Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 12

Perhaps hoping to burnish Kazakhstan’s international image, President Nursultan Nazarbayev has called upon members of his Nur Otan party to fight corruption more actively. “Regional branches of the party must step up the purposeful fight against corruption in the localities,” he declared. “Special councils under the regional and district branches of the party, which should be joined by respected and remarkable people, should consider complaints on bribery and embezzlement of public funds. The party should demand that corrupt officials should be removed from their posts and be punished, which we have not been doing so far” (Interfax-Kazakhstan, January 17). Corruption may become a greater political issue in the country as Kazakhstan prepares to assume the chairmanship of the OSCE in 2010. What remains unclear is to what extent this may filter into defense and security initiatives.

Kazakhstan consistently claims success in its fight against drug trafficking, while promoting Western assistance for its border guard services. Efforts to develop regional or cross-border cooperation operations are less advanced. Nonetheless, the National Security Service (KNB) recently scored a breakthrough. Kazakh and Uzbek intelligence services worked together to block a drug trafficking operation from Tajikistan to Kazakhstan. Unfortunately, this likely is an isolated incident, not necessarily indicative of a trend toward greater cross-border security cooperation.

On January 16, the KNB press service in southern Kazakhstan reported that two Uzbek citizens had been detained crossing the Kazakh-Uzbek border. They allegedly were in possession of around seven kilograms of heroin (Interfax-Kazakhstan, January 16).

In reality, Kazakhstan’s security is actually more vulnerable than the government wants to openly disclose. In many places along the border drug traffickers and criminal groups are able to freely cross into Kazakhstan by rail. In western Mangistau region, tens of trains from Tajikistan and Uzbekistan cross the Kazakh border each week, making four stops that allow people to traffic illegally without any state control. Consequently, in this region alone, there are approximately 80 kilometers of uncontrolled border.

Local officials have been aware of the gaps for some time. According to the governor of western Beyneu District, Basshy Azirkhanov, “Train passengers are examined only after it has already traveled for two hours. One can do anything one wants during this period of time. If there is no big difference, then let us examine trains in western Atyrau and Kulsary in general. We propose that border guards move the checkpoint closer to the border.” Naturally Kazakh border troops would not object to being moved closer to the border, allowing them to perform their jobs more effectively, yet there is a problem that appears symptomatic of the approach taken by the regime to difficult issues, whereby they over emphasize mere symbolic efforts rather than invest in infrastructure or thorough reforms.

Kanat Atykhanov, deputy head of the regional directorate of the Batys (West) border service, highlighted this very problem: “There is no infrastructure. Secondly, the railway system does not ensure security of passenger and freight trains. There is no railway station with means of communication. There are no facilities to locate border control units” (Channel 31, Almaty, January 15). The central government may not be the only culprit, as local authorities have agreed to build the infrastructure, and the border guards are willing to relocate. However, both sides have reached an impasse. And while they try to resolve their differences, over 400 illegal passengers and more than 100 items of ammunition were “found” at the Beyneu terminal in 2007.

While Kazakhstan benefits from the deployment of a small number of its peacekeepers in Iraq – engineers to be exact – an altogether darker image of its military and security forces exists at home. On January 17, the Karaganda garrison military court convicted three soldiers from a fixed-term Ministry of Defense service unit and sentenced them to lengthy prison terms for the murder of a fellow soldier in their unit. Judge Bolat Sikembayev ruled that on June 24, 2007, soldiers from the unit’s artillery battalion, specifically a gun-commander and senior gunners, attacked a 22-year-old soldier and threw him from the third floor of their barracks for “not buying a mobile phone card for them” (Interfax-Kazakhstan, January 17). Such serious incidents may be rare, but the case illustrates deeper and more pervasive problems in the armed forces: corruption, bullying, abuse of position, hazing, and a culture of privilege among the perpetrators of these activities. Moreover, although Kazakhstan has benefited from several years of Western military assistance, many of its soldiers and officers still exhibit a Soviet-style reticence toward – or fear of – foreigners.

Superficial reforms are no doubt more popular and less painful for the ruling elite to implement, but they fail to address underlying issues often of a deep social nature. In short, Kazakhstan’s version of “military reform” needs to enter a painful, more penetrating period aimed at social and infrastructure reform, tackling corruption, and re-educating the rank and file in ethical practices. Unless this is done over the next two years, Kazakhstan could become a major embarrassment to the OSCE rather than being held up as an example for the region and beyond. President Nazarbayev has a tough task on his hands, if he is to successfully prepare Kazakhstan’s military and security forces for the scrutiny accompanying its chairmanship of the OSCE in 2010. He would do well to recognize how quickly Uzbekistan’s image was damaged after its “strategic partnership” with the United States unraveled in 2005. Nazarbayev faces a choice between a focus on “image” and a potentially difficult year as OSCE chair or pursuing deeper reform.