Strategic Posture Review: Kazakhstan

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Kazakhstan’s natural resources, booming economy, and strategic geographic location have made it an emerging star in world politics. Thanks in particular to the recovery of world oil prices during the last decade, the country has been able to enjoy a rising standard of living as well as acquire the capital to exploit investment opportunities in neighboring states. These nations in turn have eagerly sought to bolster trade and other economic ties with Kazakhstan.

Under President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who has been in office since Kazakhstan declared independence on Dec. 16, 1991, Kazakhstan has remained committed to a “multi-vector” foreign policy that tries to balance the influence of the great powers active in the region, promote regional political and economic cooperation through inter-regional organizations, and enhance Kazakhstan’s economic development and international status. Kazakhstan’s assumption of the chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) this year marks a new phase in its foreign policy, giving it additional opportunities but also novel challenges.

Multi-Vector Foreign Policy

With the world’s ninth-largest land mass — approximating that of Western Europe, at 2.7 million square kilometers — for a population of 16 million, Kazakhstan has become a natural leader among the Central Asian countries. This is due to its possession of more energy resources than its less-endowed neighbors, its more dynamic economy and capital markets, and its rapidly modernizing armed forces. By some estimates, Kazakhstan has the fastest-growing defense budget in the world. Yet, Kazakhstan’s power assets are dwarfed by the great powers active in its region, including Russia, China, and the United States. The Kazakh government based in Astana has therefore pursued a multi-vector foreign policy that tries to maintain positive economic and political ties with all the major regional players, while seeking to promote the regional stability it requires to further its economic and political development.

This policy is of particular importance when dealing with Moscow, which in recent decades has been the dominant power in Central Asia. Since the USSR’s breakup, the Russian Federation has remained the main economic partner of the newly independent country of Kazakhstan. In 2009, Kazakhstan imported $9.4 billion worth of goods from Russia, amounting to 31 percent of the total value of its imports for that year. Kazakhstan’s ability to export its oil and gas riches depends heavily on access to Russian-controlled energy pipelines, which due to the legacy of the Moscow-centered Soviet economy flow northwards to central Russia before offering export options to European markets.

Russian policymakers understand that their country’s influence in the Caspian Basin region hinges on its control of its energy distribution. Moscow’s foreign policy towards Central Asia is thus aimed at securing that control in the future. Russia also has the power to influence Kazakhstan’s internal stability, since 30 percent of Kazakh citizens are ethnic Russians, the largest ethnic Russian population outside of Russia and Ukraine. From Moscow’s perspective, Kazakhstan’s foreign and domestic policies have proven much less problematic for Russia than that of many other former Soviet republics. In March 2000, Marat Tazhin, then the secretary of the Kazakh Security Council, nicely characterized the attitude of many Kazakh leaders when he stated in an interview with the Russian newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta, “I am a supporter of simple truths: One does not choose one’s neighbors; they are from God.”

The regulation of the 4,660-mile Russian-Kazakh border, the longest in the world, has been a priority on the diplomatic agenda between the two states. During the Soviet period, both Kazakhs and Russians populated the areas near the border without regard to its existence. This situation created complications after the USSR’s collapse, which transformed what had been an unimportant administrative division into an international frontier. Besides issues on border demarcation, Russia has been concerned with illegal immigration and rampant drug trafficking that makes its way from Afghanistan to Russia. On Jan. 17, 2005, Nazarbayev and Putin signed a comprehensive border delimitation treaty agreement that settled many outstanding issues. In May 2010, work began to place markers on the boundary between the countries. Furthermore, in 2008, Russia and Kazakhstan agreed to simplify the procedures for border control and enhance the exchange of information.

Russia and Kazakhstan also share close defense ties, which are based on two major treaties signed in 1994 and 2004. These military relations encompass the regular conduct of joint military exercises, mutual personnel training programs, cooperation on border security, and Russian technical assistance to the Kazakh armed force. Many Russian strategists see Kazakhstan as a buffer state shielding the Russian Federation from external threats originating further south. Furthermore, Kazakhstan in many ways cannot adequately protect itself without Russia’s assistance and still relies heavily on Russia to equip its army. Russia continues to operate a few facilities on Kazakhstan’s territory that have military applications, such as the Baikonur space facility, a transport aircraft regiment in Kustanai, the Sary-Shagan anti-ballistic missile testing range in Priosersk, and an air defense testing range at Emba.

