On a visit to Astana on October 5, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced to the press in a conspicuously diplomatic tone that the United States had no intention of undermining Russian interests in Central Asia or drawing Kazakhstan into the American sphere of influence. Her words prompted more questions than clear answers to the intricate nature of relations between the superpowers. It would be too naïve indeed to think that Kazakhstan with its huge hydrocarbons resources and significant geopolitical weight in the region could be so easily dismissed from the American list of Central Asian priorities. Furthermore, Condoleezza Rice stressed that as an independent country Kazakhstan was free to choose its friends and that the United States was not competing for influence (Kazakhstanskaya Pravda, October 7).
Rice’s trip to Kazakhstan was intensely watched by Moscow throughout her talks with President Nursultan Nazarbayev, Kazakh Foreign Minister Marat Tazhin, and Prime Minister Karim Massimov. There was very little in the official discussions in Astana that could provoke Moscow’s suspicions. Talks focused on economic cooperation, the shipment of Kazakh oil and gas through Azerbaijan and Georgia, and investments in the Afghan economy, in the context of the growing tension between Russia and the West in the aftermath of the Russian-Georgian war. The visit was largely interpreted by the Kremlin, however, as an American attempt to forge an anti-Russian alliance in Central Asia. It was speculated in Moscow that Rice went to Astana to dissuade Nazarbayev from siding with Russia over South Ossetia (Moskovskiy Komsomolets, October 5).
In Astana Rice apparently tried to dispel these suspicions and to mend fences with Moscow. But will the olive branch from Washington be heeded by the Kremlin? The standoff, in many ways reminiscent of the Soviet-era cold war, has gone too far to bring relations back to normal; and time is working for Moscow. While the West is restlessly seeking acceptable diplomatic language with Moscow, Russia is expanding its military and political presence in Central Asia. Nursultan Nazarbayev’s ostentatious justification of Russian military actions in South Ossetia and Georgia encouraged the Russian military to entangle Kazakhstan into questionable cooperation under the guise of fighting terrorism.
Over the past four months Kazakhstan and Russia have carried out two large-scale joint military exercises, first in the Chebarkul region of East Kazakhstan near the Russian border from June 9 to 11 and then in September in the Zhambul region of South Kazakhstan. The Aldaspan-2008 (Sabre-2008) military exercise, which involved long-range air force training, tanks, and ground troops, was praised by Kazakh Defense Minister Daniyal Akhmetov as a successful interaction of the Russian and Kazakh military forces designed to prevent foreign troops from invading an unnamed country in Central Asia. Preparations are underway for new joint exercises in the Caspian region intended to test the air defense capabilities of Kazakhstan and Russia using not only the conventional air force but also ballistic missiles (Kazakhstanskaya Pravda, October 7).
Russia’s political, economic, and military presence in Central Asia gained momentum after the closure of the U.S. air base in Uzbekistan and the subsequent Andijan massacre of protesters by Islam Karimov’s regime. One of the main reasons why Central Asian nations readily embrace Moscow rather than the United States is the deep fear of a Kyrgyz-style “color revolution” associated in the public mind with sinister American plans to dominate the region. Russia, in its turn, effectively uses the Soviet-era military infrastructure in Central Asia to justify its military presence in the region. Unlike the United States, Russia never ties its military aid to Central Asian nations to political and democratic reforms (www.centrasia.ru, October 8).
Since Georgia actually resigned its membership in the Commonwealth of Independent States, Russia has been struggling to keep the other member-countries within this amorphous organization. Moscow was quite successful in increasing its influence over the regimes of its ex-dominions in Central Asia; but the October 10 summit of the heads of CIS countries in Bishkek revealed a widening gap among its member-states. Not only Mikheil Saakashvili, but also the presidents of Ukraine and Azerbaijan, refused to travel to Bishkek. Dmitry Medvedev’s hopeless efforts to reanimate the idea of integrating post-Soviet states around Russia through the creation of a single economic space and to create an equally impracticable customs union of Belarus, Russia, and Kazakhstan only underline the bleak prospects of this Russian-dominated organization.
Despite the setbacks in realizing some of its great-empire ambitions within the ineffective CIS structure, Russia is successfully restoring its once-weakened foothold in Central Asia using all available means. Russia’s growing military and economic dominance in Central Asia coincides with the strategic interests of Iran and China, countries that regard Moscow as an important factor in neutralizing American influence in the region. In this situation Kazakhstan’s time-tested multi-vector policy allows it a good deal of room for maneuvering between the great powers. But the question remains: What will be the Western response to unrestrained Russian inroads into Central Asia?