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by James Corbett
13 December, 2011
The large, sparsely-populated nation of Kazakhstan has become in recent years the poster child of a new type of geopolitics: only celebrating its 20th year since declaring independence from the Soviet Union, with a population of just 16 million, this unlikely Central Asian state is gradually becoming a dominant player in the region for its rich oil and gas reserves and its strategic position as a key land bridge between Europe and Asia.
Part of the so-called “New Silk Road” countries facilitating trade between East Asia and Western Europe, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan are assuming a new role in international relations as they become more important in trans-continental trade and as their energy resources are opened up to foreign business interests. Chief amongst these emerging lynchpin countries is Kazakhstan, a nation whose international star is rising as it adds its recent chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the world’s largest regional security pact to its growing list of organizational affiliations, including its seat at the UN, the Commonwealth of Independent States, the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council, and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, as well as its partnership action plan with NATO.
A dictatorship in all but name, the country has been ruled by President Nursultan Nazarbayev for the entirety of its 20 years of independence. Opposition parties do not hold a single seat in the country’s parliament. As a result, Nazarbayev has become the face of Kazakhstan on the international stage, enjoying photo ops and attention from American, Russian, Chinese and other heads of state, who are increasingly courting Kazakhstan for access to its resources and transportation corridors.
What this growing prestige and international importance points to is a tug-of-war of sorts that is happening as the country positions itself in an emerging power struggle between the East and West. What is emerging is something akin to a game of chess, where one player positions one piece on the board only to have the other player match that effort. Only in this case, the players squaring off are the NATO countries and the East Asian nations, the board is Kazakhstan itself, and the game is for control of Kazakhstan’s resources and trade routes.
In 2009, Kazakhstan inaugurated a new gas pipeline linking the country to China, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. But in recent months, the European union has been increasing pressure on Kazakhstan to come on board with its proposed Trans-Caspian pipeline project.
The Kazakhstani military has been conducting joint military exercises with the US under the American International Military Education and Training Program since the mid-1990s, but in recent years Kazakhstan has become host to joint Shanghai Cooperation Organization military drills under the auspices of an increasingly militarized SCO partnership.
For years now, Kazakhstan has been a key part of the so-called Northern Distribution Network, or NDN, a supply route for NATO forces in Afghanistan that has become essential now that Pakistan has closed its borders to NATO in the wake of a recent air strike that left 26 Pakistani military personnel dead. Just last year, the Kazakhstani government allowed US military overflights of its air space, another essential step for American access to its Afghan theatre of operations.
However, earlier this month Kazakhstan became even more closely linked with China via a new railway link.
For the time being, President Nazarbayev seems to be content to play both sides of the game against each other for his own benefit. However, as with any authoritarian, Nazarbayev is facing increasing opposition from a public that is sick of seeing its country’s wealth and resources sold out to the highest bidder.
For now, it remains unclear where this terror is coming from or how it is being funded, but one fact is all too clear: the uneasy alliance it has struck with both the West and the East is a delicate balancing act, one that both sides are eager to see tipped in their favor.
In the end, it is to be expected that the West will attempt to use a carrot-and-stick approach to bring Kazakhstan more fully in line with European and American interests, offering international prestige and sweetheart deals with one hand, and veiled threats with the other.
The possibility remains that, just as The Eyeopener previously documented in the Caucasus, the West may in fact work with, fund, arm, or train Islamic radicals in Kazakhstan as a proxy strike force for terrorizing the country should they stray too far from Washington’s agenda.
Given the strategic importance of Kazakhstan and its vast, still largely untapped oil, gas and mineral reserves, it is likely that the country will continue to rise in importance on the political stage and become more of a focus of western interest. And given what the loss of such a strategic partner would mean for the western powers, expect reports of violence, terror, and internal dissent to rise as Kazakhstan increasingly turns toward China in the elaborate chess game of regional geopolitics.