Kazakhstan has taken further steps towards strengthening its partnership with the NATO Alliance, as part of its ongoing strategy aimed at improving its domestic and regional security while balancing its relations with the United States, Russia, and China. During a visit to Kazakhstan in early October, Ambassador Robert Simmons, Special Representative of the NATO Secretary-General for the Caucasus and Central Asia, denied any need or existing plans for NATO bases in Kazakhstan or elsewhere in the Caspian region. “Currently there are no sites or bases of NATO in Kazakhstan, and I do not see any need to change this situation,” Simmons confirmed in an interview in Almaty on October 4 (Interfax, October 4).
Though Ambassador Simmons evidently took the opportunity to downplay fears in Kazakhstan relating to its increasingly positive ties with the Alliance, seemingly ruling out the possibility of NATO forces being deployed to Kazakhstan in the foreseeable future, in many ways his trip has in fact secured an unprecedented level of practical cooperation with the Alliance. Behind the scenes, Simmons held forthright talks with Army General Mukhtar Altynbayev, Kazakhstan’s defense minister, exploring cooperation in defense, international and regional cooperation, and modernizing the Kazakh armed forces.
Altynbayev, underscoring the recent success of the elements of the Kazakh Peacekeeping Battalion (KAZBAT) deployed in Iraq, explained to Simmons the Ministry of Defense plan to create a regional center based on KAZBAT to train bomb-disposal experts for possible service in international peace-support operations; raising the real possibility of future NATO interoperability in such key formations, and so supplying niche capabilities to the Alliance in a time of crisis. This seemed to be mentioned partly to display a willingness to cooperate and explore the potential to extract Western security assistance for such ventures. Simmons also suggested that NATO’s Partnership for Peace (PfP) Planning and Review Process (PARP) project could include setting up a team by 2007 to react to disasters, including those that resulted from the use of weapons of mass destruction or major terrorist incidents. The Kazakh team would participate in international rescue operations and serve in international rescue forces. Minister of Emergency Situations Shalbay Kulmakhanov appeared to support such plans and presented a united front among Kazakh officials that heralds a new chapter in cooperation with the Alliance (Khabar Television, October 5).
In his final meeting Simmons discussed Kazakhstan’s NATO relations with Bolat Utemuratov, secretary of Kazakhstan’s Security Council. Utemuratov reviewed positively the development of and prospects for cooperation between Kazakhstan and NATO. Kazakhstan has made significant progress in preparing an individual partnership plan, which provides for entering a higher and more efficient level of cooperation with NATO. This plan, intended to be agreed by the end of this year, covers a wide range of areas, including the military and political spheres, aimed at increasing readiness for natural and man-made emergencies, as well as strengthening border security and expanding cooperation in the scientific sphere. Kazakhstan wants help from Alliance states in reforming its military and access to NATO’s trust funds to organize professional retraining for its servicemen after their retirement from the army. Simmons believes that similar retraining courses were a success after their opening in a number of states. He hoped that Kazakhstan would also benefit from this project (Kazinform, October 6).
NATO has also announced that it has appointed Tugay Tuncer as its special representative on communication and cooperation with Central Asian countries. “We have just appointed him. He will be based in Kazakhstan and will be traveling a lot between Almaty and Astana. He will work not only with the Kazakh government but also with the other governments in the region,” Simmons, told a news conference in Almaty on October 4.
NATO planners had long pondered the question of the exact location of an officer within the region, seeking to avoid the impression of favoring any one state, even briefly toying with the idea of an itinerant liaison rather than a single-location option. Selecting Kazakhstan, several months after the tragic events in Andijan, Uzbekistan, made it less politically thorny as to whether Tashkent would take offence. Simmons explained that the appointment of Tuncer had been widely accepted in the region, “Literally all the Central Asian states, except for Uzbekistan, agreed to work with him and welcomed him in their capitals.” It ends a period of speculation, but comes at a time when it may well be interpreted as a sign that Washington and Brussels are happier in promoting multilateral security cooperation with Central Asia through Kazakhstan, while paying lip service to Uzbekistan (Interfax, October 4).
Kazakhstan has therefore taken its cooperation with the Alliance to a new level, and this will be developed in finer detail in the coming months. The country’s officials arguably told NATO counterparts what they wanted hear, while Astana’s real intentions and political willingness to reform its security structures could be open to question. NATO is, however, sending clear signals to Kazakhstan regarding its intentions to assist in the reform process and help improve its security structures. If President Nursultan Nazarbayev calculates that he can balance such relations with his country’s relationship with Russia and China, then the political support will be forthcoming to secure long term interest in seeing Kazakhstan’s relations with NATO reach genuine new heights. The rhetoric remains to be tested.