NATO’s 26 member states held their 59th annual gathering from April 2 to 4 in Bucharest. Its ambitious agenda was headed by proposals to expand the alliance. NATO eventually decided to extend membership offers to Albania and Croatia, while Macedonia, Georgia and Ukraine saw their hopes for a Membership Action Plan (MAP) sidelined for at least a year, despite enthusiastic American support.
NATO’s agenda dominated Western media coverage, but many of the summit’s discussions revolved around the issue of Central Asia, particularly NATO’s continuing efforts in Afghanistan, where it leads the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). President George W. Bush and U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates lobbied hard but with mixed results for NATO members to increase their troop commitments to the ISAF. Significantly, the two most interesting proposals about Afghanistan in Bucharest came from non-NATO members Russia and Uzbekistan, both NATO Partnership for Peace (PFP) affiliates since 1994. While Russia had earlier floated the idea of making a land corridor available to reinforce ISAF troops in Afghanistan, the Bucharest meeting was notable for the fact that Uzbek President Islam Karimov offered a transit route through Uzbekistan for non-lethal military supplies to support the ISAF efforts.
It is now becoming increasingly clear that European NATO members had a secondary agenda as well, involving increased access to the hydrocarbon riches of Central Asia. This interest has apparently crystallized around Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, which, like Russia and Uzbekistan, have been PFP affiliates since 1994, along with Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova and Ukraine. While little of substance was accomplished in NATO’s discussions with Turkmenistan’s President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, such was not the case with Kazakhstan.
Following the summit, NATO’s special representative for the Caucasus and Central Asia Robert Simmons visited Tashkent, where he discussed President Karimov’s proposals for an overland logistical support corridor for the ISAF traversing Uzbekistan.
In comments so far reported only by the Russian newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Simmons reportedly told journalists that the alliance intended to include the joint protection of Kazakhstan’s energy infrastructure in its program of collaboration with Kazakhstan (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, April 11). According to Nezavisimaya, Simmons reportedly said that Kazakhstan had agreed to participate in developing the ISAFs logistical transport corrdor (www.zakon.kz, April 11). The Russian paper claimed that Simmons also alluded to Kazakhstan’s successful military interaction with Western nations, citing as an example of “successful military cooperation” the creation of KazBrig (“Kazakh Brigade” peacekeeping unit), a unit compatible with NATO standards that has been involved in removing land mines in Iraq since 2003.
The ostensible aim of the NATO representative’s visit to Almaty was to discuss Kazakhstan’s successful implementation of the initial parameters of the NATO-Kazakhstan Individual Partnership Action Plan (IPAP) (Itar-Tass, April 9). Simmons’ visit built upon groundwork he had earlier laid during a November 2007 trip to Kazakhstan (AKI Press, November 1, 2007).
For the past few years Kazakhstan has continued to deepen its ties with NATO. Kazakhstan signed its IPAP with NATO in January 2006, becoming the first country in Central Asia to do so (Agentstvo Voennykh Novostei, April 10). During his December 2006 visit to NATO headquarters in Belgium Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev met with NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, who called Kazakhstan “NATO’s most active partner working under an individual cooperation plan,” while Nazarbayev observed, “The dialogue between our country and the North Atlantic alliance has already been developing for over 10 years” (Kazakhstan News Bulletin, December 8, 2006).
While providing no troops for Afghanistan’s Operation Enduring Freedom, Kazakhstan provided over-flight rights and allowed transshipment of supplies to U.S. forces in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan beginning in 2002 (“International Contributions to the War Against Terrorism,” Department of Defense, June 14, 2002).
While participating in Washington’s “global war on terror,” Kazakhstan also discreetly broadened relations with the United States. In an interview in December 2003 Kazakhstan Minister of Energy Vladimir Sergeevich Shkol’nik said that American forces were already providing security for Kazakhstan’s Tengiz oilfield, but he did not elaborate (UPI, December 17, 2003).
Kazakhstan’s changing relationship with NATO is but one element in Kazakhstan’s evolving foreign policy. In his February 6 annual address to the nation, President Nazarbayev emphasizing the need for stronger cooperation with Russia, China and the Central Asian states but reminded his audience that to strengthen regional security, Kazakhstan would have to expand its cooperation with the United States, the EU, and NATO under a program he called “The Path to Europe” (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, February 8).
Kazakhstan’s interest in deepening its relationship with NATO is unlikely to please its partner in the Shanghai Cooperation and Collective Security Treaty Organizations, Russia, which used the recent Bucharest summit to state clearly its opposition to further NATO expansion. Kazakhstan’s oil exports currently move almost exclusively through Russian-dominated pipelines. Given its history, Moscow is likely to express its displeasure with the growing Kazakh-NATO rapprochement by indulging in a bit of hardball pipeline politics, a pressure tactic that Belarus, Ukraine and Georgia have already experienced.
Accordingly, it would seem that for the present Kazakhstan will limit its further IPAP participation to training exercises and developing NATO’s overland logistical corridor to Afghanistan rather than more substantial gestures such as allowing NATO bases on its territory, which would undoubtedly irritate the Kremlin.