The government of Kazakhstan is targeting the three Baltic states as possible avenues for closer relations with the European Union. In the first years of Baltic-Kazakhstan relations, the Kazakh side invariably stressed the priority of mutual economic interests. This over-cautious attitude was partly prompted by the deterioration of relations between Russia and the Baltic states; Kazakhstan did not want to provoke Russia. Moscow’s barely concealed negative view of burgeoning Kazakh-Baltic ties was particularly evident in 2001, when officials from the Karazhanbasmunay Kazakh-Lithuanian joint venture and Lithuania’s Mazeikiu Nafta oil refinery applied to Moscow for permission to ship Kazakh oil to Lithuanian’s Butinge oil terminal on the Baltic Sea via Russian territory. Russian officials adamantly refused, saying, “Moscow has absolutely no interest in letting Kazakh oil flow to Lithuania and helping make the Butinge terminal a commercial success” (RusEnergy.com, April 13, 2001).
Moscow’s large presence still looms over Kazakhstan’s relations with the Baltic countries. At the same time, the changing balance-of-power among the major players in Central Asia and the Baltic states’ new EU membership have forced Astana to give greater consideration to the political content of its Baltic policy. Welcoming Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga in Astana on October 8, Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev pointed out that Kazakhstan and Latvia have no unsolved bilateral economic and political issues. He underlined that Latvia and Kazakhstan were not only economic partners, but also allies within the international anti-terrorist coalition and shared a common interest in rebuilding post-war Iraq and Afghanistan.
President Vike-Freiberga similarly expressed satisfaction with the “development of friendly relations” between the two countries. She described Kazakhstan as “the heart of Asia” and Latvia as “the most oriental country” in the European Union (Khabar TV, October 8). Latvia and Kazakhstan concluded three agreements during this visit, including promises on economic cooperation and foreign investment protection. Observers considered the third agreement to be the most important, namely cooperation in fighting terrorism, drug trafficking, and organized crime. At Riga’s request, Kazakhstan also handed over a list of more than 200 Latvians deported to Kazakhstan under the Stalinist regime in the 1930s and tortured or executed in NKVD prison camps.
Latvia is Kazakhstan’s most active Baltic trade partner. In 2003, trade turnover between Latvia and Kazakhstan reached $91.9 million, compared to $13.7 million with Estonia, which was unchanged from 2002. Since 2000 Kazakhstan has been particularly interested in Latvia’s Ventspils seaport, which would be a convenient route for shipping Kazakh oil and grain to European markets. President Nazarbayev announced that construction toward a grain terminal on the Baltic Sea was already underway. Kazakhstan also counts on Latvian support in its efforts to join the World Trade Organization.
However, Kazakhstan also believes that the Baltic countries are increasingly important as political bridges leading to the West. Since joining NATO’s Partnership for Peace program in 1994, Kazakhstan has sought to minimize Moscow’s influence over its foreign policy. Much to the Kremlin’s irritation, Kazakhstan sent its 27-man Kazbat peacekeeping battalion to Iraq in August 2003. Kazakhstan was also the first Central Asian country to join NATO’s Planning and Monitoring program. Kazakhstan’s leaders have secured a positive assessment of the country’s human rights record from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe by abolishing capital punishment, reforming the penal system, and updating its election laws.
NATO or EU membership for Kazakhstan would tremendously raise the country’s international prestige, but the likelihood of invitations remains highly hypothetical, given the country’s current level of political development. Most likely, Kazakhstan will not be able to break out of Russia’s sphere of influence in the foreseeable future. The intensification of top-level contacts and official visits with the Czech Republic, Austria, Germany, and the Baltic states indicate Kazakhstan’s desire to strengthen its ties with the West. But Astana has to delicately balance between Russia and the West. When military exercises occurred that involved NATO forces on the territory of Kazakhstan, the quasi-official Kazakhstanskaya pravda newspaper explained, “As it was repeatedly stated by the Foreign Ministry of the country, our state has no intention of joining the NATO alliance” (June 29). The denial was apparently meant to reassure the Kremlin of Kazakhstan’s loyalty.