Kazakhstan’s presidential elections, subject to the stringent controls of the ruling regime, are being carefully prepared with the release of publicity promoting President Nursultan Nazarbayev. On the periphery of that process has been the remerging issue of border security; given the extent of Kazakhstan’s vast borders it is hardly surprising. Yet the demarcation of the border with Turkmenistan has generated an unusual amount of media attention.
Progress regarding the Kazakh-Turkmen border has been rapid since its declaration of friendship and peace resulting from the bilateral agreement on the delimitation and demarcation of state borders between Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, signed on July 5, 2005, by Nazarbayev and Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov. Its implementation has resulted in opportunistic coverage for Nazarbayev, at a propitious moment in his political career, as he presents his regime to the world as open and friendly. On November 5 Lieutenant-General Orazberdi Soltanow, head of the Turkmen State Border Service, headed local dignitaries at the opening ceremony of the first border markers between the countries at the Garabogaz border unit. Equally, denoting the level of political importance attached to the event, it was attended by a Kazakh delegation headed by Major-General Khusain Berkaliyev, first deputy director of the Border Service of Kazakhstan’s National Security Council (Esgar, November 10).
Turkmenistan’s tightly controlled press reported that the event indicated Niyazov’s friendly relations with Kazakhstan and his intentions to contribute more widely to security in the region. Turkmen border officials emphasized the importance and passivity of the country’s borders, though conceding that it planned to create 150 border posts between Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan by the end of the year (Turkmen TV, November 13).
Kazakh officials placed a different spin on the same events, pointing to the significance of opening border posts between Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan as an indicator of the Nazarbayev regime’s efforts to protect its citizens. Otan Sakshysy (Defender of the Homeland), the weekly of the Kazakh National Security Committee’s Border Service, noted, “A border sign was put up on November 5 in the area of the Aktau border detachment, which is guarded by the Dalya border post. A special ceremony was held because this border sign will go down in history as the first border sign on the Kazakh-Turkmen border.” On this basis the extent of press coverage and the presence of senior officers on either side was justified (Interfax-Kazakhstan News Agency, November 15).
As the reorientation has commenced in the aftermath of Uzbekistan’s decision to end the U.S. military presence in its country, Kazakh politicians are endeavoring to present Kazakhstan as a potential alternative, more economically and politically stable than its neighbor and regional rival, for attracting Western security and economic investment. Nazarbayev’s problem remains how to achieve this without upsetting China or Russia. Part of that process involves convincing regional and international partners that Astana could unlock the Gordian knot of Turkmenistan’s regional neutrality and isolation. Implementing the existing border agreements with Turkmenistan and taking practical, yet well-timed and publicized, steps to improve border security along the 400-kilometer border, make Kazakhstan a more alluring partner for Western countries.
In fact, ceremonial events that denote Nazarbayev’s intention to back up his political overtures towards the West are fast becoming commonplace in the run-up to the December 4 presidential elections; perhaps hoping to assuage hostile reporting on the fairness and openness of the election. The Asia Hummer technical servicing center opened in Almaty on November 15, with media much attention. This center is militarily valuable, since it is intended for servicing Hummer cross-country vehicles, now in the inventory of the Kazakh airmobile forces and the Kazakh peacekeeping battalion (KAZBAT). It already has the full set of specialist equipment, tools, and devices needed to organize the comprehensive repair and servicing process. Yet this has been made possible through U.S. assistance, supplying these vehicles as part of the ongoing bilateral military and security assistance agreements. Repairs and servicing of such vehicles will be arranged at the center. In the future, the center will gain a regional status, potentially open to other interested Central Asian countries. Personnel were trained in the United States and in Kazakhstan by special mobile instructor teams (Interfax-Kazakhstan, November 15).
Nazarbayev has grasped the opportunity offered by the forthcoming elections to promote the twin issues of Kazakhstan’s security, tied to Caspian and international economic interests, as well as the strategic position of Kazakhstan as a conduit between Iran through Turkmenistan. In this latter sense, Nazarbayev can be presented as doing something credible to support an improved border regime, which is not difficult given the existing problems of the porous border and the corruption of the Kazakh border service. Such indicators, as peripheral and long-term as they evidently are, point to a new willingness to enact practical measures aimed at improving the security of the country and making Central Asia more attractive for foreign investment. The window of opportunity, combined with Nazarbayev’s slow and ponderous approach to reforming his security and military forces and engaging further with the West, may evaporate after election day.