In its 20 years since independence, Kazakhstan has emerged as an economic and political power in the region and beyond. Most recently, the country’s ambitions have been evidenced in its commitment to strategic dialogue initiatives, where it aims to serve as an economic, political, security and cultural bridge in world affairs.
By Roman Muzalevsky for ISN Insights
Kazakhstan’s economic capabilities and political influence have grown considerably since the 1990s, although the country still confronts the challenge of building a more diversified market economy and more vibrant democratic polity. As the world’s ninth largest country with a population of15.5 million, resource-rich Kazakhstan boasts a$ 193.8 billion economy – bigger than the four other Central Asian economies combined. It is among the world’s top oil and gas producers (25th in gas, 18th in oil) and is contiguous with the Caspian region believed to contain the world’s largest deposits of oil and gas after the Persian Gulf and Russia. Its people today enjoy an estimated average GDP per capita of$12,500, far larger than the$1,647 in 1990. Kazakhstan has also expanded trade and investment, furthering its integration into the global economy – evidenced by the strong impact of the global financial crisis on its domestic economy, its new membership in theCustoms Union and its plans to join the WTO.
Kazakhstan’s location, resources, relatively effective public institutions and fairly stable socio-economic conditions have ensured these domestic gains and facilitated the country’s efforts to serve as an economic, political, security and cultural ‘bridge’ in world affairs.
Kazakhstan is evolving as a focal point in Eurasia for rapidly growing inter-continental trade and energy linkages. It is stimulating the flow of goods and services across Central Asia to involve neighboring Russia in the North, the dynamic but energy-dependent EU to the West, rapidly rising yet strategically competitive China and India in Southeast Asia, and emerging but arguably revisionist Turkey in the already volatile Middle East. Currently, Kazakhstan exports its energy resources to China and Russia, while serving as a transit territory for the Turkmenistan-China gas pipeline. It is also interested in joining the Nabucco gas pipeline scheme to bring Caspian hydrocarbons directly to the EU. Recently, the Kazakh government secured a $2 billion loan from the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development for the $5.32 billion Western Europe-Western China transport corridor project.
Promoting strategic dialogue
The country’s geographic reach and overall economic potential, including its ability to serve as a transit point, complements and enhances its promising ability to pursue strategic bridge initiatives to secure its own position on the global stage while promoting the interests of other actors. This particularly concerns the country’s role in advancing a dialogue agenda at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), where Astana’s active involvement is not only reflective of Kazakhstan’s rising regional profile but also of its unique position as the country with a secular government, largely Muslim, but ethnically and religiously diverse society and relatively modern emerging economy. All of these characteristics have co-existed in what is still a young nation-state – despite countercurrents in the form of rising nationalism and a rigid political landscape – allowing it to exercise an active role in the OSCE, SCO and OIC.
Advancing ‘indivisible security’ from Vancouver to Vladivostok
Indeed, on 1-2 December, Astana hosted the OSCE’s Heads of State Summit to address the most pressing security challenges spanning North America and Eurasia from Vancouver to Vladivostok. The meeting was organized for the first time in 11 years. But the summit was unique for another reason, as Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev himself stated: “The uniqueness of our summit … [is that] it is taking place in the heart of Eurasia, a thousand miles from the geographical boundaries of Europe. This above all reflects the changed paradigm of European security.”
The summit also emphasized the need for tolerance and stability in Central Asia, which has seen violence in southern Kyrgyzstan in 2010 and has faced security challenges centered on Afghanistan.
Kazakhstan believes it is essential to advance ‘indivisible security’ in the Euro-Atlantic region and Eurasia. In his address to 56 OSCE member-states, Nazarbaev put the mission of the organization and his country this way: “Following the fall of the Berlin Wall, Europe was reunited. I am of the opinion that today we are demolishing another wall – the wall between Europe and Asia.”
While this goal has yet to be achieved, Astana could play an important role in the process, just as it did when it agreed to forgo the world’s fourth largest nuclear arsenal in the 1990s as part of the global efforts to stem WMD proliferation. Today, it seeks to further support security and strategic dialogue between and within the Euro-Atlantic zone and Eurasia.
Building security bridges between Eurasia, the Middle East and Southeast Asia
Kazakhstan also relies on the SCO to build security bridges in a post-Soviet space that is rapidly expanding to accommodate the interests of new actors from Southeast Asia and the Middle East. Created in 2001, the SCO is a regional body made up of China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, with Iran, India, Mongolia and Pakistan holding observer status. As of 2007, SCO members and observers possessed17.5 percent of the world’s known oil reserves,47-50 percent of its natural gas reserves, and 45 percent of its population. Like the OSCE, the SCO has long faced pressures from within and without, preventing the group from fully utilizing its declared goals of deepening political, security and economic ties.
Yet many view the platform afforded by the SCO as necessary to promote security in the broader region known best for instability in Afghanistan, tense Indo-Pakistani and Uzbek-Tajik ties, and strategically competitive engagements among India, China, Russia and the US. In this context, Kazakhstan seems to be positioning itself as an advocate of another regional security dialogue. On 22-23 February, it hosted an international security forum in the SCO framework, and will soon host the anniversary meeting of the SCO Council of Heads of States, which will take place in Astana on 15 June.
Supporting religious dialogue between the West and the Muslim world
Kazakhstan has made further attempts to encourage strategic dialogue by chairing the OIC this coming June. The OIC consists of 57 countries whose combined population represents more than one fifth of the world’s total. Astana views its role in the OIC as highly relevant and constructive in the midst of recent protests across the Muslim world, and given the need to promote civilizational, security and religious dialogue within and between the Muslim and the Western world.
To do so, Kazakhstan will count on its own unique historical, social and economic experience. Not only is it a multi-religious society with a largely Muslim population, but it has also been fairly successful in preserving social stability, resting on a modernizing, albeit still transitioning, economy and multiple, yet still evolving, ethnic, national and religious identities. Home to 130 ethnic groups and more than 4,000 religious associations representing 46 faiths , Astana last year initiated and secured UN approval to make 2010 the International Year for the Rapprochement of Cultures.
At the OIC, Kazakhstan will most likely attempt to build deeper relations between Central Asia and the larger Muslim world, while promoting women’s rights and cooperation between the OSCE and OIC, not least on inter-faith issues, as well as security issues, such as narcotics trafficking, the war in Afghanistan, and transnational terrorism. As Secretary General of the OIC Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu observed, “The goals and objectives of the OIC are not much different from those of the OSCE, as both our organizations are devoted to the cause of international peace and security.” Astana’s Chairmanship of the OSCE in 2010 and OIC in 2011 could facilitate this very synergy between the countries of these two groups.
Kazakhstan’s success hinges on long-term cooperation among numerous actors, a challenge given that many of them exhibit conflicting interests. Kazakhstan also still has a long way to go to further its domestic and foreign agendas – but its strategic dialogue initiatives to build more bridges to the world demonstrate that progress is possible.
Roman Muzalevsky is a writer on Eurasian affairs and security for the Jamestown Foundation in Washington, DC. He holds a Master’s in International Affairs with a concentration in Security and Strategy Studies from Yale University. He can be reached at [email protected] This article was published by International Relations and Security Network (ISN)