Kazakhstan has conducted military exercises in its western region, partly to demonstrate more effective coordination of its security forces, but also to convey a powerful signal to Islamic extremists and confidently display its ability to protect its facilities in the Caspian Sea. These exercises, though showing practical progress for Kazakhstan’s armed forces, were held at a time when more corruption scandals marred the reputation of the Ministry of Defense. Moreover, the authorities are showing increasing concern about the activities of Islamic extremists and their networks within Kazakhstan, revealing uncertainty regarding the precise nature of the threat and the capabilities of the country’s security forces to adequately track and counter these unpredictable groups.
Kazakhstan’s planning staffs are unable to react quickly and with precise enough information to counter new threats within its territory. It primarily relies on Soviet-style exercises, intended to reassure the public and foreign investors that it has the potential within its own structures to respond to any emergency situation when needed. Equally, since its own information-gathering and analysis capabilities remain unreformed and heavily reliant upon cooperation with the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB), Astana wants to ratchet up the links with its large neighbors, believing that close cooperation with Russia and China, especially in border areas, will rectify its own shortfalls.
On October 10 a comprehensive tactical exercise involving Aktau’s territorial defense subunits was held. The tactical exercise served as the pinnacle of mobilization exercises held for the first time in Mangistau region. Participation was diverse: a mobilization training directorate; territorial defense rifle company; the Mangistau regional Interior Ministry’s special-purpose platoon; platoons from military unit No. 6656 of the Interior Ministry Troops; from military unit No. 25744 of the Defense Ministry; from military unit No. 2018 of the National Security Committee’s Batys border service; and supported by two brigades from the emergency medical service. These forces rehearsed the organizational and tactical aspects of rapid deployment and responding to a future emergency within the region (Kazinform, October 10).
Intended largely as a show of force, showcasing key elements, top brass in the Ministry were distracted by events elsewhere in Kazakhstan. Cases of fraud within the national Ministry of Defense are common, but employees have now invented a new type of fraud. Specialists from the Defense Ministry’s finance commission revealed that chief accountants from a number of military units and hospitals were taking between 20 to 50 tenge (15 to 40 cents) from electronic accounts used for officers’ salaries.
Kozy-Korpesh Dzhanburchin, deputy defense minister for economics and finance, confirmed rumors that some of these accountants were stealing money with collusion from the heads of military units. Several criminal cases have now been opened, promising to bring senior officers to justice. “Our work in the economic and financial sphere has been focusing solely on planning and fulfillment of the budget recently. I think this is not right, because every aspect of the work done must be studied and analyzed. Our financial inspections alone revealed financial violations totaling 1 billion tenge ($7.9 million) in 2006,” lamented Dzhanburchin (Kazakh TV First Channel, October 6).
Signs of nervousness on the part of Kazakhstan’s authorities are much in evidence, although reported with caution. For example, the government recently closed Al-Karim University in southern Kazakhstan. Opened in 1999 as an Islamic school, it later became an institute, and in January 2005 was upgraded to a university. Al-Karim University taught students in three areas: the history of Kazakhstan and Islamic culture, Islam and Arabic culture, and Sharia Islamic law (Interfax-Kazakhstan, October 10).
If the military cannot be relied upon entirely to cope with a large-scale, Batken-style incursion, there are other regional mechanisms that generate opportunities and challenges. On October 11 in Ekibastuz, a town in Kazakhstan’s northern Pavlodar region, authorities ended the “illegal missionary activities” of six alleged members of an unregistered group known as “Tablighi Jamaat.” Members of this local religious movement allegedly attempted to engage locals in a “propaganda” conversation in the town’s central mosque. A local imam verbally reproached them, but the prosecutor’s office said the leader of the detained group did not conceal his sympathy with the Tablighi Jamaat movement. He stands accused under Article 375 of Kazakhstan’s Administrative Violations Code (Interfax-Kazakhstan, October 11). In reality, the security agencies are uncertain as to how far such groups represent a real Islamic extremist threat.
Such activities underscore the drive towards cooperation with external regional authorities in order to improve security in border areas. Ust-Kamenogorsk, the administrative center of East Kazakhstan region, has agreed in this context to deepen border cooperation against terrorism and drug smuggling with counterparts in China. This follows a recent trend in Kazakhstan — stepping up security arrangements with Russia and China on a regional basis, which conceals the true level of security cooperation (Kazinform, October 11).
Kazakhstan’s armed forces and its security structures continue to struggle with the effects of maintaining post-Soviet legacy forces; in particular, the embezzlement case within their Ministry of Defense, confirms that all too often its personnel are serving more for what they can get out of the system, rather than for what they can contribute. Kazakhstan’s security in any period of crisis rests on these structures, with their flaws and imperfections. However, the show of force in the Western region may be intended for more than simply deterring Islamic radicals; calculated to portray President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s regime tackling positively the security challenges it faces. In reality, Kazakhstan is becoming more reliant on Russia and China, although the mechanisms are not necessarily those at the traditional bilateral level.