Notwithstanding the existing ties, Kazakh leaders have sought to reduce their country’s overwhelming dependency on Russia without directly confronting Moscow. One means of doing so has been to deal with Russia within the framework of regional multinational institutions such as the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) rather than bilaterally. The CIS was essential to the peaceful division of states that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union. However, the varied agendas of all the states, combined with the CIS’s weak organization, rendered it largely irrelevant by the end of the 20th century. The Kazakh government has sought to restructure and strengthen the CIS, in part to reduce Kazakhstan’s reliance on bilateral relations with Russia by bringing in additional players.

Kazakhstan’s expanding ties with China have also allowed it to reduce its reliance on Russia. Kazakhstan has now become China’s most important economic partner in Central Asia, trading approximately $9.5 billion worth of goods in 2009. If present trends continue, Chinese-Kazakh trade levels will soon exceed those between Russia and Kazakhstan. The Kazakh-China pipeline, which links oil fields in Kazakhstan’s Caspian shore to Xinjiang province in China, will transport 10 million tons of oil a year, a figure that will double when the pipeline reaches its full capacity in 2011. The construction of the pipeline has allowed Kazakhstan to diversify its oil exports, diluting Russian control of Kazakhstan’s energy policy. The inauguration of the Central Asia-China gas pipeline in December 2009 also furthered these objectives. The pipeline, which for now transports Turkmen natural gas from Turkmenistan to China, crosses through Kazakhstan and may soon also transport Kazakh gas. The planned construction of 186 miles of railway from southeast Kazakhstan to the Chinese border, scheduled to open in 2012, will further increase the volume of cargo transported between the two countries.

The Chinese government is eager to promote the economic development of China’s restive province of Xinjiang, where separatist sentiments are strong among the native Uighur population. About 180,000 ethnic Uighurs reside in eastern Kazakhstan. In addition, some 1 million ethnic Kazakhs live in China, especially in Xinjiang. Whatever feelings Kazakh officials might have privately about these ethnic minorities, the governments of Kazakhstan regularly profess solidarity with Beijing’s counterterrorist concerns. For example, when Chinese President Hu Jintao visited Astana in June 2004, the Kazakh and Chinese governments issued a joint declaration affirming that they are “determined to continue to take effective measures and work together in cracking down on all forms of terrorism, including the terrorist force of the ‘Eastern Turkestan Islamic Movement’ in order to safeguard the peace and stability in the two countries and this part of the world.”

Joint declarations between PRC and Central Asian governments also normally include a clause affirming Beijing’s position regarding Taiwan — namely, that Beijing is the only legitimate government of China and that Taiwan is an inseparable part of Chinese territory. The communiqué issued when Hu visited Astana in August 2007, for instance, states that, “On the Taiwan issue, the Kazakh government reiterated its steadfastness in upholding the one-China policy and throws its support behind China for all efforts it has made to realize national reunification, recognizing that the Taiwan issue is China’s internal affair.” In return for Kazakhstan’s suppression of Uighur political activism within its borders and support for Beijing against separatism in Xinjiang and Taiwan, the Chinese government has provided Kazakhstan with bilateral police training, intelligence sharing, defense equipment and military training.

China’s recent advancement into Kazakhstan’s economy has brought economic benefits to Kazakhstan, but it has also raised questions over increasing Chinese influence and its implications. Kazakh residents located near China complain about the expanding water use by the growing Chinese population in border regions, which has been reducing freshwater river flows to Central Asian communities located further from the rivers’ sources. Many Kazakhs do not believe that they have greatly benefited from China’s economic activities in their region, citing Chinese managers’ tendency to hire Chinese workers even when operating in foreign countries, while also pointing to the poor quality of imported Chinese consumer goods.

On the other hand, Kazakh leaders admire their Chinese counterparts’ ability to achieve both high rates of economic growth and preserve their authoritarian political system. They also see ties with China as a useful counterweight to Moscow’s still-dominant presence in their region. Furthermore, they anticipate that China’s enormous size and commercial prowess will inevitably result in a prominent Chinese presence in the Kazakh economy, so most of their policies aim to channel that presence rather than constrain it. As Nazarbayev observed about China in his March 2006 annual address to the Kazakh parliament and nation, “There is no alternative to mutually advantageous ties with that dynamically developing country.”

