Recent developments in Kosova have become a litmus test for Central Asian states, indicating the degree of their independence from Moscow. The Kazakh Foreign Ministry hastened to issue a statement bluntly refusing to recognize the independence of Kosova from Serbia, while Uzbekistan remained conspicuously silent on this highly divisive issue. Trying to substantiate the Kazakh government’s awkward stance in the eyes of the European community, Foreign Ministry officials clumsily cited “non-observance of UN rules and violations of international regulations,” the refrain endlessly reiterated in Moscow. Astana’s reluctance to recognize the independence of Kosova fuelled strong criticism from Kazakh nationalist forces disappointed with officials in Astana who yield to Russian demands on every foreign policy issue. Critics of the Foreign Ministry’s statement fear that Astana’s dubious attitude over Kosova alienates Kazakhstan from Europe and keeps the country firmly under Moscow’s thumb (Turkistan, February 28).
Kazakhstan’s refusal to recognize the independence of Kosova may have been prompted by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s rhetoric before and after the March 2 presidential election in Russia, a sort of verbal muscle-flexing designed to signal to the outside world the continuity of his “strong-Russia” policy when President-elect Dmitry Medvedev takes office. Astana shares the widespread belief that nothing or very little will change in Russia’s relations with Central Asian countries under Medvedev, who is often regarded as a mere pawn who will further Putin’s plans to restore Russia’s waning might in the region. The Khabar state television channel, citing foreign policy experts in Moscow and Astana, speculated that Medvedev would choose Kazakhstan as one of the first countries he visits as president (Khabar, March 14).
While nationalists tend to view the disintegration of Yugoslavia as a sign of Russia’s weakening influence on the international scene, some observers warn that Kosova may set a precedent for ethnic clashes in Kazakhstan. Last year there were incidents of interethnic conflict between Kazakhs and Uighurs and Kazakhs and Kurds in South Kazakhstan. Saken Zhunusov, a political scientist, has lamented on his website that, instead of drawing proper lessons from Kosova, the government shows total indifference to the latent threat of interethnic clashes in Kazakhstan, fuelling Kazakh nationalism. At the same time Zhunusov thinks that Russia’s great power ambitions are stoked by the apparent diplomatic insecurity on the part of the Kazakh government, which, as in case of Kosova, echoes everything said in Moscow. Kazakhs can become close friends of Russia, he writes, only if Russia takes the road of genuine democracy and abandons racial harassment of ethnic minorities in Russia, including Kazakhs (www.russians.kz).
Kosova’s newfound independence from Serbia may be viewed as a diplomatic defeat for Russia. But it also allows Moscow to actively play the “Russian card” in multi-ethnic countries like Kazakhstan, fanning separatist sentiments in predominantly Russian-populated North Kazakhstan. The fragile ethnic balance in Russian-populated areas seems to be one of the more plausible reasons for Kazakhstan’s non-recognition of Kosova’s independence. Ivan Klimoshenko, a leader of the “Lad” association of ethnic Russians in Kokshetau (North Kazakhstan) complained recently to visiting members of parliament that Russians in Kazakhstan feel the growing pressure of Kazakh nationalism and called upon parliament ”to take measures to curb it.”
Astana’s efforts to foster friendship between Kazakhs and Slavs at an official level often conflict with long-term foreign policy goals, including energy policy. On March 5, in Astana, Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko and Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev declared 2008 the “Year of Ukraine in Kazakhstan,” stressing the history of “friendly ties” between the two nations and outlining prospects of close cooperation in economic and cultural areas. But Yushchenko’s visit to Astana did not prevent Kazakhstan from concluding a gas deal with the Russian monopoly Gazprom, Uzbekistan’s Uzbekneftegaz, and the national gas company of Turkmenistan to work out a common tariff policy, which will deliver a heavy blow to Ukrainian gas purchases in Central Asian markets and favors Russian dominance in the region. According to recently concluded agreements, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan will raise their gas prices for Ukraine from $130 per thousand cubic meters in the first half of 2008, reaching $150 in the second half of the year. Russia already benefits from the purchase of Kazakh Karachaganak gas for $180 per thousand cubic meters, far cheaper than the going rate in European markets, although the Kazakh state KazMunayGaz company announced its plans to raise gas prices for Russia by 70% next year (Panorama, March 21).
The gas alliance with Russia, observers note, as well as siding with Moscow on the Kosova issue conflict with Kazakhstan’s European policy goals in light of the country’s planned OSCE chairmanship in 2010. Astana potentially could bridge the differences between Russia and Europe and help the Western world establish a long-term link to Central Asia. To reach that goal, Kazakhstan needs a well-balanced, independent foreign policy.