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Kazakstan Courts Moscow

Kazakstan jeopardises relations with its Central Asian neighbours in an attempt to strengthen ties with Russia
By Andrei Chebotarev

Kazakstan last month banned trains from Tajikstan and Uzbekistan, in the latest sign of shifting allegiances in the Central Asian region.


On the face of it, Kazakstan has some justification for its sanction. Kazak inspectors say they are constantly catching Tajiks travelling without tickets and documents, or with excess baggage. They have similar complaints about Uzbek trains.


However, the order to ban the trains came not from Astana but the Russian Ministry of Transport.


The episode provides further evidence that Kazakstan is keen to strengthen ties with Moscow at the expense of good relations with its Central Asian partners.


Following President Vladimir Putin's recent visit, and a high-profile meeting here on joint security, Russian-Kazak relations have warmed considerably.


At the same time, as independent journalist Slujan Ismailova notes, Russia's previously friendly relations with Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan have cooled, leaving room for Astana to become Moscow's key strategic partner in the region.


Both Russia and Kazakstan are keen to impose transport restrictions in an effort to clamp-down on the smuggling of narcotics and contraband - which in the past has been a source of tension between the two countries.


Drugs from Afghanistan pass through Central Asia before reaching Russia and Western Europe. Tajikistan is said to have some of the most porous borders. Russian frontier guards in Tajikistan this year seized 2,404kg of raw opium and 544kg of heroin.


Another big problem for Kazakstan is illegal migration. The authorities rarely manage to stem the flow, though in one rare crackdown last year, large numbers of Tajik Romany - accused of widespread begging and theft - were repatriated.


But the most sensitive issue for Russia is the transit through Kazak territory of Islamic extremists. Coming from Afghanistan, Pakistan, China and some Central Asian republics, they make their way to Chechnya to support the separatist movement there.


According to political analyst Umbetalieva Tolganai, the Kazak train ban is also a way of striking back at Uzbekistan.


Astana blames its neighbour for making economic and political decisions which have adversely affected Kazakstan. Despite a range of formal agreements, disputes between the two regularly flare up over borders, customs, visas and other matters.


In January, Uzbekistan imposed a $300 transit tax on all cargo vehicles. In July, Kazakstan cut off Uzbekistan's telephone network.


Uzbekistan and Tajikistan's economies will be hit hard by the train ban, as much of their exports leave the country by rail. In retaliation, Tashkent may well exploit the fact it supplies Kazakstan's gas.


Manipulating gas prices or threatening to cut it off altogether are powerful bargaining tools as winter approaches.


Dushanbe has no such leverage, but its leaders are still making their feelings known. Even though Tajikistan declared the rail dispute to be of a technical, not political, nature, it was described as a serious blow to relations with Astana nonetheless.


Both Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, which owe Kazakstan substantial sums of money, will probably hasten to make good their debts in order to avoid an escalation of the dispute.


Negotiations may succeed in getting the ban removed in exchange for some other, unspecified concession. Alternatively, Kazakstan may bow to pressure from Uzbekistan.


Meanwhile, outside the political arena, these games are no fun for the citizens of Central Asian states. Uzbek and Tajiks, including ethnic Russians, have no way of reaching Russia except by air, which they can ill afford. As one pensioner gloomily pointed out, all the recent friendship agreements between the three Central Asian seem now seem meaningless.


Andrei Chebotarev is an analyst with the Centre for Political research in Almaty.


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