Kazakhstan steps out to the world
Professor Stephen Blank

An analysis of Kazakhstan’s foreign policy makes it clear that President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s government is about to embark on a major international campaign to establish and ensure Kazakhstan’s place as a significant regional power broker capable of projecting economic power abroad and playing a significant role in global politics and economics, especially in the energy sector. While Astana continues to prioritize its relations with Moscow and Beijing, it has already become America’s main partner in Central Asia and the EU is displaying ever more serious interest in Central Asia as it seeks to escape dependence upon Russian energy.

BACKGROUND: Kazakhstan’s rising economic profile is the motor behind this process, and the foreign and domestic policies of the Nazarbayev regime intend to ensure the continuity of this growth and its international deployment. By 2008, The country’s GDP is expected to be double that of 2000, and GDP per capita is expected to reach $6,500 in 2007. Thus Nazarbayev aims to turn Kazakhstan into a regional locomotive of economic growth, a status that can only enhance its attractiveness to other major actors like Russia, China, America and the EU as a partner and that is actually what is happening.

Kazakhstan’s rise to prominence entails its continuing a multivector foreign policy in the hierarchy listed above and reiterated by Nazarbayev in his annual “state of the union” speech on February 28. Nonetheless, Kazakhstan seeks to branch out not least because Moscow and Beijing frequently do not take its interests into account, or dismiss them in their own foreign policy. So an increasingly global foreign policy, even one that occasionally contradicts Moscow and Beijing, is becoming ever more important. In Central Asia, Nazarbayev not only seeks the status of a regional locomotive and continuing development of energy, extractive industries in general, infrastructure, and education and health. Beyond those goals he has also stated that it is “crucial` to have a transport corridor through the Caucasus and beyond to Europe, is considering building a refinery in Georgia that would allow it to overcome its energy problems, and has signed an Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with several international companies to transport Kazakh oil across the Caspian using the planned Eskene-Kuryk pipeline to a terminal on the Caspian coast. From there, tankers would take the oil to Azerbaijan for pumping into the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, thereby strengthening its utility and justifying the hopes first vested in it a decade ago. This Kazakh Caspian Transport System (KCTS) should be launched by 2010-11, and is worth an estimated $3Billion.

This is not the only way in which Kazakhstan is escaping Russia’s monopolistic policies. Its oil deals with China have paved the way for discussions about gas pipelines. Kazakhstan also is creating a financial sector in Almaty that is expected to compete with Russia as a regional hub. And it is already exporting capital to neighboring states, e.g. Kyrgyzstan. Nazarbayev’s speech also called for negotiating with neighbors to create a more favorable climate for the export of Kazakh capital in Central Asia and in creating a dynamic market not only around the Caspian Sea but also in the Black Sea region. The aforementioned economic initiatives indicate this grand design, which has led to intensified discussions with Germany and Romania about energy shipments to those states. Both Germany and Romania, as well the EU as a whole, seek increased entry into the Kazakh energy market to escape dependence upon Russia and its pipelines by offering, as does Romania, alternate routes for the export of energy to Europe, namely the Constanza-Trieste pipeline. And Astana is more than happy to oblige them as it seeks intensified contacts with the EU and an enhanced  reputation throughout Europe as it campaigns for being granted the presidency of the OSCE in 2009. Kazakhstan is also exploring with Ukrainian President Yushchenko a second projected energy corridor to Europe using the Odessa-Brody-Gdansk oil pipeline.

IMPLICATIONS: It also is very likely that Kazakhstan will seek increased ties to NATO and America in order to help its armed forces achieve standards of interoperability with Western forces.Although it has recently signed agreements with Russia to equip its armed forces, this is most likely due to the fact that the Kazakh armed forces began with Russian equipment and is able to obtain spares and weaponry from Moscow based on its original park at concessionary prices. Nevertheless, it appears that Russian assistance will not suffice to reform the Kazakh armed forces to a Western standard and that ties with NATO and Washington will continue. And the Kazakh government does not see anything amiss with such ties, undoubtedly to Moscow’s discomfiture.

Despite these shows of independence from Moscow, Russian analysts are increasingly aware of Kazakhstan’s capabilities and acknowledge that it has the power to influence the stabilization of the situation in Turkmenistan under its new leadership. Certainly its view of regional integration is not equivalent to Moscow’s and it will be interesting to see if either version or a third, alternative one, makes progress. But it must always be remembered that Kazakhstan is and has been able to succeed up till now precisely because it always takes Russian and Chinese interests into account and conducts a genuinely multipolar foreign policy. It will not be anyone else’s stalking horse in Central Asia and clearly opposes efforts to subordinate the region to outside forces even as it seeks good relations with all the major actors. So at one and the same time, for example, its officials have stated that the greatest threat to international security is nuclear proliferation, but also that Iran has the right to a peaceful nuclear program. Inasmuch as the latter point is guaranteed by the Non-Proliferation Treaty and is not an issue here, this is an anodyne way of telling Iran to submit to the IAEA and forego nuclear weapons since the issue of Iran’s alleged treaty rights is a red herring as long as it refuses to fulfill its treaty obligations.

CONCLUSIONS: Assuming continued economic growth, Kazakhstan is well on the way to becoming what used to be called a regional influential that happens to enjoy good relations with all of its major interlocutors. This is an enviable achievement and is very much due to Nazarbayev’s foreign policy that combines vision with prudence and realism. It also is on the way to becoming a major actor in world energy politics which will enhance its importance to European, Asian, and American governments for a long time to come. And it will also be a strong proponent of regional integration, if not economic leadership in Central Asia. Admittedly, its democratization program is not compatible with Western standards. And the succession to Nazarbayev is another troubling problem since it is unclear what will happen should it be necessary to appoint a successor to him. But while these weaknesses should factored into any assessment of Kazakhstan’s policies, this should not obscure the achievements of the regime in economics and foreign policy, and prospectively in defense. Kazakhstan is already a major Central Asian player and aims to project its initiatives for regional cooperation, global cooperation against proliferation and terrorism, and its role in global energy markets into a positive and reinforcing foreign policy of economic dynamism that will ensure not only its own stability but to some degree that of Central Asia as well.

AUTHOR’S BIO: Professor Stephen Blank, Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College, Carlisle Barracks, PA 171013. The views expressed in this article do not represent those of the US Army, Defense Department, or Government.