Speaking in Moscow at the informal February Commonwealth of Independent States summit, Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev praised his country’s relations with Russia, pointing to bilateral action plans signed in 2006-07 that prioritized shared concerns. He highlighted how closely both countries cooperate across a wide range of sectors, including energy, transport, space, and culture and in developing investment opportunities. Asked to comment on then-presidential front-runner Dmitry Medvedev, Nazarbayev said he believed that Vladimir Putin’s chosen successor would build a Russia based on “the rule of law,” using his legal training. “It is very good, moreover Russia and Kazakhstan have many questions on this issue. As a jurist Medvedev can do very much for this. I think that he is a person with the fundamental background. He is a man of principle. He is young, vigorous, and full of ideas,” he affirmed (Kazinform, March 1).
As political commentators and experts try to decipher the Russian presidential transition, noting ways in which Medvedev may be seeking to emulate Putin, the complexity of that shift inside the Kremlin cannot be lost on the leaders of the Central Asian states. No one yet understands fully how the dynamics will function in the President Medvedev–Prime Minister Putin partnership, which presents challenges for countries in Central Asia, as well as much farther beyond Russia’s borders, in reading the subtle changes or signals that could emerge from Moscow. One immediate problem in the aftermath of the Russian presidential election is the generational dilemma for long-time Central Asian leaders such as Nazarbayev and Uzbekistan’s Islam Karimov; both of whom attempted to persuade Putin to run for a third term. Compared with Medvedev, these leaders are far from “young, vigorous, and full of ideas.” In fact, the danger is that they will appear as “old Soviets.” But in this uncertain period, where Russia’s near neighbors adjust to the change in the Kremlin, each will likely push to gain the favor and approval of the new Russian president.
In Kazakhstan’s case, bilateral relations are undoubtedly very close, but they have and always will be weighted in Moscow’s favor. The new Russian president may expect more commitment from his neighbors in order to facilitate Russian security efforts in the region. As Putin’s presidency ends, Russia appears less interested in Western-style democracy and more assertive in its foreign policy dealings with the West. Moscow clearly conveyed a signal to the West with Medvedev’s trip to Belgrade on February 25, reinforcing Russia’s support for Serbia over Kosova.
One area in which Kazakhstan could be influenced by a Russian agenda is in modifying its defense policy to more obviously reflect Russian security practices.
While few structural changes have taken place in Kazakhstan, they have taken place in Russia over the past year, with the goal of reducing duplication of tasks among forces and more efficient management of the armed forces. Russia’s Defense Minister Anatoliy Serdyukov delineated some of these changes in a recent interview in Krasnaya zvezda. The Ministry of Defense has a new Main Legal Directorate, intended to increase the levels of legal support for the work of the department. An Organizational-Inspection Directorate has also been formed, aimed at coordinating and monitoring the implementation of the decisions by the defense minister and instructions from central staff. Moreover, Russia’s ministry gained an additional deputy defense minister post, tasked with overseeing financial-economic work, under whose direction three departments are being formed: financial planning and finance, financial guidance, and social guarantees (Krasnaya zvezda, February 22).
Medvedev’s vision for re-asserting Russia’s role in defense and security cooperation in Central Asia, will follow Moscow’s emphasis on using the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) to promote regional security within legal frameworks. Serdyukov praised “Peace Mission 2007” as an example of the SCO’s plans to conduct military exercises. He also drew attention to the agreement reached in Dushanbe on October 6, 2007, which he said, “permits the CSTO not only to form its own peacekeeping forces but to also conduct peacekeeping operations based upon a UN Security Council decision and also based upon a CSTO Collective Security Council decision.”
In stark contrast, the numerous problems facing the Kazakh armed forces can readily be traced to the ministerial level, but there is a short supply of ideas or practical remedial plans. Defense Minister Daniyal Akhmetov, who was appointed in January 2007, may well be influenced by the structural changes in the Russian Ministry of Defense, particularly where these relate to improving financial accountability, improving management and oversight, as well as conducting snap inspections of military facilities and standards. Inspection staff within Kazakhstan’s Ministry of Defense will be deployed to identify and rectify deficiencies.
Nazarbayev, as well as other leaders within Central Asia, must now wait to discover Medvedev’s strategy for reasserting Russia’s security role within the region. Nazarbayev may well be nervous about the signal sent by Medvedev’s trip to Belgrade and the continuance of Putin’s “respect” agenda, while at the same time being acutely conscious of the limits placed on Kazakhstan’s relations with the West that result from its enduring and much closer relationship with Moscow.
Speaking ahead of the presidential election in Russia, Bulat Sultanov, director of the Institute of Strategic Studies under the President of Kazakhstan, observed, “As a nuclear power, Russia is the guarantor of national security for Kazakhstan. For its part, Kazakhstan protects Russia from challenges and threats from Central Asia and at the same time is a link with Asian countries for Russia” (Interfax-Kazakhstan, Almaty, February 13). In short, Kazakhstan is Russia’s partner in the region, leaving the future and limits of its relationship with the West at least partly in the hands of Medvedev and Putin.