In considering how to moderate Beijing’s overwhelming economic and demographic weight in Eurasia, Kazakhs rely on other countries, including Russia and the United States, but also regional multinational institutions, and especially the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which also includes Russia as a de facto co-leader. Kazakhstan and the other Central Asian countries can rely on the two great powers to balance one another in many cases. In fact, Kazakhstan presently enjoys a unique position within the SCO. China and Russia enjoy the most influence within the organization, but their differences, and the considerable attention they need to devote to other regions, have prevented the emergence of a genuine duopoly within the organization. Meanwhile, the other Central Asian states have substantially less influence within the SCO, appearing most often as objects of SCO policies determined by Beijing and Moscow. Due to its economic development and other advantages, Kazakhstan occupies an intermediate position between the two great powers and the four other Central Asian states. This dynamic probably dampens Astana’s interest in expanding the SCO’s membership further, since the entry of India, Iran, or Pakistan would dilute its influence by incorporating other middle powers — with larger populations and stronger militaries than Kazakhstan — into the organization. In June, Kazakhstan again assumed the SCO’s annual rotating chair.

In accordance with its efforts to diversify its allegiance with major powers, Kazakhstan also supports a U.S. economic and defense presence in Central Asia. The United States was the first country to recognize Kazakhstan, on Dec. 25, 1991. Since then, security and nonproliferation issues have been a cornerstone in relations between the two countries. The United States provided Kazakhstan with considerable financial assistance to eliminate its nuclear warheads, weapons-grade materials, and supporting infrastructure. The ties strengthened after the United States invaded Afghanistan in October 2001. Kazakh leaders immediately proclaimed solidarity with Washington in the fight against international terrorism, while the United States reciprocated by increasing its counterterrorist and counternarcotics assistance to Astana. Kazakhstan also participates in U.S. and NATO military education and training programs.

Kazakhstan’s relations with the United States are important for several reasons. Kazakh officials seek American investors, especially in its energy industry but also as a key partner for Kazakhstan’s efforts to diversify its economy.Hundreds of American firms now operate in Kazakhstan, with their direct net investments exceeding $15 billion in 2009, although most of that is still placed in Kazakhstan’s oil sector. The United States is equally interested in preventing a single state from claiming a position of economic dominance in Kazakhstan. In 2009, the United States and Kazakhstan launched a Public-Private Partnership Initiative, with the participation of USAID and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, to facilitate U.S. investment in Kazakhstan’s economy, to maintain stability and to ensure economic diversification.

Bilateral relations have remained good despite periodic American criticism of the country’s de facto one-party system under the control of a strong president. The Kazakh government has sought to address American concerns, which are shared by many European governments, by promoting political, judicial, and civil rights reforms through the government’s 2009-2012 National Human Rights Action Plan and 2010-2020 Legal Concept.

Kazakhstan joined NATO’s Partnership for Peace process in 1995 and began participating in NATO’s Partnership for Peace Planning and Review Process in 2002. In so doing, it became the first Central Asian country to enter the program, which aims to improve the ability of its armed forces to work with NATO. Kazakhstan is also the only Central Asian country that has negotiated an Individual Partnership Action Plan with the alliance. The agreement, which came into force on Jan. 31, 2006, provides for more extensive dialogue and specifically tailored cooperation with the alliance. It typically specifies detailed military and political objectives and the relative contribution of both parties in achieving them. The agreement provides additional opportunities for the partner to cooperate with alliance experts, receive military training, and participate in NATO activities in such areas as defense reform, managing emergencies, and projects related to science and the environment.

Kazakhstan has allowed U.S. and other NATO warplanes to overfly its territory on a regular basis in support of alliance operations in Afghanistan. In early 2009, Kazakhstan also permitted land transit for non-military supplies. In 2010, Astana granted the United States new overflight rights for the resupply of U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan. This new agreement opened a direct and faster route to Afghanistan. Last July, the United States agreed with Russia to ship cargo through Russian airspace, but without being able to transit Kazakhstan, that pact was of little use. Now, with the new Kazakhstan agreement in place, the United States can fly cargo northward over the North Pole, then south over Russia and Kazakhstan. Kazakhstan did refuse to participate in controversial NATO military exercises held in Georgia in May 2009. But in September 2009, NATO held its first military exercise in Central Asia, specifically in Kazakhstan. The six-day disaster response exercise, Zhetysu-2009, included 500 Kazakh and an equal amount of NATO and non-Kazakh Partnership for Peace forces.

