Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Kazakstan Braces Itself for Gulf Trouble

Government rachets up security as Iraq war rumbles on - but the conflict's economic repercussions could be more worrisome.
By Amanjol Smagulov

The authorities, fearful of the war against Iraq spilling over into Kazakstan, have put the country on high alert.

At the same time, officials are maintaining a cautious approach to the conflict, concerned over Washington's failure to acquire UN approval for military action but anxious not to appear too critical of an ally on which it increasingly depends.

Analysts and the public at large, meanwhile, have expressed concern that the war could have a severe impact on the economy. The government, however, remains confident that the country will not suffer financially, in the short term at least.

The authorities tightened security measures even before the start of Anglo-American military push into Iraq. The defence ministry increased radar monitoring of air space and placed anti-aircraft defences on alert.

They also held anti-terrorist and anti-sabotage manoeuvres and conducted biological protection measures in several regions. At the same time, the interior ministry tightened security around embassies and other strategic sites.

Military chiefs said these were preventative measures, intended to protect the country against possible accidents connected to the war. Kazakstan is about 1,500 km from Iraq - so could conceivably be hit by a stray Tomahawk rocket.

The government has been publicly cautious about the conflict; it wants no spats with its new US ally, partly because American companies are responsible for a significant proportion of foreign investment.

On March 18, two days before hostilities began, the foreign ministry confirmed it believed the Iraq conflict needed to be solved solely by peaceful methods, with UN involvement.

Astana balanced this nod to Muslim opinion by blaming the Iraqi leader, Saddam Hussein, attacking his role as "unconstructive". It made an additional curtsey to Washington, reaffirming that Kazakstan was "devoted to the basic principles of cooperation with the US".

The public does not share the government's carefully nuanced position. Recent surveys said more than 60 per cent of residents in Almaty, the largest city, blamed the US for the war, charging it with wanting to gain control over Iraqi oil and dictate to the international community.

Some 70 per cent said they feared the war would have a negative impact on Kazakstan, with about 54 per cent expressing strong fears over the economy and living standards.

A swift American victory, some observers here believe, will bring Iraq's huge oil resources under US control, lessening its need to develop the petroleum sector in Kazakstan - the country's main source of revenue.

A decrease in demand would also damage oil-exporting Russia, which might, in turn, choose to block Astana's access to world markets by obstructing Kazak pipelines running across its territory.

A worsening of the Russian economy could tempt Moscow to toughen its immigration policy, which would affect Kazakstan, the state with the largest land border with Russia. Seasonal labour migrants from Central Asia may be diverted to Kazakstan in search of work if they are unable to enter Russia.

Analysts at the Kazakstan Assessment Risk Group, ARG, are warning that an economic downturn caused by the war in Iraq will inevitably have a knock-on effect on living standards, triggering cuts in social welfare programmes and in spending on schools, science and defence - potentially heightening social tension.

Some suggest the high cost of financing the conflict will result in Washington cutting aid programmes elsewhere, drastically reducing the activity of American-financed NGOs based here.

But if the war in Iraq drags on, the analysts say Kazakstan stands to benefit. In this scenario, oil prices rise and Astana enjoys a window of opportunity to consolidate its position as a major international oil exporter.

Officials insist that whatever happens in Iraq, the Kazak economy will not suffer in 2003. The chairman of the National Bank, Grigory Marchenko, has repeated this claim, predicting no major drop in oil prices this year.

Marchenko bases his optimism in part on the so-called National Fund, which contains around 2 billion US dollars. The bank chief says this is enough to cushion the Kazak budget from spending cuts for at least two years, even if oil prices fall significantly.

On the political front, ARG experts predict war in Iraq will deal a fresh blow to opposition groups, which have already been effectively abandoned by Washington. They have lost out from the US doctrine hatched since the Al-Qaeda attack on New York and Washington, which tolerates local elites in Central Asia in exchange for their support in the fight against terrorism.

But opposition politicians are warning Nazarbaev that if he continues his authoritarian ways he will ultimately face the same fate as the Baghdad leader.

"What's happening to Saddam Hussein and his regime should be a clear sign to everyone that sooner or later all dictatorships will be overthrown," said Pyotr Svoik, of the Democratic Choice of Kazakstan.

Nurbolat Masanov, head of the Kazakstan association of political science, strikes a similar line. "A dictatorial regime will be punished and democracy will triumph," he said. "The Kazak government needs to learn a lesson from this and enter into dialogue with the opposition."

Amanjol Smagulov is the pseudonym for a journalist in Almaty

More IWPR's Global Voices