As Kazakhstan’s long-awaited term of chairmanship of the OSCE draws near, Astana is stepping up its multifaceted ties with the West, disregarding the painful reaction of the Kremlin to any westward movement in Central Asia. The signing of the strategic partnership treaty between Nursultan Nazarbayev and Nicolas Sarkozy during the two-day official visit of the Kazakh president to France on May 10 and agreements reached on bilateral cooperation in space technology, engineering and telecommunications, energy and other areas differ very little in content from issues discussed with Dmitry Medvedev in Astana on May 22 and 23. But showing Moscow Astana’s potential to draw more players than just Russia,
Nazarbayev put significant political weight on his trip to Paris. Increasingly the clearly articulated independence of Kazakhstan, particularly on energy issues, demands a more flexible approach. Andrei Grozin from the Central Asia and Kazakhstan department of the Institute of CIS Studies warns that under the current circumstances the best policy for Moscow would be to make certain concessions in its relationship with Astana and share some sections of the European energy market with Kazakhstan in order to prevent it from joining the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan project (Evraziski Dom, May 23).
As a part of the policy of rapprochement with Europe, Kasymzhomart Tokayev, the speaker of the senate of Kazakh parliament, in his talks with the visiting NATO parliamentary Assembly chairman Jose Lello reaffirmed his country’s commitment to partnership ties with NATO. Good relations with the West however, require more than just promises. Obviously, Kazakhstan has to repay the United States for backing Kazakhstan’s OSCE chairmanship in 2010 with more active involvement in restoring the economic infrastructure of war-torn Afghanistan. As part of a special program of technical and material assistance to Afghanistan concluded by Washington and Astana in late 2006, Kazakhstan took on obligations for training Afghan students and rebuilding schools and hospitals in areas liberated from Taliban fighters. Kazakhstan has also delivered grain supplies to Afghanistan and donated more than $2 million for reconstruction work. In return, Kazakhstan received promises of investments in the agricultural and transport communications sector of Afghanistan. But pessimism prevails in Astana, which regards Afghanistan as a mere Pandora’s Box of drug trafficking, terrorism and a host of other evils. With little enthusiasm for the American-engineered Greater Central Asia project designed to include Afghanistan, Astana is worried about Afghan troubles spilling over into neighboring areas and came up with the idea of creating a “security belt” around Afghanistan with OSCE participation. Many experts believe that this proposal will apparently be repeated by Kazakhstan at the Helsinki meeting in December of foreign ministers of the five countries to chair the OSCE in 2010 and 2011. Astana believes that the security belt would have military pluses for U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan, weakening the drug-based economic pillars of the Taliban, while ensuring security of energy routes from Kazakhstan to Europe (Delovaya Nedelia, June 13).
While Russia seems to be distancing itself from US and European military activities against the Taliban and developed rather strained relations with the OSCE, its motivation for supporting Kazakhstan’s chairmanship of OSCE is transparent. Kazakhstan is one of the remaining loyal political partners tied with commitments within the Collective Security Agreement Organization, Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the rather amorphous CIS, Eurasian Economic Community. Russia apparently intends to use Kazakhstan on the European chessboard to advance its own energy and political interests and to mend fences with Europe to the detriment of American interests.
Russia has never ceased its attempt to manipulate the sizable Russian population of Kazakhstan to solve its economic problems, which explains the cautious and conservative attitude of Kazakh authorities about issues such as the replacement of Cyrillic script by the universally used Latin alphabet. In an interview to a group of Kazakh journalists Nursultan Nazarbayev said that it was time to think over the suggestions of Kazakh intellectuals demanding to rename such cities as Petropavlovsk and Pavlodar with Kazakh names, taking into consideration the opinions of residents and local legislative bodies (Turkistan, June 5). This remark sent a wave of protests and furious media comments in the Russian populated northern cities.
The greatest concern for Russia is the accelerated diversification of energy transportation routes in Central Asia, which explains Dmitry Medvedev’s recent shuffling between Astana, Ashgabat and Baku. There is, in fact, very little that Moscow can do to prevent Turkmen gas from flowing to Europe through Baku, which undermines the dominating position of Russian Gazprom. With Kazakhstan increasingly tilting toward Europe as Astana gears up to chair the OSCE, Moscow’s hope for a concerted energy policy against the West is diminishing. That may lead to increased political pressure from Moscow on the “disloyal” nations of the region. But the Kremlin could gain more from using Kazakhstan’s deepening ties with Europe to develop a constructive dialogue with the West on energy issues and regional security to ward off potential threats from a turbulent Afghanistan. But European energy markets are turning into a battlefield where ambitions of strategic partners are now starting to clash.