Kazakhstan’s importance to the energy-hungry European Union is undeniable. Kazakhstan is the EU’s largest trade partner in Central Asia due primarily to the purchase of energy-related products, with the trade turnover between EU member states and Kazakhstan amounting to $29 billion in 2009. Since 1999, Kazakhstan has maintained a Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA) with the EU that provides a legal foundation for negotiating agreements in energy, trade, investment, and other areas. Kazakh and EU authorities are currently negotiating a renewal of the PCA. Issues of concern for Kazakh negotiators include simplifying visa procedures for Kazakh citizens seeking to visit EU countries as well as support for Kazakhstan’s desire to join the WTO and be designated a market economy country by the EU.

In addition to pursuing good relations with all the major regional powers while also working through various multinational institutions, the Kazakh government has sought to enhance its autonomy and prosperity by promoting economic and political integration among Central Asian countries. In line with Nazarbayev’s stated objective of making Kazakhstan a “transcontinental economic bridge” and a “regional locomotive” of economic development, Kazakh officials have promoted closer commercial integration among Eurasian nations at multiple levels. Priority has been given to improving regional transportation, pipeline, and communication networks, reducing customs and other manmade barriers to trade, encouraging tourism and other nongovernmental exchanges while strengthening regulations governing labor mobility in Eurasia, and promoting Kazakh private investment in other Eurasian economies, especially through joint ventures.

The Kazakh government’s intense support for deeper regional integration partly results from the recognition that Kazakhstan would greatly benefit from enhanced ties among Eurasian countries. Such a framework would provide Kazakhstan and its neighbors with more room to maneuver among the great powers active in the region, reduce the risks of a great-power condominium emerging, and help coordinate responses to economic, political, and security problems in any one Eurasian country, which could easily adversely affect neighboring countries, either through direct spill-over or by discouraging external investors.

Kazakhstan’s ability to realize its potential as a natural crossroads for East-West and North-South commercial linkages also depends on reducing manmade political and economic obstacles to the free flow of goods and people among Eurasian nations. The increase in regional prosperity that economists predict would ensue from greater regional integration would also help Kazakhstan expand its commercial activities into new horizontal and vertical markets.

Traditionally, however, the Central Asian governments have found it difficult to cooperate with one another since the USSR’s collapse. Among other things, they have unresolved disputes over borders, trade, visas, transportation, illegal migration, and natural resources such as water and gas. Uzbekistan, in particular, has often been seen as a rival for regional influence with Kazakhstan, though Kazakhstan’s wealth clearly gives it the advantage at present.

Military and Other Elements of Power

Kazakhstan has emerged as a successful model of economic development in Central Asia and the secular Muslim world. It has the largest economy in Central Asia and its Gross Domestic Product has exceeded the combined total of its four Central Asian neighbors. Kazakh living standards have risen greatly since independence, especially during the past decade, reaching $8,350 per capita in 2008. As result, the country now boasts a large middle class. The government is in the process of negotiating its entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO), and since 2006, Nazarbayev has repeatedly proclaimed the goal of transforming Kazakhstan into one of the world’s 50 most-competitive developed countries, with special strengths in the energy and banking sectors. Kazakh leaders believe that strong regional cooperation — ideally with a degree of integration that would both help harmonize regional economic policies and promote political, security, and other forms of collaboration — is essential for realizing this goal. Above all, it would allow Kazakh businesses to access new markets and exploit superior economies of scale from the resulting increase in labor, capital, and other factors of production. The Kazakh government has also sought to develop extra-regional security, as well as economic, cultural, and other international links to enhance the country’s global reach and autonomy.

The main source of Kazakhstan’s economic prowess is its enormous energy resources. Kazakhstan is the largest oil and natural gas producer in Central Asia and ranks 11th in the world in terms of proven energy reserves, with 3.3 percent of the global total. Kazakhstan has projected oil reserves of 4.8 billion tons of oil and 6 trillion to 8 trillion cubic meters of natural gas. In 2008, Kazakhstan produced more than 70 million tons of oil, contributing substantially to the country’s $43.5 billion in net exports for that year. As production at the massive offshore Kashagan oil field continues to develop over the next few years, Kazakhstan should rise into the ranks of the world’s top 10 oil producers and exporters. The country also has emerged as one of the five largest grain exporters following a record grain harvest in 2009.

