Kazakhstan’s armed forces, greatly in need of financial and materiel support from Western countries, has received a significant boost from Turkey. Turkey has donated more than $1.3 million worth of military and technical equipment to the Kazakhstani armed forces, aimed at contributing to the overall security of Central Asia. Yet Turkey’s aid highlights a fundamental dilemma facing Western donors since the tragic events in Andijan in May: how to boost the indigenous anti-terrorist capabilities of a particular military without that assistance becoming a means to repress the local population.
The high-profile handover of the Turkish equipment, attended by Major-General Abay Tasbulatov, Kazakhstan’s deputy defense minster and Taner Seben, Turkey’s Ambassador to Kazakhstan, took place in Almaty on June 10, during a ceremony to mark progress in bilateral military assistance from Turkey to Kazakhstan. It celebrated the donation of 24 Land Rover vehicles (four intended for use as military ambulances), as well as one additional car and over 90 hand-held portable radios. Ambassador Seben noted that since 1998 Turkey has supplied $6.5 in military-technical assistance to the Kazakhstani armed forces. This has included motorboats, computers, and other military equipment. Moreover, the number of Kazakhstani servicemen receiving training at Turkish military establishments has grown, and appears set to increase still further. “Many Kazakh officers are receiving theoretical knowledge at military schools and academies of Turkey,” he said (Interfax, June 10; Anatolia News Agency, June 10). This handover of equipment is part of an ongoing security assistance program between Turkey and Kazakhstan, which involves working with the United States in order to coordinate assistance aimed at substantially improving the anti-terrorist capabilities of the Kazakhstani military over the next five years.
Kazakhstani military planners have consequently prioritized the development of the Caspian security complex and the mobility of its armed forces across its vast territory, which demands the constant improvement of old equipment and training methods and requires long-term Western security assistance. Khabar television reported on June 11 that the Kazakhstani maritime border guards had received a new military cutter built at the Zenith plant in Uralsk. The Berkut-6 is a super-powerful model, boosting the limited maritime capabilities of the border guards, and its use in the Caspian Sea will make more likely that future orders will be placed for further mobile vessels. Military exercises currently in progress in the country’s military units in the East regional command underscore the commitment of the authorities in Astana to allocate resources to restore a military training ground in the region. The Ministry of Defense has provided sufficient funds to equip the 22,000-square hectare all-arms training ground, located 50 kilometers from Semipalatinsk and abandoned in the early 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Saken Zhasuzakov, commander of the East regional command said, “The training ground has been restored within a short period of time and all facilities have been launched. As of today the training ground can be used to practice shooting from any type of fire arms, combat vehicles, tanks, mortars, and artillery” (Khabar TV, Almaty, June 11).
Decision-makers seeking to promote Caspian security in general will welcome such evidence that the Kazakhstani Ministry of Defense is taking seriously the task of improving and reforming its key units and moving towards achieving its political goals, which include future NATO interoperability within some of its formations. However, the forthcoming CIS anti-terrorist exercises that will include elements from Kazakhstan also demonstrate their ongoing reliance on Russian methods, training, and thinking within these specialist units. Counterparts from anti-terrorist units will join Russian, Kazakhstani, and other CIS special services from July 28 to August 11. Major-General Anatoly Nikitin, deputy head of the CIS Anti-Terror Center, noted, “The exercise is aimed at organizing and conducting sweeping operations and a special operation with the objective of curbing sabotage activities at power stations” (Interfax, June 10).
Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev continues to emphasize his country’s need for diverse security assistance, mentioning the country’s relations with the United States, Russia, China, and the EU during a wide-ranging speech on foreign policy in Astana on June 7. Yet in terms of his anti-terrorist agenda, he chose to focus on the UN: “Cooperation with the UN in the fight against terrorism, crime, drug trafficking, and non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction is a priority.” (Kazakhstan Today, Almaty, June 7). Kazakhstan’s cautious bilateral relations with Western countries offering security assistance seems less clear in the wake of events in Uzbekistan.
Turkey’s military assistance to Kazakhstan, broadly in keeping with its five-year military cooperation program closely complementing the U.S. program, is making evident inroads into the huge task of reforming the Kazakhstani armed forces. Yet in supplying mobile vehicles and radio communications systems, which are aimed partly at enhancing the capabilities of elite formations and generating more independence in Kazakhstan’s anti-terrorist strengths, Western planners are faced with the possibility of these very formations being utilized directly or indirectly as a tool of repression. Democratizing the armed forces is therefore a necessity, but one that Nazarbayev is in no hurry to implement.