Publication: Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 131

Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev paid an “unofficial” visit to Moscow from July 5 to July 7 for discussions with President Boris Yeltsin and other Russian leaders. Both presidents claimed emphatically that they strove to avert potential violent conflicts between Russia and Kazakhstan. “Our two countries have a long border. Any problems must be resolved by consensus, lest there be hostility and armed clashes,” Yeltsin seemed to warn. “Big oil can bring either big wealth or big blood,” Nazarbaev for his part seemed to worry.

Such hyperbole must not be taken at face value. Yet the fact that it could be proffered by two experienced leaders testifies to the persistence of unsettled problems and of divergent interests that prove difficult to reconcile. An official visit by Yeltsin to Kazakhstan was at least twice postponed, most recently on June 25, amid some major disagreements. (See the Monitor, June 26) Nazarbaev’s unofficial visit produced two major documents that primarily seek to improve the political atmosphere of relations.

–1. “Declaration on Eternal Friendship and Allied Understanding (“soyuznichestvo”) Oriented Toward the Twenty-First Century.” Initial reports suggest that the document, signed by the two presidents, is mainly rhetorical. However, it may contain a potential trap for Kazakhstan in a vaguely worded clause on mutual military assistance to repel external aggression against either party.

–2. Delimitation in the Caspian Sea. Yeltsin and Nazarbaev signed a long-negotiated agreement on “Delimitation of the Northern Caspian Sea Floor for Exercising Sovereign Rights on the Use of Natural Resources.” Nazarbaev termed the agreement a “political document” aiming to “solve a major political problem”–namely to “guarantee political stability in the region.” Not for the first time, the Kazakh president spoke of a risk of “Balkanization” of the Caspian region. He further observed that oil and gas in the northern Caspian “will not materialize either today or tomorrow”–apparently alluding to the fact that the proven reserves are concentrated in other parts of that sea.

The emphasis on the political would seem implicitly to detract from the actual legal value of the agreement. That value is limited in the first place. The agreement applies only to the seabed, not to the water body, its surface or airspace. Significantly, it fails to mention national sectors. It envisages negotiations toward delimitation “along the median line,” which may, however, be “modified by mutual agreement and on the fairness principle.” This principle was not defined. Russia and Kazakhstan would hold joint exclusive rights to oil and gas deposits that straddle the modified median line and to deposits situated on either side of that line, if such deposits were discovered prior to the partitioning of the seabed. The dividing line will be drawn in follow-up negotiations and codified in a separate document to be attached to the main agreement.

The agreement also contains noncommittal language about working out joint regulation and control of borders, customs, shipping, fishing and ecological protection. In all, the document seems to abound in vague formulations potentially subject to arbitrary interpretation. While marking a further step by Russia away from the principle of five-country jurisdiction over the Caspian Sea and toward its division, the agreement tends to raise more questions than it settles. Almost every provision would seem to require definitions and clarifications. The only quasi-certainty is that arduous negotiations lie ahead. (A text of the document may be found in the current issue of Caspian Business Report, No. 12, 1998)

–3. Ethnic Issues. Nazarbaev and Russian Prime Minister Sergei Kirienko signed a document allowing Russian embassy outreach offices to open in Russian-populated cities in Kazakhstan. This meets halfway Moscow’s goal to establish consulates there. Nazarbaev and Kirienko also signed an agreement on the regulation of resettlement processes and the protection of the rights of resettlers. Specifics were not immediately available. The resettlement issue–referring mainly to Russian repatriates from Kazakhstan–regularly figures on the agenda of bilateral meetings. Existing arrangements facilitate the acquisition of residency rights, social benefits and citizenship by repatriates and other resettlers.

The Russian side insisted on discussing “the problems of Kazakhstan’s Russian-speaking population,” in spite of both Nazarbaev’s argument that “there are no such problems in Kazakhstan” and his proposal to remove this item from the agenda of top-level meetings. He pointed out that the Russian language continues to prevail over the native language in Kazakhstan’s audiovisual and print media, higher education system, urban economy and various areas of public life. The Russian side, for its part, charged that ethnic Kazakhs are over-represented in the government and civil service, and that Russian language use in schools and the mass media is “decreasing.” Moscow levels this criticism at most former Soviet republics. It fails to take into account the natural post-1991 trend to stop and reverse the forced russification of the Soviet era.

–4. Debts. Kazakhstan is apparently a net debtor to Russia, but the Russian side seemed unable at this meeting to specify the balance. Several Russian ministries offered mutually inconsistent sets of figures. Yeltsin had to instruct his government to come up with accurate figures by September. Kazakhstan favors a “zero option” while Moscow will apparently seek to collect a net amount after ascertaining it.

–5. Baykonur space center and other testing ranges. According to the Kazakhs, these closed areas rented by Russia occupy some four percent of Kazakhstan’s land area. Kazakhstan wants the value of the Russian rent to be deducted from Kazakhstan’s debts to Russia. The sides also disagree on the legal status of those areas; on who is responsible for financing their overhead expenses, infrastructure and work force; and on taxation, customs procedures and social benefits applying to those areas and their Russian and Kazakh residents. Nazarbaev claimed that his parliament would not let him make undue concessions on those issues. Since the parliament is completely docile to the president, Nazarbaev’s remark must be taken as expressing his own position.

Yeltsin rescheduled his official visit to Kazakhstan for September, the third such postponement in the space of a year. (Russian agencies, July 6 through 8)–VS

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