering, and the oil industry.
No autonomous ethnic republic in Russia has been as consistent as Tatarstan in developing economic and cultural ties with Kazakhstan. Last year the trade volume between Tatarstan and Kazakhstan totaled $126 million. In the first eight months of 2004, the figure grew to $130 million (Yegemen Kazakhstan, October 29). Both side noted during the visit that they still share enormous potential to boost bilateral economic activities.
Although Kazakhstan and Tatarstan signed an intergovernmental agreement on economic, technical, and cultural cooperation on April 3, 1996, bilateral contacts were scant until 2000. Even after Tatarstan established a trade representative in Almaty in 1997, economic relations remained at a low level. But bilateral relations received a boost after Tatarstan gained relatively greater economic and political independence from Moscow and updated its laws regulating foreign trade. Prior to Shaimiev’s visit, a governmental delegation from Tatarstan visited Kazakhstan in August to probe areas of future cooperation, including partnership possibilities in housing construction and the possibility of Tatarstan’s leading oil company, Tatneft, bidding on projects for prospecting and developing the Kashagan oil field, which is believed to hold the largest reserves in West Kazakhstan. The August advance meeting also discussed Tatarstan’s participation in constructing two airports in Astana. The head of the Tatar delegation, Trade Minister Haviz Salikhov, described the visit as “fruitful” (etatar.ru, August 31).
Shaimiev and Akhmetov remained tight-lipped on airport construction during the October meeting, but Tatneft’s ambitious plan secure its share in developing Kashagan seems near implementation. In its present cash-strapped circumstances, Kazakhstan readily welcomes any reliable investor who could modernize its long-outdated oil infrastructure. The country’s oil extracting facilities are at least 100 years old. Kazakhstan has only three enterprises involved in the petrochemical industry, and its oil sector suffers from an acute shortage of experienced personnel. In these circumstances Tatarstan’s reputable technical expertise and more effective oil-extraction techniques would be indispensable for Kazakh companies.
Other potential areas of cooperation include plans to expand the KamAz-Kazakhstan joint venture to assemble heavy-duty KamAz trucks in Kazakhstan. Astana also hopes for cooperation with Tatarstan’s well-developed aviation industry. In particular, the government hopes to receive MI-8 helicopters from Kazan to use in reconnaissance missions connected with patrolling its border areas. Last year Kazakhstan received helicopters valued at $4.3 million from Tatarstan (Yegemen Kazakhstan, October 29).
On many occasions President Shaimiev has stressed the “traditional friendship, brotherhood,” and ethnic and linguistic affinity between the two peoples. Unlike the discussions during President Nazarbayev’s June visit to Tatarstan, this time the two leaders did not elaborate on the integration problems among the Central Asian countries belonging to the Turkic family of nations. Far from that, Shaimiev even recalled an unpleasant trip to Uzbekistan as part of a Russian delegation some years ago. He said he knew that relations between Russia and Uzbekistan were in bad shape, but the cold reception he was given in Tashkent surpassed his worst apprehensions. In the same breath Shaimiev underlined his friendship with Nazarbayev saying, “If there are two presidents in the post-Soviet space who meet with Nursultan Abishevich [Nazarbayev] frequently I am one of them” (Aikyn, October 29).
President Shaimiev has won a reputation as a straightforward, bold leader for his open criticism of Putin’s administrative reform schemes. In an interview with the analytical television program “Mezghil,” he reiterated his view and, speaking in Tatar, sharply criticized the dissolution of legislative assemblies proposed by the Russian president, stressing that it is inadmissible for one person to take such an important decision alone (Kazakh Television Channel One, October 31).
Shaimiev glossed over the threat of terrorism, so often brandished by Putin. Some observers note that Putin is using the threat of terrorism as a pretext to centralize power. But the Putin administration likely will avoid an open confrontation with Shaimiev, in order not to provoke the highly explosive republic of Tatarstan.