Nazarbaev Granted New Military Powers

President of Kazakstan prepares to send armed forces abroad to suppress Islamic fundamentalist insurgency

Nazarbaev Granted New Military Powers

President of Kazakstan prepares to send armed forces abroad to suppress Islamic fundamentalist insurgency

President Nursultan Nazarbaev of Kazakstan has equipped himself with powers to send troops abroad to combat Muslim fundamentalist guerrillas in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

His newly acquired mandate was rubber-stamped by a compliant parliament on November 9, but critics complain that building up the armed forces to fight such campaigns would drain the country's overstretched economy.

In its present state, critics say, the army is too poorly led, badly trained and lacking in morale to cope with foreign excursions.

Nazarbaev's new powers are linked to a treaty between Kazakstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan on joint actions against terrorism, political and religious extremism and organised crime.

Under Kazakstan's constitution, only parliament has the right to dispatch the army abroad. The head of state can merely propose such a course of action. In practice, though, the assembly can do little to turn down presidential requests.

It is clear that Nazarbaev's actions were conditioned by events in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, where prolonged armed conflicts raged between the authorities and fighters from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan in August of this year.

Although authorities in both countries were able to stabilise the situation, there was clearly no guarantee that Islamic extremists would end their hostilities. Astana could not fail to be disturbed by fighting so close to its borders and by the presence of Islamic fundamentalists in the south of the country.

Political scientist Tolgonai Umbetalieva says Kazakstan is linked to the other two states by a series of shared economic and political interests, and therefore has an obligation to provide its neighbours with assistance.

When fighting last flared-up in Central Asia, Astana helped Kyrgyzstan, in the form of technical military help, such as maps, warm clothing and munitions plus some air patrols over the mountain territories on the borders with Kazakstan. There was no talk at that time of sending troops into Kyrgyzstan.

On military issues, the Kazakstan constitution gives a head of state wide powers. He is the commander-in-chief, he can appoint and remove army commanders and he can introduce a state of emergency and begin partial or total mobilisation.

Although parliament is supposed to resolve issues of war and peace, it can in reality do very little on its own in the military-defence sphere. The president also has a veto on any laws concerning defence and security that parliament might introduce on its own account.

Kazak and foreign experts argue that low levels of combat readiness mean the army is incapable of effectively defending the interests of Kazakstan. In addition, the defence forces are short of arms and equipment. Increasingly, weapons and military hardware are being put into long-term storage and frequently sold off.

The actions of the president and parliament have not found popular support among ordinary people.

Housewife Lubov Ustinova, whose son will be conscripted into the army next year, believes sending Kazak soldiers to war in neighbouring countries is immoral. It is one thing to defend one's homeland against aggression, entirely another to fight for someone else, she said.

In the past, Kazaks have experienced the sorry consequences of "complying with international duties" in Afghanistan. It seems that everything is turning full circle.

Private entrepreneur Kenesbai Jumaly, who often visits Uzbekistan on business, notes that many Muslims who took part fighting in the Batken region of Kyrgyzstan last year were poverty-stricken rural and urban folk who had been forced into the ranks of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan by injustices and persecution suffered at the hands of local authorities and police. Uzbeks should solve their own problems, Jumaly declared.

Andrei Chebotarev is a regular IWPR contributor.

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