Kazakhstan has opened a new hanger at a military air base in Karaganda, both commemorating Independence Day (December 15) and highlighting its image as a regional power prepared to take its place in constructing regional security and combating terrorism. Hailing the development at Karaganda as the first of its kind within the CIS, since the base will serve as a facility for repairing and restoring air force equipment, Kazakhstani military authorities regard the facility as further evidence that the country is ready to play an active part in countering the threat posed by international terrorism (Khabar Television, December 15).
The hanger itself, estimated at around 3,000 square km, took two years to construct and includes special laboratories for testing related electronics equipment. It is able to hold two fighters of MiG-31 capacity and perhaps carry out repairs on Boeing passenger aircraft, given the height of the hanger. Equally possible, based on Kazakhstan’s close relationship within the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and its growing bilateral ties with Russia, would be the future deployment and repair of Russian combat aircraft carrying out strike missions within Central Asia.
In recent years the Kazakhstani military has struggled to come to terms with the problems of Soviet-legacy forces and failed to find adequate mechanisms to capitalize on the U.S. financing for overseas training for its officers. Many officers return to Kazakhstan unable to utilize their education and assist in. improving local standards. This positive development comes at a time when efforts are being stepped up to cement ties with both Russia and China.
Nurtay Abykayev, chairman of Kazakhstan’s Senate, believes that the visit to Kazakhstan by a delegation from the Russian Federation Council “crowns a major set of events carried out as part of the Year of Russia in Kazakhstan, which is nearing completion, and the Year of Kazakhstan in Russia that preceded it,” (Itar-Tass, December 13). Sergei Mironov, Chairman of the Russian Federation Council, believes such multilateral institutions as the Eurasian Economic Community, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and the Central Asian Cooperation Organization, combined with the Single Economic Space serve as “a basis for multilateral integration that enables us to look into the future with confidence.” Mironov, no doubt also carrying a political overture from the Kremlin, conveyed praise on the Kazakhstani government for cooperation in the spirit of a strategic partnership with Russia in the mutually important areas of counter-terrorism and stemming the flow of illegal narcotics across the porous Kazakhstan-Russia border.Simultaneously, Kazakhstan has proceeded to strengthen its evolving security ties with China, pulled together by mutual concerns over Uighur separatists. Kasymzhomart Tokayev, Kazakhstan’s foreign minister, has described Kazakhstan’s relations with China as the cornerstone of future foreign policy. Though this principally involves oil and gas cooperation, serving to deepen the nature of bilateral relations, security factors are playing an increasing role in determining the specific contours of cooperation. Tokayev observed, “We believe that military exercises should have a specific context and purpose. At a time when the main threat to the modern world and security is international terrorism, such exercises should be aimed at counteracting specific threats posed by terrorist organizations” (Interfax-Kazakhstan, December 15).
Such diplomatic moves, while understood in some Western capitals, underscore Washington’s lack of any genuine and deep recognition of Kazakhstan’s security needs. The Kazakhstani authorities, like many other states both inside the region and beyond, refuse to openly admit the presence of an indigenous terrorist threat. The mounting evidence of the involvement of Kazakhstani citizens in the bombings in Tashkent in spring 2004, at first vehemently denied in Astana but later witnessing intelligence and security cooperation in the ensuing investigation, has also been exacerbated by reports of Kazakhstani citizens held in Guantanamo Bay. Four Kazakhstani citizens incarcerated by the U.S. government became involved in militant Islamic activities in an area south of Almaty and developed links with the Taliban. The Kazakhstani Foreign Ministry has applied intense diplomatic pressure in order to secure their return to Kazakhstan. Sensitive negotiations relating to Kazakhstani nationals, far from simply highlighting the vast international diversity of the suspects involved in the war on terror, draw attention to Kazakhstan’s unspoken security problems. Its main security threats are domestic in nature, and although the authorities are able to reluctantly cooperate with their Uzbek counterparts in a criminal investigation into the terrorist attacks in Tashkent, officials realize that some elements of its citizenry may be involved in terrorist or militant organizations. Such rationale explains the security priority in cooperating with China over Uighur separatists. In other words, there is a genuine state concern with the threat posed by certain groups or individuals and there is that which gains the government financial aid packages from abroad — emphasizing the nature of international terrorism and its threat to Kazakhstan. Washington may rationalize Kazakhstan’s official “multi-vector” foreign policy, seeking to avoid favoring any one state in its international relations, but the emergence of China and re-emergence of Russia in the security dynamics of the region, neither of which promote democracy or Western economic interests, will continue to cause bewilderment until such times as planners in the United States recognize how deftly the Kazakhstani government is playing the game of maximizing foreign security assistance in return for little by way of genuine reform.