Last week, Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev again called for the reform of the country’s defense and security structures. On November 15, he ordered the various heads of the defense and security bodies to prepare detailed proposals for restructuring their agencies, as part of the ongoing administrative reforms in the country. Berik Imashev, secretary of Kazakhstan’s Security Council, explained, “The defense and security agencies have turned out to be on the sidelines of the ongoing administrative reform, apparently because some of them are directly subordinate to the president. In this connection, the president of the country has instructed the heads of defense and security structures to formulate their vision of ways of meeting the objectives set for their organizations and, accordingly, reform institutional structures of the agencies” (Interfax-Kazakhstan, November 15).
In parallel, amendments are also being prepared to Kazakhstan’s law on state defense, intended to increase the level of mobilization readiness in the country. These reforms, however, suggest a rather superficial administrative-led approach to updating these important agencies. Until now, many of these organizations have escaped this process or minimized its impact. Earlier in 2007, after the appointment of Kazakhstan’s first civilian defense minister, former prime minister Daniyal Akhmetov, the government promised movement toward a new era in defense reform. The most publicized change to date is new uniforms.
Kazakhstan’s Ministry of Defense recently displayed examples of its new NATO-compliant armed forces uniform, the first in Central Asia. Muratzhan Zhumagaziyev, deputy chief of the rear guard of Kazakhstan’s Armed Forces, confirmed that the uniform will meet international standards: “Whoever has served will see — the differences are apparent to all. We have brought our military uniform up to NATO standards. The knees, elbows, and bottoms — the places where the uniform gets the most wear — have been reinforced. We have also added patch pockets on two sleeves for individual first aid dressing packets. We have added extra pockets in the trousers — one for spare magazines, in the event of some kind of intensified operation, and the second for headgear.”
The new uniform will be more durable and certainly more expensive. Coupled with longer lasting, comfortable Turkish army boots, these changes will be welcomed by the ordinary soldier. Their backpacks will also be fitted with a tube allowing the wearer access to water from a canteen in the backpack while on the move.
Officially, the total cost for replacing the uniform remains a state secret. Nevertheless, the boots reportedly cost $56 per pair, the summer uniform is expected to cost 1,500 tenge ($13) more than the existing uniform, while the winter version will be 2,500 tenge ($21) more expensive. One critical difference is that soldiers will be allowed to demobilize with it, meaning new recruits will need new uniforms. In theory, transferring more soldiers to a contract basis, making the army more attractive as a career choice, and engaging in reforms that reduce the hemorrhaging of personnel from the ranks in favor of civilian careers could offset this cost. The new uniform will be manufactured in Kazakhstan, gradually superseding the old uniforms by late 2008 (Ekspress-K, October 31).
However, Kazakhstan’s armed forces face problems far deeper than their uniform design, particularly corruption. Investigations of military units have uncovered a plethora of economic crimes. Defense Minister Akhmetov has launched an unprecedented level of auditing to closely scrutinize military expenditure, placing himself at the forefront of efforts to address serious corruption inside the Ministry of Defense. In Regional Command South, 122 auditors carried out detailed inspections during the past few months. The Ministry has refused to release the results of this process.
Akhmetov believes these ills cannot be cured without taking more ruthless action against senior generals and colonels, who perceive themselves as exempt from any recrimination concerning their actions. Corruption at this level needs political will from the top, in order to tackle such widespread abuse of state funds. Akhmetov is airing the view that these individuals require something other than a “severe dressing down” (Novoye pokoleniye, October 26).
Previous audits have revealed an alarming insight into the breathtaking nature and scope of this corruption. Open scams, deception, and embezzlement are widespread. The most common modus operandi involves overestimating the cost of construction work and then pocketing the surplus funds. Another technique popular with senior ministry officials involves payments for bogus work.
Military personnel suffer as a direct result. Current estimates of homeless officers in Kazakhstan have around 5,000 waiting for apartments. In 2006 approximately 27% of the military budget was earmarked for building apartments. Investigations into the activities of Main Directorate for Logistical Support (MDLS) in 2006 found financial violations costing $64 million. Akhmetov intends to double the monthly wages for contract soldiers from January 2008; they currently are paid $300–320 per month. Such increases may be late in coming, given the scale of financial corruption in the ministry (Novoye pokoleniye, October 26).
It is naive in the extreme, to attempt any evaluation of Kazakhstan’s military capabilities based on reported increases to its defense budget, since it ignores the corruption that gobbles up a significant portion of the official figures. Similarly, Kazakhstan’s current reform priorities appear focused on “knees, elbows, and bottoms,” while avoiding deeper issues, such as housing. Akhmetov is demonstrating a remarkable level of resolve to tackle existing corruption among some of Kazakhstan’s generals and colonels, but heads have yet to roll.