Journalist | Writer | Analyst
3 November 2004
Kazakhstan’s twin-track foreign policy
By Siddharth Varadarajan
Almaty: With a land mass 86 per cent the size of India but a population of just 15 million, it is perhaps natural for the landlocked former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan to feel a little at sea in its neighbourhood.
Bordered in the north and east by Russia and China, it is small comfort to have on its southern frontiers Kygyzstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan — countries rich in natural resources but with unstable polities and restive populations. In order to pursue the somewhat elusive notion of strategic stability, the President, Nursultan Nazarbaev, has pushed his country’s foreign policy along two distinct tracks.
First, he has struck a Faustian bargain with Washington, encouraging the U.S military presence in the region — first as part of NATO’s `Partnership for Peace’ expansion plan in the 1990s and, more recently, as an adjunct to the so-called global war on terrorism. Part of being a U.S. ally also means sending troops to Iraq, which Mr. Nazarbaev has done by deploying a small mine detection unit. But the second track of Kazakhstan’s foreign policy involves developing the Central Asian region as a strategic and economic space on the basis of interaction with Russia, China and the wider continent of Asia, including India.
For many analysts, China poses the main strategic challenge to Kazakhstan. “China is a great country but a dangerous neighbour,” says Mikhail Auezov, director general of the National Library of Kazakhstan and Kazakhstan’s first Ambassador to Beijing. “I told President Nazarbaev that it is necessary to pay special attention to India because in Eurasia, only India can balance the activities of China.” According to Mr. Auezov, “As a nation, we feel at the instinctive level that India is very close to us. The image of China, on the other hand, is one of danger for the Kazakh people.”
Echoing Mr. Auezov’s characterisation, Kamal Burkhanov, an adviser to Mr. Nazarbaev says: “Even for India, China is a great country but a dangerous neighbour. So for a country with a 15 million population, of course this is true! That is why we try to move quickly to be integrated into the world system, to pursue a multi-vector foreign policy, and support the U.S. and Russian presence in Central Asia. We would also like to support India’s presence in Central Asia and Japan.
If China’s presence — besides economic dynamism — weighs heavily on some analysts, others disagree that Beijing poses a threat to Kazakhstan in any way. “China is not a danger for us,” says Bulat Sultanov of the Institute of World Economy and Policy. “The basis of our security comes from regional and sub-regional cooperation, and China is very much a part of this”.
Providing a guide to the growing alphabet soup of regional organisations in Central Asia, Mr. Bulatov said the “first belt of security” for Kazakhstan is the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), which protects the frontiers of Russia, Belarus, Ukraine and Kazakhstan.
“The second belt is the anti-terrorist, anti-separatist alliance, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), which links us to Russia and China”. Then there is the Conference on Interaction and CBMs in Asia (CICA), of which India is also a part. “Finally, there is the integration process such as CIS, the Eurasian Economic Cooperation (EEC) and Eurasian Economic Space (EES).”
Though the U.S. presence in Central Asia has the negative consequence of making the region a target for Islamic extremists, “there are positive consequences too,” says Mr. Burkhanov. If the U.S. is able to help a country such as Uzbekistan improve economically and go towards democracy, this will help bring stability in the region, he feels.
“The U.S. presence in Central Asia is a reality now, even if it is a delicate issue. We have to think of it as part of the great balance of power here. And also the struggle against terrorism.”
For Askar Shomanov of the Kazakh Institute of Strategic Studies, however, terrorism in places such as Uzbekistan or Tajikistan has social and economic causes. “Terrorism in the Central Asian republics poses a threat because of social problems, with a great part of the population living below the poverty line. Also, the political regimes there are very weak in democratic terms — so opposition can take unstable and terrorist forms.”
By establishing a military presence on the basis of supporting regimes which are not democratic — the British Ambassador to Tashkent was sacked recently for alleging that the U.S. and U.K. were only too happy to have Uzbekistan torture terror suspects for them — Washington might then perhaps be further contributing to inherent instabilities in these countries.
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