Kazakhstan has also long been a major player in the international nuclear market. The country possesses large stocks of natural uranium, approximately one-sixth of the world’s proven reserves. During the past decade, it has dramatically increased its production of uranium, with output growing from 2,000 tons to 13,900 tons between 2001 and 2009. Last year’s record output of 13,900 tons made Kazakhstan the world’s leading producer, well above second-placeCanada’s 10,000 tons. Almost all of Kazakhstan’s uranium production is exported, with the main destinations being Japan, China, and especially Russia. But the country’s domestic consumption of uranium will increase if the Kazakh government realizes its goals of expanding its nuclear fuel service activities, including enriching uranium, building nuclear reactors, and hosting the world’s first international nuclear fuel bank.

Despite recent Kazakh efforts to diversify its economic partners, Kazakhstan’s economy remains heavily dependent on foreign companies for capital and technology. Kazakh and foreign experts pursue greater cooperation among Eurasian countries to better exploit the natural resources and pivotal location of Central Asia and the Caspian Basin as natural transit routes for commerce between Europe and Asia. Enhanced collaboration is especially needed, they maintain, to counter transnational terrorist and criminal groups as well as to exploit the economic comparative advantages enjoyed by Kazakhstan and neighboring states. By reducing inter-regional tensions and promoting deeper economic integration, these countries will become more attractive to foreign investors and enhance their collective leverage with external actors.

Like the other newly independent countries of the former Soviet Union, Kazakhstan had to design new military institutions based initially on the few resources it managed to inherit from the former Soviet armed forces. The initial focus was on developing military forces suitable for self-defense, especially against the regional terrorist groups that have presented the main transnational military threat to Kazakhstan and other Eurasian governments. Soon after independence, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) terrorist group emerged as the main threat to the security of the region. The IMU formally came into being in 1998, but precursor organizations had been active in the former Soviet Republics of Central Asia since the USSR’s collapse in 1991. The IMU developed extensive connections with al-Qaida as well as with the Taliban when they ruled Afghanistan, and IMU forces fought alongside Taliban forces and their al-Qaida allies during the American-led military campaign in Afghanistan in 2001. Kazakhs have been especially concerned about potential terrorist attacks on the country’s valuable — and vulnerable — oil and gas infrastructure, such as the offshore oil drilling platforms along Kazakhstan’s 1,240-mile Caspian Sea coast. But terrorist operations anywhere in Kazakhstan’s neighborhood could cause a deterioration of the region’s investment climate as well as other economic damage.

In developing their armed forces, Kazakh authorities have pursued an eclectic approach. Since independence, they have readily sought subsidized military training, donated weapons, and other defense assistance from Russia, China, NATO and other foreign sources. Following inadequate defense spending in the first years after interdependence, the Kazakh government has used some of its surging energy revenue during the past decade to modernize and expand its conventional armed forces. By some indicators, Kazakhstan has had the fastest-growing defense budget in the world. According to a report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, from 2000 to 2009, Kazakhstan increased its military budget by 360 percent, with its 2010 defense budget exceeding $1 billion.

At present, Kazakhstan’s modest-size active-duty military force consists of 30,000 army, 12,000 air force, and 3,000 navy personnel. Mainly two-year conscripts, they are equipped with almost 1,000 Soviet-era T-72 tanks and more than 100 Soviet-era MiG and Su combat aircraft, supplemented by Russian air defense systems such as the S-300. Kazakhstan had many more tanks and warplanes a few years ago, but most of them were obsolete or nonfunctional. Western-backed military reformers have been seeking to reduce the armed forces’ hardware and develop a more professional, flexible and effective force, with a focus on quality equipment and training. NATO-backed programs have focused on strengthening Kazakhstan’s capacity for peacekeeping, maritime defense of the Caspian Sea, and interoperability projects, such as Western-language training and developing a professional noncommissioned officer class.

