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

Nazarbaev Curries Favour With Moscow

Aggrieved by growing US criticism of his regime, Nazarbaev is transferring his affections to Moscow.
By Amanjol Smagulov

Irritated by constant western criticism of his regime, President Nursultan Nazarbaev has been making ever more frequent visits to Moscow, most recently to meet his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin and attend the opening ceremony of Russia's Year of Kazakstan at the Bolshoi theatre on February 18.


With last year as the Year of the Ukraine, the choice of Kazakstan as the next CIS country to be thus honoured has been viewed by some pundits as a sign of the country's growing importance to Russia. Certainly, many observers expect relations between the two states will become ever warmer this year, a new development as until recently they had not been close.


"Since independence, Kazakstan has been of only peripheral concern to Russia. There hadn't been any particular disputes, but relations had been disintegrating," said political scientist Marat Syzdykov.


The sudden improvement in ties between the two states also bucks a wider trend of Russian indifference towards the CIS. As Alexander Dugin, leader of the Russian Eurasia party pointed out, "There is a general feeling, unfortunately, that the CIS is a burden, from which Russia should maintain a distance."


Russia is thought to be concerned about the division of the northern shelf of the Caspian sea, the future of the Baikonur space centre - which Moscow rents from Astana - problems facing the large Russian diaspora in Kazakstan, the traffic of Afghan drugs through the country and the issue of US military bases in neighbouring Central Asian states.


The two states, which share a huge border, also hold some common concerns. Both are worried by the situation in Iraq and share an interest in maintaining a high price for oil. For Nazarbaev, however, there is another aspect to the deepening friendship with Russia, which is blossoming just as Kazak relations with the US are cooling rapidly.


An open shift in Kazak interest and allegiance was seen after the recent talks between Putin and Nazarbaev, when the creation of a joint enterprise was announced to handle the transit of Kazak oil through Russian territory. "Long term agreements on the transit of oil will save Kazakstan from having to seek alternative routes," Nazarbaev said at the accompanying press conference.


The significance of his words was not lost on commentators. "In this way, the Kazak leader has effectively ruled out the possibility of Astana connecting up with the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, something which the US had been asking of Kazakstan, which, in turn, would have been in direct conflict with Russian interests," said Arkady Dubnov, of the Russian newspaper Vremya Novosti.


Oil already lies behind a noticeable cooling in Kazak-US relations. Tensions first arose when, prompted by the Kazak business elite, Nazarbaev tried to change the conditions of various agreements signed with western companies in the 1990s. Extremely favourable tax breaks for foreign companies had resulted in Astana only receiving a small portion of the revenues raised from mining and transporting domestic oil. Pressure to tip the balance more in the favour of Kazak enterprises is ongoing.


In recent years, various international organisations and politicians have criticised corruption, bribery and the violation of democratic rights in Kazakstan. Concerns over political freedom increased last year when leaders of the Kazak opposition, Galymjan Kakiyanov, former governor of the Pavlodar region and Muktar Abliazov, former minister of industry and trade, were sentenced to lengthy jail sentences.


In Autumn 2001, Phil Ricker, an official representative of the US State Department, and a group of American congressmen accused President Nazarbaev of filling all important posts in the country with members of his family. It was also noted that money from the sale of oil and gas went into a fund called the Foundation for Future Generations, which is also under his control.


"Under heavy pressure from Washington, Nazarbaev now wants to return Kazakstan into the orbit of Russia's strategic interests. He is securing support from Moscow in order to weaken the economic and political influence of the US in Kazakstan," said Russian political scientist Mekhman Gafarly.


Nazarbaev has also been getting a rough ride from Europe recently. On February 13, shortly before his recent visit to Moscow, the European parliament passed a resolution condemning various human rights violations in Kazakstan, including the suppression of opposition activity and the persecution of independent journalists.


The resolution draws particular attention to the case of Sergei Duvanov, a well-known opposition journalist. In January, he was sentenced to three and a half years in prison, after a trial, which his supporters say was politically motivated. The US also commented on the Duvanov case. "Until the Kazak government denies involvement in the attacks on Sergai Duvanov and other journalists, it will not be seen to have fulfilled its obligation to protect journalists in their work," Stefan Minikes, the US representative at the OSCE told the body's permanent council in Vienna on February 18.


In Switzerland and the US, meanwhile, separate independent investigations are underway into what is being dubbed Kazakgate. Oil companies are alleged to have made illegal transfers of money into the personal bank accounts of several members of the country's political elite.


In Moscow, however, Nazarbaev enjoys a good press. Issues such as human rights and corruption are of little concern to Putin, who values the Kazak president as a strong leader.


As Sanobar Shermatova, a journalist for the newspaper Moskovskie Novosti, told the BBC recently, "Moscow is making plans and building economic relations with Central Asia, as a major priority. It is not important to Moscow what Central Asian leaders do with their opposition. (As a result) trust in the Kremlin is increasing and Russia is using this to strengthen its ties."


Amanjol Smagulov is a pseudonym for a journalist in Kazakstan.


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