Kazakhstan’s Deputy Defense Minister, Major-General Bolat Sembinov, concluded a successful series of meetings with senior NATO officials in Brussels on January 21. The meetings signify a clear turning point in Kazakhstan’s relations with the Alliance, seeking mechanisms through which the Kazakhstani armed forces may benefit from additional assistance from NATO and its member states, deepen its commitment to NATO’s Partnership for Peace (PfP) Program, and develop closer, practical bilateral relations with individual member states. However, the strengthening of Kazakhstan’s ties with NATO raises questions concerning the inner workings of Kazakhstan’s defense policies, rivalry among various factions inside the Kazakh Ministry of Defense, relations with Russia, and the future of the economic security of the Caspian Sea.
General Sembinov, upon whom much of the future of Kazakhstan’s military reform has come to rest, delivered reports to the Alliance on the work of the Kazakhstani representatives at NATO HQ, offering ideas and suggestions on furthering the 19+1 format between Kazakhstan and NATO initiated in 2003. Sembinov also conveyed the emphasis that Astana has now placed on looking towards NATO’s PfP Trust Fund as a way of enabling its deeper involvement in its various programs, as well as in strengthening regional stability. Moreover, Sembinov delivered a detailed report at the annual NATO Defense Planning Symposium held at the NATO center in Oberammergau (Germany) on Kazakhstan’s proposals and initiatives aimed at improving NATO’s PfP program. Yet behind the public statements, the key meeting was between Sembinov and Robert Simmons, recently appointed as Special Advisor on Central Asia and the Caucasus to NATO’s Secretary-General. Both individuals in their own right will play a crucial role in formulating the contours of future relations and the nature, depth, and scope of cooperation.
On the sidelines of Sembinov’s itinerary was a meeting with General August Van Daele, Belgium’s Chief of General Staff. The talks served as a starting point for building cooperation between the two countries’ defense ministries, and were in fact the first such bilateral meetings. Kazakhstan has taken seriously its growing security links with Western countries, including the United States, Turkey, and Britain, but in adding Belgium to its list of possible Western countries helping in its monumental military reform tasks, Astana appears to be demonstrating unambiguous interest in solidifying its Western orientation.
However, General Sembinov, an active reformer within the Kazakh Ministry of Defense, may be isolated in his attempts to implement successful military reform. Recent presidential statements appear to studiously ignore relations with the Alliance, and instead reaffirm the age-old reliance upon Russia as an ally and supplier of arms. Indeed, Sembinov recognizes the limited nature of Western cooperation, since the country’s strict security and defense legislation prohibits close relations with NATO; deeper PfP cooperation is currently dependent upon Astana amending its security laws. Unfortunately, Kazakhstan’s Ministry of Defense management system, combined with political considerations such as carefully avoiding offence to Moscow, negates many of Sembinov’s aims. This appears not least in the personnel occupying key positions in negotiations with the West. Colonel Vladimir Raikhel, currently head of the international military cooperation directorate, worked for many years on bilateral cooperation legislation between Kazakhstan and Russia. Raikhel replaced Colonel Igor Mukhamedov, who gained a reputation in the West for being proactive and energetic in his work for military reform and improved Western assistance. Sembinov, in other words, may be short of allies within the Ministry of Defense.
Kazakhstan’s continued sensitivity towards Moscow was recently highlighted by the decision to award the Kazakh Dostyk Order to Sergei Ivanov, Russia’s minister of defense, in recognition of Ivanov’s efforts to strengthen Russian-Kazakhstani bilateral military cooperation.
Capitalizing on the occasion, Ivanov commented that Russia’s decision to offer arms to its CIS neighbors at domestic prices came into effect in January 2005. “Russia will spare no efforts to ensure that the unified system of military training is preserved,” Ivanov affirmed. Russia has little else to offer the Kazakhstani armed forces, relying on the inertia that exists within the Kazakh Ministry of Defense, reluctance to change, and the firm belief that U.S. foreign policy in Central Asia will eventually force reluctant partners to return to Moscow’s orbit.
Sembinov, however, proving his credentials as a skillful political player, has perceived that there is less risk involved in pursuing Kazakhstan’s relations with NATO that its bilateral relations with the United States. Moscow is more likely to express its disdain at the latter. Equally, since the well-publicized first casualties of Kazakhstan’s peacekeepers in Iraq on January 9, including one fatality (see EDM, January 13), Astana has made clear its intention to retain its military commitment to Iraq ahead of the presidential elections and despite widespread international concern about the security situation there. Indeed, Army General Mukhtar Altynbayev, in one of his few public statements relating to the death of a Kazakhstani officer in Iraq, emphasized that arrangements were put in place to compensate the family of Captain Kayrat Kudabayev, paying around $40,000 and offering pension payments for the serviceman’s widow. In an even more highly charged political affirmation, Altynbayev has stated there are no plans for the withdrawal of Kazakhstan’s peacekeepers from Iraq.
Sembinov may be forgiven for believing there is a quid pro quo to be gained from the Alliance, in return for Kazakhstan’s willingness to deploy a small number of peacekeepers in such a dangerous theater. Nonetheless, Sembinov may yet find that his sternest critics and opponents are located within his own ministry, and not in the Western corridors of power.
(RIA-Novosti, January 15; Khabar TV, January 15; Interfax, January 21).