Most recently, Kazakhstan has been building its naval presence in the Caspian, the world’s largest inland sea. The Kazakh government plans to buy six warships by the end of this year in order to transform what has been a coast guard into a navy capable of defending even distant offshore oil and gas rigs. Kazakh officials insist that their fleet’s main mission would be counterterrorism, but the other Caspian littoral states might respond by expanding their own naval capacity given the many disputed maritime claims over this resource-rich body of water. Critics worry that the Kazakh government remains preoccupied with employing a military response to terrorist threats, while failing to devote adequate resources to intelligence collection and analysis and other non-military counterterrorist tools.

Largely for diplomatic reasons, the Kazakh government in 2003 sent its elite KAZBAT peacekeeping battalion to Iraq to assist in de-mining operations. This decision marked the first time that Central Asian troops had served in a combat zone outside their region. The unit performed adequately until its withdrawal in October 2008. Expanded and renamed the KAZBRIG in December 2006, this unit has received substantial training, equipment, and other assistance from NATO and its member governments to increase its effectiveness and interoperability. It is widely considered the unit most capable of participating in multinational operations and participates in the Kazakh-U.S.-U.K. Steppe Eagle counterterrorism exercises that occur almost every year in Kazakhstan.

But as of now, it looks like KAZBRIG will remain the exception rather than the rule. Analysts consider the rest of the armed forces less capable, primarily due to difficulties with training, corruption, and poor morale, rather than hardware. They also lack compatibility with NATO forces, due to differences in equipment, training, and command and control arrangements. Another debilitating factor has been that various military reform programs have all been based on traditional Soviet military doctrine aimed at defeating an adversary’s conventional forces, a posture that is not optimal for the kind of security threats that presently confront Kazakhstan.

Considerable funding also goes to purchase foreign weapons. Despite recent efforts at diversification, Kazakhstan continues to purchase most of its equipment from Russia. In 2009, the Kazakh armed forces obtained 79 armored personnel carriers (BTR-80As), three ANSAT light utility helicopters and 12 Mi-8 and Mi-17 attack helicopters, which were bought in 2007. Moreover, in 2009, Kazakhstan signed agreements with Russia for 10 S-330 surface-to-air missile air defense systems and Su-27, MiG-27 and MiG-23UB combat planes. Traditionally, Russia sells weapons to Kazakhstan and its other close allies at subsidized prices. Russian-made equipment is also most compatible with Kazakhstan’s Soviet-origin logistics and other support structures.

But Kazakh officials also want to develop a stronger indigenous defense industry, especially by forging partnerships between domestic and foreign companies, including those from Russia, China, Israel, Europe, and the United States. For example, Israeli defense companies are helping Kazakhstan’s defense industry to manufacture three modern artillery systems at its Petropavlovsk PZTM industrial complex. Developing a domestic Kazakh arms industry that would make military equipment for export also represents an attempt to diversify the country’s economy beyond oil and natural gas. Kazakhstan aims to become at least a regional, and ideally a global, player in the international arms market.

Kazakh leaders see multilateral military cooperation as making an important contribution to securing regional stability. Although Kazakhstan does not currently face a conventional military threat from another nation state, the country is challenged by transnational security threats such as narcotics trafficking, ethnic unrest and terrorism. Kazakhstan’s most important military alliance is the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). Established in 2002, its members include all the countries of Central Asia except for traditionally neutral Turkmenistan. In February 2009, the CSTO decided to set up the Collective Rapid Reaction Force (KSOR in Russian). The force was mobilized for the first time for an exercise in Kazakhstan in October 2009, when more than 7,000 military personnel from Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia and Tajikistan participated in a two-week military exercise in the Matybulak firing ground, in the Zhambyl Oblast of Kazakhstan. In April of this year, KSOR participated in Rubezh-2010 (Frontier-2010), a counterterrorism exercise at the Chorukh-Dayron training ground in northern Tajikistan. More than 1,000 military personnel from Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan took part in the exercise.

One attribute of military power that Kazakhstan adamantly has renounced is nuclear weapons. After independence, Kazak leaders worked directly with Russia, the United States, and other countries to eliminate the weapons of mass destruction Kazakhstan inherited from the disintegrating Soviet Union. As part of that effort, Kazakh officials destroyed or transferred to the Russian Federation some 1,300 nuclear warheads as well as their delivery vehicles. Kazakhstan joined the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty as a non-nuclear weapons state as well as the Nuclear Suppliers Group, a voluntary body whose members pledge to support export guidelines designed to reduce the risks that transferred items will be misused for military purposes.

