Kazakhstan’s efforts to successfully reform its largely Soviet-legacy armed forces has taken small steps towards achieving some of its longer-term goals, though much remains to be tackled if its future development is to be rescued from decline. In July the Kazakhstani government finally gave approval to plans to increase contract-service levels within the armed forces, representing a critical test to the validity of its reform program. Additionally, the aim of attaining NATO interoperability within higher readiness formations, which seems a long way off, inched forward when the decision was taken to create a military language institute in Almaty to train officers in military English, French, and German (Interfax, July 21). Taken together, these measures hold out the promise of a brighter future for Kazakhstan’s military personnel, though there are significant obstacles in the path towards successful military reform, and these are inherently domestic Kazakhstani political issues, subject to only fluctuating scrutiny within the power circles.
Professionalizing the armed forces, as a means to tackle the more serious weaknesses stemming from a Soviet-model conscript system that has failed to adequately serve Kazakhstan’s needs, was mooted in the late 1990s and perennially revisited in the hope of showing serious intent to reform. Army-General Mukhtar Altynbaev, Minister of Defense, has personally committed himself to raising the ratio of contract servicemen to conscripts serving in the armed forces. Though the current percentage of contract personnel tends to be greater within higher readiness formations, generically the total figure has gradually increased. Meantime, Altynbaev has slowly moved away from advocating a wholly professional structure, which would be far too costly to support, to now favoring a mixed-manning principle that plans to raise the numbers of contract servicemen to 65% by 2007, after which the issue will again be reviewed. His rather ad hoc stance on the issue has in fact mirrored the course of its “debate” within Russia; when the idea of a professional structure has been advanced in Moscow, it has moved up the reform agenda in Kazakhstan. This appears to reflect Altynbaev’s desire to avoid doing anything within the Kazakhstani armed forces that could be frowned upon in Moscow.
Equally, the announcement of the creation of a military language institute appears to confirm the strategy of achieving NATO interoperability, particularly in its peacekeeping formation (KAZBAT). The task of placing elements of Kazakhstan’s military as possible participants in NATO operations requires a much larger number of officers with adequate military English. Until now, officers were sent to the language center in Kapchagai, receiving training in foreign languages, and this was augmented by placing the more promising officers in key language courses abroad. As a consequence of enlarging its work to the level of a fully functioning institute, Kazakhstan’s domestic capability to produce effectively trained officers with military English will be greatly improved. Courses will also include Turkish, as well as Chinese, facilitating military cooperation with these countries. Two small groups consisting of 25 cadets will be enrolled in courses at the institute in 2005 or 2006, but it will only reach its desired levels of intake later through the technical assistance of the United States, India and the United Kingdom, who are helping to supply educational equipment and methodological expertise (Interfax, July 20). Open to officers from throughout the region, the institute may succeed in building closer cooperation, albeit on a limited scale, among the Central Asian militaries. This could be negatively affected, however, by the rivalry between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.
These small steps towards reforming the Kazakhstani military must also be placed in the context of Astana’s recent keenness to integrate military forces within the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). Altynbaev expressed his confidence that the recent attacks in Uzbekistan had been built into the scenario for CSTO anti-terrorist exercises, which began in early August in Kazakhstan, before moving to neighboring Kyrgyzstan. He took great comfort from the progress in working out the details of the mechanism to deploy the Collective Rapid Deployment Forces (CRDF) in the event of a crisis within Central Asia. Yet, according to reporting, some of the elements participating in CSTO military exercises, which Altynbaev would like to see more deeply integrated within the structure including Russian forces, are also high on the NATO interoperability agenda. These twin approaches often run counter to each other, and which one is mentioned can depend on the target audience for Altynbaev’s comments.
Kazakhstan is simply not spending enough money on its armed forces, accounting for around 1% of GDP. Kazakhstan’s political leadership could certainly prioritize the military reform issue, but in so doing it must resolve any uncertainties relating to pleasing both Russia and seeking closer ties with NATO. If it is to break free from the Soviet legacy in its armed forces, with its culture of corruption, privilege, and sloth among senior officers, it can only look to the example of other former Soviet militaries and Warsaw Pact members that have made a successful transition to more efficient militaries. Kazakhstan’s recent reform initiatives suggest the timescale for reform will be slow and painstaking.