Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 180

Speaking at the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) summit in Moscow on September 5, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev went out of his way to show his country’s commitment to this heavily militarized organization, which unites four Central Asian countries, Armenia, and Belarus under the watchful eyes of Moscow. The Kazakh leader said that he was satisfied with the level of cooperation among Kazakhstan and other member-countries within the CSTO and expressed his hope for strengthening regional security further. As part of the efforts to increase military cooperation, the CSTO members introduced amendments to the organization’s resolution of May 25, 2001, to allow more effective use of rapid deployment forces in Central Asia. Although the document does not specify any potential enemies, it is clear from the wording and tenor of the joint statement expressing “concern over the military build-up and escalation of tension in the immediate vicinity of the zone of responsibility of the CSTO” that the Russian-led organization fears potential western military presence in the Caucasus. The joint statement calls on NATO “to consider the consequences of the eastward expansion of the North Atlantic alliance” (Liter, September 6).

In contrast to this bellicose statement, other documents signed by the CSTO countries, such as the cooperation agreement with the UN counter terrorism strategy for the years 2008 and 2012, seem to be void of any real importance. Despite the CSTO’s ostentatiously anti-Western stance over the Georgian-Russian military conflict in South Ossetia and formal justification of Russian “punishment of the aggressor,” Russia failed to win the CSTO countries’ recognition of South Ossetian and Abkhaz independence. Addressing the organization’s security council, however, Nazarbayev sent a clear message of loyalty to Moscow, saying that Kazakhstan would never allow a U.S. military base on its soil (Liter, September 13).

Taking into account Nazarbayev’s constantly changing mood and his often reiterated protestations of friendship with Moscow, such outbursts of anti-American sentiment can hardly surprise anyone. What does surprise observers though is the stark inconsistency in his policies. At almost the same time as the CSTO summit, Kazakh Defense Minister Danial Akhmetov, shaking hands with Claudio Bisonero, deputy secretary general of NATO in Astana, said that “expanding the constructive interaction with NATO is a priority area of Kazakhstan’s foreign policy course.” Clearly, the Defense Ministry could not speak about the “foreign policy course” so unrestrainedly without tacit approval from Nazarbayev, who does not tolerate dissent in his government. Indeed, Kazakhstan is developing close ties with NATO within the individual partnership program despite Moscow’s annoyance.

Akhmetov’s words reflect the dual nature of Kazakhstan’s diplomacy against the background of the escalating East-West standoff following the Georgian-Russian war. Kazakhstan apparently cannot sit on the fence and wait endlessly for the final outcome of the prolonged row over South Ossetia. Recently, Nazarbayev offered to have Kazakhstan mediate if Georgia and Russia were willing to settle the conflict at the negotiating table. Astana pursues purely economic interests in Georgia with a 50 percent share of the KazMunaiGas national oil company at the Batumi oil terminal, which is threatened by military tension in Georgia. (Delovaya Nedelia, September 12).

All signs seem to indicate that despite Kazakhstan’s ambiguous position on South Ossetia and its reluctance to recognize parts of Georgia as “independent,” Moscow still considers Astana its closest ally in Central Asia. Some years ago, the Russian Foreign Ministry strongly criticized Kazakhstan’s efforts to create a naval fleet in the Caspian, regarding it as an attempt to militarize the region; but faced with the grim prospect of international isolation after the war with Georgia and the possibility of economic and political sanctions from the West, Russia is seeking a military alliance with Kazakhstan. The Collective Security Treaty Organization summit was timed to coincide with the Kazakh–Russian joint military exercises in the Tsheliabinsk region of Russia, close to the Kazakh border. The maneuver in which 50 Kazakh military personnel and more than 500 pieces of military hardware were involved was designed to test the combat capability and interaction of the military units. Joint Kazakh and Russian forces reportedly successfully counterattacked “aggressors from a third country” (Kazakhstanskaya Pravda, September 11).

Astana’s real test of foreign policy priorities and political alliance lies ahead, however. Russian President Dmitri Medvedev will probably demand clear promises of friendship from Nazarbayev when he arrives on an official visit to Astana on September 22. Nazarbayev will also have to be explicit about Kazakhstan’s policy when he confers with Western policy makers at the NATO conference in Brussels on October 15.