Kazakhstan has also become a regional leader in countering nuclear nonproliferation and promoting nuclear disarmament. On Sept. 8, 2006, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan signed a treaty that established a Central Asian Nuclear Weapons-Free Zone within their territories. That agreement came into effect in March 2009. The Kazakh government has been supporting international efforts to constrain the suspicious nuclear activities of neighboring Iran, including by leading efforts to establish multinational nuclear fuel arrangements that would obviate the need for Iran to manufacture its own reactor fuel through uranium enrichment, a technology that can be used to make fissile material for nuclear bombs.

OSCE Chair: Opportunity and Challenge

The December 2007 OSCE Ministerial Council decision to award Kazakhstan chairmanship of the OSCE in 2010 marked a recognition of the country’s growing importance in Eurasia. Kazakhstan has become the first CIS and primarily Asian country to receive the chairmanship. (Only 5 percent of Kazakh territory is geographically part of Europe, though Kazakhs stress their European ties developed during the Soviet period.) Kazakh officials characterized their achieving this long-sought status as an endorsement of their country’s successful economic and political reforms, their leading role in Europe and Central Asia, and their contribution as a bridge between the former Soviet republics and other OSCE members. Other governments hoped that awarding the OSCE chairmanship to Kazakhstan would bolster the organization’s influence in the former Soviet bloc as well as promote a greater commitment among these countries to all three OSCE policy pillars, including the commitment to democracy and human rights. In their pursuit of the OSCE chairmanship, Kazakh officials pledged to improve their country’s civil rights and political liberties as well as subject Kazakhstan’s domestic development to greater international monitoring. In 2008 and 2009, the Kazakh government undertook a “Road to Europe” reform program to prepare for the OSCE chairmanship, working with the OSCE and other bodies to improve its legislation on elections, political parties, and the mass media. Even so, some observers complain that Kazakhstan’s basic civil rights policies have not improved since 2007.

In any case, how people assess Kazakhstan’s OSCE chairmanship this year will affect the country’s ability to realize its aspirations to regional leadership. Kazakhstan hopes to use its chairmanship to influence the OSCE to address the specific needs of Central Asia, while also strengthening Kazakhstan’s international status. Astana’s 2010 agenda for the OSCE coincides with Kazakhstan’s regional priorities of improving Eurasian transportation, strengthening barriers against nuclear nonproliferation, combating terrorism and narcotics trafficking, and promoting stability in Afghanistan. Kazakhstan also seeks to support Central Asia’s intergovernmental organizations through OSCE’s initiatives. For example, Kazakhstan is seeking through the OSCE to improve coordination among U.N., CSTO, SCO and NATO activities in Afghanistan. It is also leading efforts to develop a comparable institution in Asia, the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia, Nazarbayev’s brainchild.

A final assessment of the Kazakh chairmanship awaits the denouement of the crisis in Kyrgyzstan and the possible convening of an OSCE Heads of State and Government summit later this year. The last OSCE summit occurred in Istanbul in November 1999, over a decade ago in a very different world. The possible agenda items under discussion include Central Asian security in general, developing a more effective OSCE crisis-prevention mechanism, resurrecting the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty, addressing the Russian proposal for a new European security architecture, and implementing border security and anti-narcotics programs for Afghanistan as well as considering how to deepen economic integration between Afghanistan and its neighbors.

Countering narcotics trafficking might occupy a prominent place on the agenda of an OSCE summit this year. Like other Central Asian countries, Kazakh leaders cite the spread of illicit drugs as a major security threat, both due to the direct harm it inflicts on their people’s health and the income it provides transnational criminal and terrorist movements. Kazakhstan is mainly a transit country located on the northern route between Afghanistan and Europe, though the ready availability of Afghan heroin has led to a significant level of addiction in the country. The new customs union with Russia and Belarus will further reduce barriers to trade, including those against narcotics trafficking. Russian officials have sought to use the CSTO to interdict narcotics flows, but Eurasia’s porous borders and corrupt law enforcement agencies make this difficult.

Addressing the continuing political and security upheaval in Kyrgyzstan, which shares a 744-mile border with Kazakhstan, represents another priority for Kazakhstan. Astana could simultaneously promote its own interests in regional stability and bolster its international standing as well as that of the OSCE by playing a lead role in resolving the crisis and solidifying Kyrgyzstan’s progress along the democratic path. In the short term, the political chaos there will likely encourage Kazakh leaders to intensify their drive for more effective regional security institutions. Neither the CSTO nor the SCO has been able to re-establish stability in Kyrgyzstan, and the ongoing disorder threatens to discourage foreign investment throughout Central Asia.

