Russian President Dmitry Medvedev made his first state visit on May 22 and 23, with Kazakhstan as his destination, before proceeding to China. Although he traveled east, his message seemed subtly calibrated for Western consumption. His arrival in Astana did not indicate any shift in the foreign policy course pursued by his predecessor toward Central Asia, yet it served to highlight Medvedev’s confidence that in all the key bilateral areas of cooperation, Kazakhstan remains susceptible to pressure from Moscow and is unlikely to wander too far from the fold in its relations with the West.
Kazakhstan’s Foreign Ministry appeared to make no secret of basking in the glory of the high level visit and the display of Russia’s close relationship with Kazakhstan. It released a statement on Medvedev’s visit to Astana that served as a “confirmation of a high level of strategic partnership between the two countries. This visit is topical because of the need to preserve and extend the level that has been achieved and to realize the potential of Kazakh-Russian cooperation as fully as possible, as well as to expand possibilities for ensuring security and stability in Eurasia.” (ITAR-TASS, May 22). Additionally, both leaders discussed their relations within the wider context of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO.
A number of bilateral documents were signed relating to the use of space for peaceful purposes, proposing cooperation between both sides on using and developing the Russian GLONASS satellite navigation system. Vladimir Dmitriyev, Chairman of Russia’s Vneshekonombank, agreed to supply a long term credit line to the Development Bank of Kazakhstan (Interfax-Kazakhstan, May 22). Nazarbayev and Medvedev agreed on the continued use of the Baykonur cosmodrome, the world’s oldest and largest operational space launch facility, in the interests of both countries, while emphasizing the peaceful use of space. “Russia and Kazakhstan will continue to cooperate actively on a bilateral basis and within the framework of international programs with regard to the peaceful use of space,” a joint statement noted (ITAR-TASS, Moscow, May 22). Medvedev said that Russia intended to cooperate more closely with its neighbor in the nuclear sphere, announcing plans to build a nuclear power station in Kazakhstan with Russian involvement.
Medvedev and Nazarbayev not surprisingly promoted energy cooperation, which they claim will involve their personal supervision of the work on the Caspian gas pipeline and expanding the capacities of the Central Asia-Center pipeline. “We consider the implementation of such large infrastructure projects as the construction of the Caspian gas pipeline and expanding the capacities of the Central Asia-Center pipeline as a strategic objectives. We agreed to supervise the work continuously in this field,” Medvedev said also noting that “direct relations between leading companies of the two countries are expanding and it is extremely important in modern conditions that such ties develop between small and medium-sized businesses.” Laying new pipeline routes, increasing energy cooperation, strengthening long-term economic cooperation and planning and pumping Kazakh oil through Russian territory were given a high priority on the bilateral agenda. Sources in the Kremlin reportedly expect a sharp rise in the processing of Kazakh resources after 2012, which is why Astana is turning to Moscow (ITAR-TASS, Moscow, May 22).
The underlying purpose of the visit may have been more symbolic politically. Vladimir Putin’s first trip outside Russia after becoming President in 2000 was to Uzbekistan; Medvedev’s choice of Kazakhstan could be calculated to send a signal to Washington that underscores how deeply entrenched Astana’s foreign, defense and economic policies are toward Moscow. He knows how to appeal to Nazarbayev’s political ego, while most likely intending to raise fears in Washington that Russia will influence the Kazakh agenda within the OSCE when it assumes the Chairmanship in 2010.
Kazakh television portrayed the nature and significance of Medvedev’s visit to Kazakhstan positively, showing Nazarbayev speaking of the need to diversify and increase the nature of bilateral cooperation, with special interest in new types of technology. “Both [in terms of] Russian and Kazakh technologies, excluding the military-industrial complex or the space sphere, we have been lagging behind badly, to be honest, for precisely 30 or 40 years. And [we must] engage now in innovative technology. Innovative technologies are technologies that show a notable growth in production and productivity by approximately 20 per cent. If this is not the case, then it is not an innovation. There are signs of growth in Kazakhstan and Russia,” Nazarbayev suggested (Kazakh Television First Channel, May 22).
Medvedev may well appreciate just how restricted Kazakhstan’s room for maneuver will prove in its foreign policy, since Astana depends on its northern neighbor for so much of its future economic development, access to new technology and other close ties in such areas as defense and security cooperation. This reality may irritate policy makers in Kazakhstan, but the Kremlin understands well the potential for raising Russia’s standing in the World through its economic strength and influence within such strategically vital countries, which serves as a bargaining tool in its relations with Washington.