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Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 50, November 28, 2009

Emerging Role of Kazakhstan

Saturday 28 November 2009, by Satish Kumar

In the last one month two Presidents of European countries visited Kazakhstan. One was the French President Nicolas Sarkozy and the other Austria’s Deputy PM and Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman. Sarkozy visited the country for the signing of an energy pipeline deal. Two other major deals were signed. One was restructuring of the banking system that was hit hard in the recession. Sarkozy went to establish good terms for energy-rich Kazakhstan with the French companies. The French companies are looking for a larger space in the Central Asian states. Central Asia is increasingly becoming important for the EU’s energy policy.

Another major development is the declaration of all Central Asian states to forswear nuclear weapons within their territories permanently. The treaty bearing the declaration will enter into force after each of the Central Asian states ratifies it. The Central Asian Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone (CANWFZ) will encompass Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. The Central Asian states have been seeking to construct the nuclear-weapon-free zone, the first in the northern hemisphere, for nearly 10 years. Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, newly independent Kazakhstan inherited more than 1400 nuclear warheads, an arsenal larger than any of the NPT nuclear-weapon states except for Russia and the United States. In 1992, Kazakhstan voluntarily agreed to transfer these warheads to Russia and acceded to the NPT two years later.

All the great powers have different strategies and schemes to increase their space in Central Asian states. The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation is becoming increasingly more active in Central Asia. The SCO is little more than a discussion forum. This was created as a confidence-building measure for China, and the Soviet Union’s successor states that shared borders with China. China has a growing presence in Central Asia; it is merely using the SCO to secure its goals. However, China’s priority vis-à-vis Central Asia lies not with the SCO, but with increasing its ownership of oil and gas assets in Central Asia. The independence of the Central Asian states had a predictable impact on the aspirations for cultural and national autonomy among China’s own minorities. China has managed the security threats from Central Asian states with tough actions.

The US is facing challenges from Russia and China. The overall opinion in Central Asia is to remove the military presence of the US from the region. This could hit the US operations in Afghanistan. The US interest in Central Asia got prominence due to two factors. First, a vast stock of gas and oil, and a large quantum of nuclear arsenals left by Russia in Kazakhstan. Every American President since 1992 has claimed that engaging the Central Asian states is a strategic priority for the United States. The region is home to vast unexploited oil and gas reserves and is an important area from where to conduct US military operations in Afghanistan.

The third and most important player in the region is Russia. It has been trying to reclaim its strategic edge on Central Asian states. Moscow has been eager to maintain its influence over the energy transit routes in the Caspian region. Russian officials pressed Kazakh President Nazarbayev to agree to a 15-year deal. Kazakhstan would commit to exporting more crude oil via Russian pipelines. In May 2008, Russia and Kazakhstan confirmed the agreement on increasing the capacity of the CPC from 32 million tonnes per year up to 50 million tonnes annually at the first stage of the expansion project and up to 67 million tonnes by 2012. The European Union countries also rely much on the Russian support to establish their feet in Central Asia. The overall tussle in this region is around the stock of gas and oil. Central Asia is increasingly important to the EU’s energy policy. Russia plays a defining role in the region, and any successful European effort to engage Central Asia must include reaching out to Russia.

The fight for a larger space in the Central Asian sphere is also related to money. Kyrgyzstan’s decision to close a strategically important US air base in Manas is believed to have been orchestrated by Moscow which promised US $ 1.5-2 billion worth of aid in return. It is obvious that Russia is still the key player in the region. For instance, Russian companies have monopolised energy transport routes from Central Asia, and Moscow maintains close relations with all the states in the region. As a consequence, it is still of great importance that the EU cooperates closely with Russia on Central Asia

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In the coming years, the political stature of Kazakhstan is going to be very crucial. From January 2010, Kazakhstan will hold the chairmanship of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, that is, the OCSE. From January 2011, Kazakhstan will hold the chairmanship of the OIC, the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, which groups 57 Moslem countries, most of the Moslem countries in the world. That is why the world powers are engaged in a diplomatic exercise to come closer to Kazakhstan. The West also wants to change Kazakhstan into some sort of democratic set-up. However, that seems unlikely.

Kazakhstan’s road to becoming a democratic society has certainly experienced twists and turns. Much depends on the will of the man who is the architect of its construction, who seems reluctant to conclude that his task is over. There is no political alternative to President Nazarbayev. However, there are no institutions in the state that really serve as political training grounds. The political parties are weak. The weakness of the political parties reinforces the weakness of the legislature. Now eighteen years have passed, and the region is facing an inevitable transition to a new leadership, and maybe even to a new generation of political figures. While the present generation of leaders was brought up in the Soviet state, and may even have worked for it, the majority of the population in Central Asia has no memory of Soviet rule and they are being groomed in very different political conditions. The education systems of the region have fallen into varying states of decay. One of the great risks that Central Asia face is that of declining literacy and educational attainment.

The major responsibilities lie with Kazakhstan to not only get a larger space for the Central Asian states in world politics but also reorient its own economic and political order. The European interest in Central Asia has obviously increased its political status. Nevertheless, being the largest economy and biggest country among the five Central Asian states, Kazakhstan is going to be the vital power, weather its political set-up remains autocratic or democratic.

Dr Satish Kumar is an Assistant Professor, Meerut University.

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