Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev received a warm welcome during his April 3 visit to Moscow. Friendly relations were emphasized when Nazarbayev dedicated a new monument to the 19th-century Kazakh poet Abai Kunanbayev, a devoted Russophile. Speaking at the ceremony, Russian President Vladimir Putin noted that this event, as well as the erection of a similar monument to Russian poet Alexander Pushkin in Astana, symbolizes the long tradition of friendship between the two countries.
Nazarbayev and Putin signed seven bilateral agreements covering energy and fuel cooperation, the use of the Saryshagan test site by the Russian military, and cooperation between Kazakhstan’s Eurasian Industrial Group and Russia’s Vneshekonombank, and between the Foreign Ministries of the two countries. Moscow also pledged to help Astana putting the first Kazakh satellite — Kazsat — into orbit (Khabar TV, April 5).
The Kremlin is using every pretext to secure a strong military foothold in Kazakhstan following Tbilisi’s repeated demands for the Russian military to withdraw from its bases in Georgia. Astana regarded Russia’s recent ban on imports of Georgian and Moldovan wines (see EDM, March 28) as a response to swelling anti-Russian sentiments in these countries. With an amazing promptness, just before Nazarbayev’s trip to Moscow, the Sanitary Inspection Department of the Kazakh Ministry of Health ordered an inspection of imported Georgian and Moldovan wines. The head of the department, Anatoli Belonog, said that, if the wines pose health hazards, such imports might be banned in Kazakhstan as well (Megapolis, April 3).
The current military and political ties between Russia and Kazakhstan are hardly conducive to fostering friendship among equals. In Astana, the Kazakh government sporadically comes under fire from nationalists for granting Russia a 50-year lease on the Baikonur launch site, which is in the environmentally vulnerable Kyzylorda region. The lease on the Saryshagan test site is likely to draw additional protests.
But these sacrifices and concessions are inevitable for Kazakhstan, which is desperately seeking to build up its military force with Russian help. At a press conference in Astana the chairman of the Committee for Scientific and Technological Development of the Ministry of Industry and Trade, Meyram Kazhyken, announced plans to set up a Russian-Kazakh joint venture to assemble Kazakh Ansat and Aktay helicopters based on the Russian MI model. Some helicopter parts may be manufactured in the former munitions plants of Aktobe, Almaty, and Petropavlovsk. But Kazhyken pointed out that it would take 10-15 years before even 30% of the production could be relocated to Kazakhstan (Sayasat, April 1).
The price for Russian assistance in modernizing the Kazakh army is political loyalty to the Kremlin. Aware of this pitfall, Astana seeks to diversify its military partnerships and avoid relying entirely on Moscow for sophisticated weapons. For example, Kazakhstan inherited a well-developed Soviet space-flight monitoring system that could be used to modernize its air defense system with help from Singapore Technologies.
Astana has also made significant steps toward greater energy independence from Moscow by bidding for stakes in the Yukos-owned Mazeikiu Nafta complex in Lithuania. Ironically, on the eve of the Nazarbayev-Putin talks in Moscow, the Lithuanian newspaper Lietuvos Rytas announced that the Lithuanian government was seeking to buy back a 57.3% stake in Mazeikiu Nafta from Yukos and then sell it to Kazakhstan’s state owned company, KazMunayGaz (Vilnius BNS, March 31; also see EDM, April 5). Kazakhstan’s closer ties with China also help counterbalance Russia’s drive to monopolize hydrocarbon transportation routes through Kazakhstan.
Astana has enthusiastically embraced the idea of a “Greater Central Asia” region and Kazakh Foreign Minister Kasymzhomart Tokayev recently went to Afghanistan to attend an international conference on “Partnership, Trade, and Development within Greater Central Asia,” sponsored by Johns Hopkins University. He also made sure to extend a personal message of friendship from Nazarbayev to Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Tokayev said that Greater Central Asia, which includes a politically and economically diverse grouping of Iran, Afghanistan, and Azerbaijan, parts of China, Western Siberia and the Urals of Russia, particularly interests Kazakhstan as a promising energy transportation route extending from Central Asia to the Persian Gulf via India and Pakistan. The Kazakh foreign minister stressed that Afghanistan should be part of Greater Central Asia linked with Almaty, Bishkek, and Dushanbe via a Trans-Afghan highway running through Kabul to Kandahar. Kazakhstan also offered to train Afghan medical workers and engineers (Kazakhstanskaya pravda, April 4).
Tokayev addressed the conference on behalf of all Central Asian states without fearing any criticism from Kazakhstan’s neighbors. It is a clear sign of Astana’s growing confidence in spearheading an alliance of Central Asian countries. Nazarbayev’s March 19 visit to Tashkent also contributed much to the rapprochement between Uzbek President Islam Karimov and Putin, and Karimov spoke in favor of a Kazakh-Uzbek alliance and putting priority on a partnership with Russia in foreign policy (see EDM, March 22). However, Astana takes a more cautious approach toward Moscow and tries to neutralize the Kremlin’s attempts to return the Central Asian states to the Russian fold. Kazakhstan’s foreign policy program for 2006 -2008 points out that Kazakhstan “will pursue a balanced and responsible foreign policy.” The Kremlin should not be overly optimistic regarding “eternal friendship” with Astana.