Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 3 Issue: 11

Kazakhstan continues to strengthen its ties with the NATO Alliance, despite its close relations with Russia and China and the pressures this brings to the Nazarbayev regime. Officials on both sides met recently to conclude an individual partnership action plan (IPAP), which will form the basis of future cooperation between NATO and Kazakhstan.

“A meeting of the military-political leading committee in the NATO-Kazakhstan format discussed and prepared for final approval the individual partnership action plan, a document that harmonizes all aspects of practical interaction and dialogue between Kazakhstan and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization,” according to an official Kazakhstani MoD press release (Interfax, Moscow, January 13). The plan itself—heralded as unique in Western relations with Central Asia—foresees strengthening regional and international security, deepening the processes of transformation of the Kazakhstani armed forces, raising operational compatibility, and improving cooperation in science, emergency civil planning, environmental protection and fighting terrorism.

The Kazakhstani delegation led by Deputy Defense Minister Lieutenant-General Bulat Sembinov attended a session of the NATO-Kazakhstan military-political committee at the NATO Headquarters in Brussels on January 10. The delegation from Kazakhstan visited Brussels from January 9-12. Sembinov met Alessandro Minuto Rizzo, NATO deputy secretary general, Robert Simmons, NATO special representative for the Caucasus and Central Asia, and other high-ranking officials of the organization. During these meetings, NATO officials were keen to praise Kazakhstan for the leading role it is now playing in developing security within Central Asia, a comment that could be interpreted both as disapproval of Uzbekistan and marking the opening of an effort to solidify Kazakhstan as the linchpin in the Alliance’s Central Asian policy.

Unfortunately, for an Alliance with limited experience with Central Asian governments, limited and restricted contact with the indigenous militaries, and an acute awareness of Russia’s sensitivity toward its traditional sphere of influence, such moves need to be supported by concrete measures. Military reform in Kazakhstan has often taken a course that oddly mirrors Astana’s relations with the West, China and Russia, including its ongoing involvement in the regional multilateral bodies (CSTO and SCO). Sembinov, once committed to reform and the pursuit of closer ties with the West as potential partners in this process, has become embroiled within Kazakhstani politics and recognized the extreme shifts in regional relations with the West following the expulsion of U.S. forces from Uzbekistan. Moreover, following the Kazakhstan’s presidential elections, senior officers in Kazakhstan have privately questioned the reality of Sembinov’s commitment to military reform; the safe option is re-alignment with the Russian arms industry and confirmation of Kazakhstan’s growing energy and political ties with Russia.

Domestic reform in Kazakhstan appears to inch forward. On January 11, when the National Guard Soldiers marched to the rostrum carrying Kazakhstan’s flags during the official part of an inauguration ceremony, publicity was widespread and predictably supportive of President Nazarbayev. It is such forces that the regime relied upon to enforce order in the event of political problems during the Presidential elections. Major-General Iskakov gave a highly publicized report that received presidential approval. Nevertheless, these are insulated and opaque organizations, modeled on the Soviet style security forces, which NATO assistance programs will have to transform if success is to be achieved (Khabar, Almaty, January 11).

Meanwhile, as the Nazarbayev regime looks toward the West and seeks to strengthen its ties with NATO, relations with Russia loom large. President Putin’s visit to Kazakhstan from January 9-11 signaled a reaffirmation of the Kremlin’s intention to build on its diplomatic successes in the region in 2005. Putin discussed the Eurasian Economic Community, the CSTO and SCO in the context of bilateral relations (Interfax, Almaty, January 10).

“During the negotiations, an important place will be given to trade and economic cooperation. A detailed conversation will be held on further expansion of trade, cooperation in the fuel and energy complex, including the transportation of Kazakh oil through Russian territory; cooperation in the peaceful use of atomic energy; developing cooperation in various economic sectors; as well as putting on track the military and military and technical cooperation,” a Kremlin source commented.

Energy and economic cooperation will continue to underpin the bilateral security relations between Russia and Kazakhstan for many years. Energy has also become the hallmark of Russian diplomacy within the CIS, and Russia’s presidency of the G8 signals a neighbor with which Nazarbayev must do business. The mutual interests of Russia’s Vneshekonombank and Kazakhstan’s Development Bank further underscore the importance of cooperation.

The IPAP concluded in tentative format with NATO marks genuine progress in relations between Kazakhstan and NATO. Yet, with the complexity of Central Asian politics and Kazakhstan’s ties to Russia and the regional multilateral security bodies, there are clear limits on how far it can pursue military and security links with NATO. Sembinov himself is arguably less pro-active in the pursuit of military reform than he was two years ago. The developments at NATO HQ must therefore be regarded with caution; before further funding is released to support Kazakhstani military reform, more information is needed by its Western donors on the progress and use of those officers sent for military education and training. In this sense, picture that emerges may differ from the ease of expedient agreements on paper.