How Kazakh Envoy Prevented Putin’s Plans On Joint Russian-Kazakh Protection Of Kazakhstan’s External Borders From Being Realized – OpEd


After the USSR dissolution in 1991, the Russian leadership recognized the sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity of all five Central Asian countries, each of which had previously had the status of a full Soviet Socialist Republic. Yet, they continued viewing them as remaining within Moscow’s orbit, as part of what President Vladimir Putin later declared Russia’s ‘zone of privileged interest’

Particularly tough was and partly still is their grip on Kazakhstan. Once the Kazakh land was used by Russia as a base to invade the rest of Central Asia, now the Russian leaders see Kazakhstan as the foothold they need to have to sustain the other four countries of the region under their control. 

Such is the force of inertia. From the traditional Russian point of view, the notion of ‘Central Asia’ actually doesn’t cover Kazakhstan, or even if it does, just partly. Such an understanding provides a framework for practical policies and strategies. During the Soviet period, Moscow always referred to the region as ‘Central Asia and Kazakhstan’. After the USSR dissolved, some Russian statesmen and politicians began to propagate a scornful attitude toward Kazakhstan, positioning it as a kind of docile client state of Russia.  

Continuing to treat Kazakhstan the way presented above, Russian political elites seem to have decided that the Central Asian Republic, along with Belarus and Ukraine, should somehow be brought back under Moscow’s control.

In February 2003, the Kremlin initiated a process of creating a single economic space (CES) consisting of Belarus, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and the Russian Federation to translate that concept into reality. In May 2014, it began to directly set up its Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) with the same goal in mind. The idea of establishing such a single space seemed to be a very significant initiative in its original form because it envisaged knitting together the CIS’s four largest economies and sealing their external borders, including the ones between Kazakhstan and the rest of Central Asia. For, the same year, in 2003, a serious attempt was made to place the latter squarely on the agenda of negotiations between Russia and Kazakhstan. To this end, the preparatory activities were undertaken. It was expected that a treaty between the Russian Federation and the Republic of Kazakhstan on the joint Russian-Kazakh protection of the latter’s external borders would be signed at the 1st Russia-Kazakhstan interregional cooperation forum with the participation of their presidents, Putin and Nazarbayev, which took place in April of that year in Omsk. Yet they didn’t got to that. It was later revealed that Kazakh officials weren’t ready to consider such a document, let alone to sign it. 

This author, while being a journalist, learned about how things concerning this matter had at the time been unfolding from Altynbek Sarsenbayev, who was Kazakhstan’s Ambassador to Moscow from 2002 to 2003, and tragically passed away in February 2006 at the age of 43. That conversation took place in October of 2005, at the headquarters of the party, that he at the time led together with three other persons.

Arriving in Omsk before the start of the first Forum of Interregional Cooperation, which was to be held on April 15, 2003, the Kazakh Ambassador to Moscow encountered at the venue of the event Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Kazakhstan – Chairman of the Committee on CIS Affairs and Regional Cooperation, Nurlan Onzhanov. The latter had 10 years previously been an assistant to Altynbek Sarsenbayev, then Kazakhstan’s Minister of Press and Information. Seizing the opportunity, Altynbek Sarsenbayev asked that he be shown the drafts of the agreements, which were due for signing during the Forum. First Nurlan Onzhanov, as it was stated,  was reluctant to do what the Ambassador asked. But then he showed the latter those draft agreements. Thus, Altynbek Sarsenbayev became aware of the draft treaty between the Russian Federation and the Republic of Kazakhstan on the joint Russian-Kazakh protection of Kazakhstan’s external borders. “What then I did, doesn’t matter.  The most important thing is that this agreement wasn’t signed”, Altynbek Sarsenbayev said then. “On the way back to Moscow, I was on the plane with German Gref. He asked me why President Putin had looked so upset at the end of the event. I said I didn’t know”.

At that meeting, this author asked if he had to write about this case and was told this could be done sometime later.

A lot of time has gone by since then, but the question of where should Russia wall itself off Central Asia has stayed there throughout that period. Different variants of the problem solution were discussed in Russia. There were also suggestions about the implementation of the visa regime not only for Uzbek, Tajik, Kyrgyz, and Turkmen citizens but also for Kazakhstani ones, too, for crossing their borders with the Russian Federation. Here is an example.

While being interviewed by (“Politically, I am trying to be as transparent as possible”) on April 15, 2017, Alexei Navalny, answering the question, “The Chelyabinsk region is bordered by Kazakhstan. Do you still think it necessary to introduce a visa regime with Central Asia?”, said the following: “Yes, and this is an important point of my program. I am admitting that there is no big problem with Kazakhstan concerning migration – there is a fairly high standard of living in that country, and Kazakhs aren’t fleeing to Russia with a view to making 5 thousand roubles a month. But it’s a transit country. I do not see anything offensive about the visa regime. There isn’t anything frightening about it. There isn’t anything wrong with it. Between us and Europe, there is a visa regime, too. There is chaos in the migration policy for the time being, no one has a clear picture of the real quantity of migrants. It doesn’t have to be this way. And we need to advocate the idea of visa-free travel between Russia and Europe. It’s the right and logical thing to do, because Russia is a European country”.

As to the question on the introduction of the visa regime between Kazakhstan and Russia, raised by Alexei Navalny almost 7 years ago, it’s still not as simple as that. Kazakhstan is a full member of the Russia-led five-member EEU, which also embraces Belarus, Armenia, and Kyrgyzstan. A single market for goods, services, capital, and labor is at the heart of the Eurasian integration process. 

But now after the Crocus City Hall events, Putin may have to face the imperative to do what Alexei Navalny at the time offered to do.

It is other times, and one must be able to adapt to them.

Akhas Tazhutov

Akhas Tazhutov is a political analyst from Kazakhstan.

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