Since the Eurasian Economic Community emerged in October 2000, Kazakhstan has earned an ambiguous reputation as a force driving CIS integration. Speaking at the September 15 mini-summit of the Single Economic Space (SES) countries in Astana, President Nursultan Nazarbayev reaffirmed Kazakhstan’s commitment to the idea of economic integration with Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus. However, the meeting produced rather modest results. To make the SES a full-fledged structure with a solid legal foundation, member states need to sign 86 vital agreements regulating economic and political relations between them. Although 29 documents have been prepared for signing by July 1, 2005, many of them may never be fully implemented. In the meantime, economic relations among the SES countries is actually decreasing, due to disagreements over value-added taxes and fluctuating railway tariffs. But the main problem is the vagueness of the “Single Economic Space” concept, which appears to be as amorphous as the CIS and the political ambitions of the leaders involved.
For Kazakhstan, with the lingering pro-Russian sentiments of residents in its northern region, the slogan of economic integrity with Slavic countries has overwhelming political significance. On the eve of the Single Economic Space summit, researchers at the Institute of Comparative Social Studies conducted an opinion poll among residents of Astana, Moscow, Minsk, and Kyiv to find out how ordinary people regard the integration process. In Astana 56% of those polled responded that integration was very important for SES countries, while in Moscow only 36% of respondents expressed the same opinion. In Minsk only 30% and in Kyiv 39% of the residents attached high importance to integration of the “four” states. Notably, only respondents from Astana said they would like to see the Caucasus and Central Asian countries integrated into the union of Slavic states (Kazakhstanskaya pravda, September 15).
Nazarbayev’s government has turned a deaf ear to protests from Kazakh nationalists who treat any Russian move to restore old economic and political ties with suspicion and point out that Kazakhstan is the only Turkic state in the “unholy union” of Russian-led Slavic nations. But it is hard to deny, even for integration’s fiercest critics, that Kazakhstan needs the SES for economic and political expediency. Kazakhstan is counting on a transit agreement among the four states and also welcomes the planned creation of a joint space consortium by SES members.
When delivering public speeches, particularly those addressed to a Russian audience, Kazakhstan’s leaders never miss the opportunity to single out Russia as the principal partner. Officials use a multi-vector foreign policy that provides Kazakhstan with some leeway to zigzag between the conflicting interests of Western states and its Russian “big brother.”
Moscow, for its part, values Kazakhstan more for its role in long-term geopolitical goals than economic interests. Paradoxically, Russia, despite its huge trade potential, trails Belarus and Ukraine as a trade partner of Kazakhstan (Panorama, September 17). Russia apparently seeks to use the Beslan tragedy to strengthen its sway over Kazakhstan’s security services.
The most significant outcome of the Astana summit was the solidarity other member-states proclaimed with Russia. Although Moscow’s oft-repeated intention to smash terrorists in any part of the globe might alarm its neighbors, Kazakhstan never questioned the methods to be used in fighting terrorism. As a token of solidarity with Russia, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, and Belarus promised to build a new school or a hospital in Beslan. Obviously Russian President Vladimir Putin will not be satisfied with verbal support from leaders of the three countries. He likely will drag his partners deeper into the mire of Russian military actions against suspected terrorists. In Astana Putin bluntly declared that the free movement of citizens within the SES requires tight control and close collaboration among the security agencies of the four. Kazakhstan’s security services have already demonstrated their willingness to collaborate with Moscow by extraditing several immigrants from the Caucasus who were suspected of involvement in bomb blasts in Russian cities. The Kremlin’s efforts to narrow civil rights may provide justification for Kazakhstan’s law-enforcement bodies to also abuse their authority.
Russia’s attempt to gather its neighbors under the umbrella of the SES to counterbalance the European Union is apparently successful. According to President Leonid Kuchma of Ukraine, “Ukraine bears no grudge against the European Community, which does not want to see us in its ranks. God help Europe to sort it out with its ten new members.” But the President of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenka, declined to offer such an optimistic assessment of the Single Economic Space’s future role (Panorama, September 17).
Several years ago, Russia dismissed the idea of Eurasian integrity by widely publicizing the scheme as the brainchild of President Nazarbayev. But given NATO’s eastward expansion and the deployment of American troops in Uzbekistan, integration has become a catchword in Moscow. It is hard to tell what SES membership has in store for Kazakhstan. But for now Moscow has effectively co-opted Nazarbayev’s favored Eurasian integration doctrine to consolidate its military and political influence in the region.