The Russia-Kazakhstan border delimitation agreement concluded during President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s January 17 visit to Moscow was heralded as an historic accord. It was the first such agreement ever signed between Caspian states and took five years to conclude. Now, for the first time in its history, Kazakhstan’s border problems have been eliminated (Liter, January 22). But at least at the unofficial level, there is little certainty that the signing of the agreement will put an end to territorial claims. The agreement, in fact, has already resulted in subdued protests from nationalists in both Russia and Kazakhstan.
On January 26 members of the Azat and Zheltoksan Kazakh patriotic movements staged a demonstration at the Russian Embassy in Almaty to protest recent comments by the deputy speaker of the Russian Duma, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, regarding border issues. They were particularly angered by Zhirinovsky’s allegations, made during an interview with Ekho Moskvy, that there was no need for Russia to sign a border agreement with Kazakhstan, since Kazakh lands were historically limited to the Kyzylorda, Shymkent, and Zhambyl regions in south Kazakhstan; thus the rest of the territory is part of Russia. Zhirinovsky’s comments, along with his earlier allegations that, as a nation, Kazakhs had never achieved the high degree of social maturity needed for statehood, were reprinted in the opposition paper Soz. Hassan Kozha Akhmet, leader of the Azat movement, told journalists covering the demonstration that the outraged Azat and Zheltoksan activists would destroy the editorial office of Soz or any other newspaper that prints such provocative, anti-Kazakh sentiments. He also said that leaders of Azat and Zheltoksan had given a letter of protest to the Russian Ambassador, to be forwarded to Russian President Vladimir Putin. The letter demands that he bar individuals who “create strife between the two nations” from key posts in the Russian government and the State Duma (KTK-TV, January 26).
The demonstrations at the Russian Embassy seemed to have at least tacit approval from the Kazakh government, because police stood by and made no efforts to disperse the crowd. In contrast, only one day earlier, three activists from a civic association in Almaty were denied permission to hold a demonstration condemning extremism and terrorism. The Almaty city government, citing Article 7 of the “Law on Peaceful Meetings and Street Demonstrations” as grounds for the denial, argued that such large crowds (over 5,000 people were expected to take part in the planned anti-terrorist march) would spin out of control and threaten public order (Kazakhstan TV, January 25).
The informal tolerance toward demonstrators at the Russian Embassy may be seen as the Kazakh government’s reaction to repeated imperial rhetoric and territorial claims coming out of Moscow. Two years ago Putin had angered the Kazakh public with his remarks that Kazakhstan and Russia had “serious territorial problems” affecting their bilateral relations. Kazakh nationalists interpreted such comments as Moscow’s attempt to revive the claims on Kazakh territories made by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in the 1960s. Khrushchev had plans to transfer five regions of northern Kazakhstan to Russia.
Although the Russian-Kazakh border delimitation agreement was generally applauded in Kazakhstan, critics of the accord argue that Kazakhstan paid a high price for friendly relations with Russia. In a bid to eliminate the last hurdle in the negotiations, the two sides agreed to divide the contested Imashev gas condensate deposits in Atyrau region (western Kazakhstan) on an equal basis. Russia, in turn, pledged to abandon its claims on some of its territories that had been reassigned to Kazakhstan in Soviet times.
But there is good reason to suspect that, in the final analysis, Russia came out ahead of Kazakhstan. The Imashev gas condensate deposits, with proven reserves of 128.7 billion cubic meters of gas is the second largest in Kazakhstan, behind only the Karashaganak deposits. Kazakhstan also lost Ognyeuponoye, a village in Kostanay region, to Russia. Observers note that Moscow had used the border delimitation talks to exert political pressure on Kazakhstan for all these years and finally had to sign the agreement when all pretexts for further maneuvering were used up. No one can be sure yet that the hard-won border agreement will serve the national interests of Kazakhstan. However the signed agreement gives Kazakhstan a free hand to expand its military ties with the West, and possibly join NATO in the long term, without having to heed Russia’s big-brotherly rebukes (Zhas Qazaq, January 21).
One of the factors that accelerated the signing of the border delimitation agreement seems to be the Orange Revolution in Ukraine. President Putin, who cut short his January 11-12 unannounced visit to Astana and hurriedly flew back home to face crowds of protesting pensioners, had held his high-level talks in the alpine ski resort Shymbulak, near Almaty, leaving journalists guessing at the issues discussed.
Obviously Moscow and Astana will remain close partners despite nationalistic rhetoric from both sides. Kazakhstan hopes that the ratification of the border delimitation agreement signed in Moscow will not pose a problem as long as the pro-Putin United Russia faction continues to hold a majority in Russian Duma (Zhas Qazaq, January 21).