The crisis, which first erupted in April 2010, also demonstrates how susceptible Central Asia remains to new outbursts of violent conflict. In less than a month, anti-government protesters initially demanding the release of political prisoners brought down President Kurmanbek Bakiyev’s regime. A new government soon lost control of southern regions, where inter-ethnic fighting resulted in nearly 250 deaths and more than 2,000 injured by late June. According to the United Nations, the crisis forced approximately half a million ethnic Uzbeks to flee their homes.

Kazakh officials can exert great influence in restoring stability in Kyrgyzstan thanks to the important bilateral and multilateral tools at their disposal. Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan have established deep economic ties, and senior officials of the two countries engage in frequent meetings, giving Kazakhs many points of contact in the country. Two-way trade between Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan amounts to almost $500 million annually. Kazakhs also provide the main source of foreign capital in Kyrgyzstan, with more than $300 million invested in various projects. Kazakh entrepreneurs have established hundreds of joint ventures in Kyrgyzstan in such sectors as banking, construction, and energy. In recent years, Kazakhstan’s booming economy has increasingly led Kyrgyz labor migrants to seek work in neighboring Kazakhstan rather than in more-distant Russia, with an estimated 200,000 Kyrgyzcitizens currently in Kazakhstan. In the past, Nazarbayev and other Kazakh representatives have used these leverage points to urge their Kyrgyz counterparts to make greater progress in domestic reform programs.

Conclusion

Kazakhstan has made the difficult transition from a planned to a market economy, and from a second-level republic of the Moscow-dominated Soviet Union to a fully independent state able to exert considerable influence within Central Asia and sometimes beyond. The remaining transition, from a one-party dominated authoritarian country to a liberal democratic state in which multiple parties compete and win elections might not occur until President Nazarbayev, widely popular and respected both at home and abroad, leaves the scene. The departure of the only president Kazakhstan has known since independence should open up the political environment to further transformation, though whether this actually occurs, and if so, how rapidly and in which direction, is unclear. The political and ethnic disorder in neighboring Kyrgyzstan is not encouraging for those seeking greater democracy in a region dominated by strong presidents — especially in an ethnically and religiously diverse country like Kazakhstan, whose population consists of 130 distinct ethnic groups professing more than 40 religions. But ever since Aristotle, social scientists have noted that prosperous middle classes eventually demand a share of political power to correspond with their increased economic influence.

Whether the economy will continue to prosper, however, is also uncertain. Nazarbayev and his team have strived to use a large part of the country’s energy revenue windfall to develop other economic sectors and promote education and technical training. Nonetheless, events during the past few years, when Kazakhstan was severely affected by the global economic downturn, show that the country’s prosperity for at least the next decade will remain heavily dependent on world energy prices and the health of the international economy. Another uncertainty is how Kazakhstan’s entry into the new customs union with Russia and Belarus will affect its economic autonomy.

Kazakhstan’s ability to realize its broader regional and international objectives depends in part on how well Astana leads the OSCE and on whether Kazakh officials, in partnership with foreign actors, can achieve greater security in Kyrgyzstan. Perennial chaos there will discourage international investment in neighboring countries like Kazakhstan and risks precipitating clashes among the great powers active in the region. In this regard, Beijing’s influence in Kazakhstan and the rest of Central Asia looks sure to rise in coming years as the Chinese economy extends its presence in the region. Meanwhile, history, geography, ethnic and linguistic ties, and military power guarantee Russia an important role in the region.

The main wildcard is the United States, whose staying power in the region is suspect and presently closely related to the course of the Afghan war, though in ways not commonly understood. The present stalemate in Afghanistan is most conducive for maintaining a major U.S. military and diplomatic presence in neighboring countries. If, however, the United States is defeated in Afghanistan — or, ironically, if its wins the conflict — than the main factor sustaining a significant non-economic U.S. presence in Kazakhstan and its neighborhood would vanish, with implications for Kazakhstan regional strategic calculus.

Richard Weitz is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and a World Politics Review senior editor. His weekly WPR column, Global Insights, appears every Tuesday.

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