Kazakhstan has again raised the prospect of closer relations with the NATO Alliance, despite its already close relations with Russia and China and the restrictions placed upon its room for maneuver due its membership of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Following the widely expected re-election of President Nursultan Nazarbayev on December 4, the senior echelons of the Kazakh diplomatic machine have resorted to reaffirming the government’s intention to closely cooperate with the Alliance.
Kazakh Foreign Minister Kasymzhomart Tokayev discussed such cooperation during a meeting in Brussels on December 7 with NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer. “Having given a high assessment of the level of partnership achieved between the country and NATO, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, expressed his readiness to give Kazakhstan all-round assistance in deepening dialogue with NATO and its member states in issues relating to global and regional security and reforming the armed forces,” according to the Kazakh Foreign Ministry (Interfax-Kazakhstan, December 8).
Scheffer, for his part, assessed positively the recent trend towards closer partnership ties with NATO. Kazakhstan has shown a willingness to deepen its partnership in the military sphere, as well as civil emergencies and scientific cooperation. De Hoop Scheffer particularly identified the steps taken by the Kazakh government to pave the way for greater practical cooperation with NATO, based on its legislative amendments in September that allow more security cooperation with the Alliance. He praised the use of the NATO +1 format for helping to guide and deepen the nature of Kazakhstan’s partnership and the work towards developing a transit agreement with NATO to assist in stabilizing Afghanistan. De Hoop Scheffer also paid homage to the existing strength of these relations on the basis of the close contacts with Nazarbayev, taking the opportunity to extend his congratulations on his re-election. From the perspective of NATO planners, dealing with the existing regime in Astana is more durable and predictable than in its fluctuating relations with other Central Asian states.
Equally, Tokayev was well versed in the worsening state of relations generally existing between the Alliance and Uzbekistan; Kazakh politicians may well have identified an opportunity to gain from this, without necessarily making concessions. The trouble is pinpointing exactly what Kazakhstan wants from this “deeper” relationship and establishing the limitations in its future progress.
Recent military exercises in Kazakhstan appear to give some clues as to the nature of their needs, and why they may looks to Western donors to assist them. Defense Minister Mukhtar Altynbayev closely observed the well-rehearsed use of paratroopers to destroy a small group of terrorists, during an exercise near Astana marking the beginning of a new training year in the Kazakh army. Altynbayev highlighted the priority given to improving operational and combat training, but in the context of anti-terrorist capabilities. Here the West appears a willing donor, still suffering uncertainty over the U.S. basing issue and Tashkent’s distancing itself from the Alliance. Aware of the sensitivities involved, not only in Uzbekistan but more widespread fears that indigenous militaries could be used for domestic political reasons, Altynbayev sought to dispel concerns. “The army will never go against the people but against the bandit formations. Those who want to break the constitutional order of our state. This will never happen: the army will put a barrier to this,” he intimated. Kazakhstan in his view will be different; the constitutional order under threat will not justify the use of armed force (Kazakh-Channel 31, December 8). Indeed, Altynbayev denied rumors that the army had been placed on standby on the day of the presidential election.
Yet, there are clear limitations on the scope for deepening this partnership, as recent comments by members of the Russian government have underscored. German Gref, Russian minister of economic development and trade, considers the absence of developed infrastructure on Russia’s border with Kazakhstan to be a key security problem for the customs service. The porous nature of that vast border leaves Russia open to smuggling syndicates operation from China, transiting through the Kazakh-Russian border (RIA-Novosti, December 8).
Russian border guards from the Urals Federal District have seized about 1,133 kg of drugs this year, according to Vladimir Fedorov, head of the Russian Federal Security Service’s regional border directorate for the Urals region. “Border guards in the Urals Federal District have confiscated 170 kg of heroin, 800 kg of marijuana, and also other types of drugs illegally taken across the Russian border,” Fedorov said. Yet the pressures stemming from Kazakhstan’s close ties with Russia and shared security concerns, oddly enough, also serve to push Astana towards Western donors to strengthen its weak security structures.
Kazakhstan has often mooted the prospect of closer relations with NATO in the past, and has made practical progress in showing its willingness to achieve this in reality. What has often been left unanswered was the extent to which it sought better relations with the Alliance out of its desire to avoid being outdone by Tashkent or to push Moscow for greater support. The rivalry with Uzbekistan now seems more distant, but the calculation in Kazakhstan will now stand or fall on how successfully Astana can present these overtures as multilateral cooperation, rather than closer cooperation with the United States. Its overarching security task is to improve the condition of its armed forces and security bodies without incurring great political penalties from a wary Russia and a vigilant China.