Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 2 Issue: 171

Kazakhstan has taken a small, but significant step towards preparing more of its military personnel to receive education and training in Western countries by opening a new military language institute in Almaty. In many ways this development serves to highlight the extent of the uphill task of Kazakhstan’s military establishment as it seeks to increase the number of personnel with a competent level of military English language skills. Embryonic in its scale, the facility equally provides tangible proof that the senior leadership within Kazakhstan’s Ministry of Defense remains open to enhancing Kazakhstan’s links with the NATO Alliance and its member states (Interfax, September 10).

Behind the high-profile public ceremony in Almaty on September 10 celebrating the opening of the Military Institute of Foreign Languages, Army General Mukhtar Altynbayev, Kazakhstan’s minister of defense, prided himself in the international dimension of the invited guests, including defense attaches from the United States, France, Germany, Turkey, and Russia. Skeptics of the long-term sustainability of Kazakhstan’s foreign policy paradigm, predicated on the principle of avoiding favoring any major power, may criticize the diversity of those invited and the difficulty of developing a common position on assisting Kazakhstan’s military reform. Yet all these states have vested interests in seeing success in this new venture.

The institute itself will be tasked with preparing officers to carry out interpreting work and regional studies that emphasize military intelligence analysis based on a knowledge of two or more languages. Initially the institute will organize training in Chinese, English, French, German, Korean, Turkish, and several oriental languages. Altynbayev noted that Kazakhstan “has formed a national system of military education that has a complete cycle. Education and combat training programs are being developed taking into account new challenges and threats. The priority in the development of the military education system is that graduate experts should be in demand by both military and other security agencies” (Kazakhstan Today, September 10).

According to Altynbayev, the crucial aspect of the institute is that in 2006 it will become a regional educational center within the framework of NATO’s Partnership for Peace (PfP). Access to this institute by other officers from elsewhere in Central Asia may provide a stimulus promoting NATO’s work in the region and facilitating the expansion of current bilateral security assistance programs offered to Kazakhstan by NATO’s members.

Kazakhstan’s careful balance between Washington and Moscow is not compromised by the international support or the regional aspect of the institute being linked in the future with NATO’s PfP. Kazakhstan’s long-term military cooperation with Russia seems no less secure as a result of these overtures towards the Alliance. Kasymzhomart Tokayev, Kazakhstan’s foreign minister, made clear his country’s continued support for the anti-terrorist efforts in Afghanistan and practical cooperation in Iraq during his August 22-25 trip to Washington. Tokayev’s talks with Elliot Abrams, deputy national security advisor to President George W. Bush, appeared to offer reassurance of Kazakhstan’s commitment to democratic reform; a process that may be furthered by its hopes to chair the OSCE in 2009. Such contacts with the West, economic cooperation coupled with security assistance, supply a wider and durable context within which it can be expected that Kazakhstan’s military will be increasingly exposed to Western ideas and methods. Despite recent tests for U.S. policy in Central Asia relating to the termination of its basing rights in Uzbekistan, Tokayev assessed positively Kazakhstan’s strategic relationship with the United States. “We are helping the United States to hold the anti-terrorist operation in Afghanistan. Kazakhstan is the only Central Asian country and one of the few Muslim countries that has sent their military staff to Iraq. Our loyalty in this aspect is strong and firm. We believe that now is not the time to discuss whether an action is legitimate or not. Right now is the time to demonstrate consensus of the international community on the issue of reconstructing this country” (Komsomolskaya pravda Kazakhstan, August 27).

The success of the new language institute in particular will be an important underlying factor in the utility of Western security assistance programs. U.S. assistance, as well as British and Turkish advice and practical aid, has helped in the realization of the plan to open such an institute; its potential and scope to expand into something with greater potential in the regional context raises hopes that Kazakhstan may emerge as an engine for regional cooperation. But the weak point in the bilateral relationship remains the issue of Kazakhstan’s membership in the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Members of Kazakhstan’s defense leadership equate membership with restrictions on the country’s room for maneuver in offering access to Kazakhstan’s military facilities to NATO members.

Washington’s defense planning staff, bearing in mind this caveat, will do well to support the Military Institute of Foreign Languages; it is relatively uncontroversial, risk free, and broadly in line with helping Kazakhstan’s military reform, while advancing and deepening the country’s links with NATO.