Kazaks Cautious About Russia-Georgia Dispute

Opinions vary as to whether Kazak economic retreat from Georgia was result of pro-Moscow politics or pragmatism.

Kazaks Cautious About Russia-Georgia Dispute

Opinions vary as to whether Kazak economic retreat from Georgia was result of pro-Moscow politics or pragmatism.

Wednesday, 15 October, 2008
In the wake of the recent Russian-Georgian conflict, Kazakstan has been steering a cautious diplomatic path between supporting its traditional ally Russia and maintaining good relations with western states.

While Kazakstan has pulled out of a number of economic contracts with Georgia, analysts note that officials have made much play of their government’s policy of maintaining diverse or “multi-vector” political relationships so as not to be forced to come down on one side or the other.

Comments made by Foreign Minister Marat Tazhin during an October 5 press conference with US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in Astana are a prime example of this balancing act.

“It's very important that relations with the United States and Russia are good,'' said Tazhin. “Russia is our strategic partner,” he said, adding that the relationship with Washington was “stable and strategic”.

Unlike other Central Asian leaders, Kazak president Nursultan Nazarbaev publicly backed Moscow following its military incursion into Georgia. (For the muted reaction from the August 28 meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, see Moscow Fails to Win Over Regional Allies, RCA No. 549, 05-Sep-08.)

Kazakstan did not, however, follow Russia’s example in recognising the independence of the two breakaway republics, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, on August 26.

Foreign Minister Tazhin explained that his country believed in maintaining the territorial integrity of sovereign states, the main principle of the international law. Speaking at a meeting hosted by a Washington-based think tank, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, on October 2, he insisted that “double standards must not be applied”.

“We did not recognise Kosovo, and we did not recognise Abkhazia and South Ossetia,” he explained.

Local analysts point out that Moscow’s use of military force in a neighbouring state, and its argument that it had the right to intervene on behalf of the many South Ossetians who had taken out Russian citizenship, sets an alarming precedent for the other former Soviet states. Kazakstan, for example, has a substantial Russian minority concentrated in the north of the country.

“Of course the countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States are dependent on Russia politically and economically,” said Sergey Duvanov, a political analyst in Kazakstan. “I think that political elites in these countries are facing legitimate questions about whether Russian could present a potential threat to them. We understand that Ukraine and its [substantially Russian] eastern regions and Crimea are next in line. After that, there might well be questions about northern Kazakhstan – why not?”

Duvanov said the precedent had been set, although whether Moscow chose to use it would depend on “how the political situation develops and how the rulers of these countries behave”.

“Everyone has now seen how the mechanism for pressuring them works in reality,” he continued. “It used to be economic forms [of pressure], but now it’s about protecting their [Russian] citizens in neighbouring states. I’m not saying this is going to happen; I am saying this factor is now a reality.”

If Kazakstan sought a middle way on the diplomatic front, it took more decisive action on economic matters, withdrawing from investment projects including plans to build a grain terminal in the port city of Poti and an oil refinery in Batumi, further south on the Black Sea coast.

Kazakstan is Georgia’s biggest investor after the United States, and despite its denials, these project cancellations have been seen by some analysts as tacit support for Moscow’s economic boycott of the Caucasian state.

A representative of the state oil and gas company Kazmunaigaz, who asked to remain anonymous, told IWPR, “The decision not to build a refinery in Batumi has nothing to do with politics; it is a purely economic decision that has to do with the purchase of a similar plant in Romania.”

In a related move, the Kazak authorities halted oil supplies to the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline, the only route by which Caspian crude can reach western markets without going through Russia. After Kazak oil crossed the Caspian by tanker, it entered a pipeline running from Azerbaijan to Turkey via Georgia. The Kazmunaigaz representative noted that the route was shut down for 15 days because of the conflict.

The Kazmunaigaz official said a round of talks in late September resulted in a proposal from Moscow that the oil should be diverted to pipelines running across Russian territory, already the main route for Kazakstan’s crude exports.

Once again, it was hard to disentangle politics from the Kazaks’ natural reluctance to operate in a high-risk environment in which their economic interests might suffer.

“I see it as a desire to sit between two stools,” said Duvanov. “On the one hand, Kazakstan strikes a compromise and shows Russia it’s ready to cooperate on an economic boycott in Georgia, while on the other, it refrains from making critical remarks about what happened in Georgia.”

Other observers, however, argue that Kazakstan’s disengagement from Georgia were dictated by economic interest alone.

“Putting money into Georgia, in the state that it’s currently in, is a fairly risky business,” said Anton Morozov of the Kazakstan Institute for Strategic Studies. “Of course Kazakstan has lost out by turning down the [grain] terminal and refinery construction work. But if we were to invest money in them right now, it’s uncertain how much we might lose in the future,”

Political scientist Viktor Kovtunovsky predicted that Kazakstan’s position might change again in future.

“The serious outflow of investment from Georgia was due to political instability,” he said. “If the situation in Georgia becomes [more] favourable, investments will come pouring back in.”

Kovtunovsky added that it was important for the Georgians not to misread Kazakstan’s intentions, as any reciprocal action they took might derail future economic cooperation between the two states.

Anton Dosybiev is an IWPR-trained journalist in Kazakstan.

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