President Nursultan Nazarbayev's administration in Kazakhstan has received a diplomatic boost from Russia, as Astana strives to convene a summit of Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe member states.
Nazarbayev traveled to Moscow for February 14-15 meetings with Russian leaders. He achieved a key objective by winning an endorsement from Russian President Dmitry Medvedev for the summit. "I would like to wish Kazakhstan a successful OSCE chairmanship. . . . We are ready in every way to help Kazakhstan carry out joint initiatives," Medvedev said at his February 14 meeting with Nazarbayev, in remarks distributed by the Kremlin.
Kazakhstan, which assumed the OSCE chair on January 1, has been engaged in intensive lobbying for a summit. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Hosting what would be the first OSCE summit since 1999 would be a diplomatic coup for Nazarbayev's administration. The United States has so far been reluctant to give its consent. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Kazakhstan suggests topping the agenda of the proposed summit with Afghanistan, where Astana's position is in line with Moscow's: both say a military solution is not feasible and are urging greater attention to humanitarian assistance. Showing it means business, Kazakhstan has allocated almost $4 million for Afghan reconstruction over recent years, and is inviting Afghan specialists to study in Kazakh universities at a cost to the Kazakh state of about $50 million.
Meeting Nazarbayev on February 15, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin called for Astana to re-focus the OSCE agenda back onto security. "This is the first time a country from the post-Soviet space has headed this international organization," Putin said in remarks quoted on the Russian government website. "We are all very much counting on it [the OSCE] acquiring a genuinely universal nature during Kazakhstan's chairmanship and dealing with those questions for which it was set up."
Putin's remarks reflected Moscow's view that the OSCE has a Western bias. They also echoed comments by Nazarbayev in January, when he urged the West to abandon stereotypes about former Soviet states. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Underscoring the diplomatic coziness between the two capitals, Nazarbayev told Putin: "Meeting at the beginning of the year with you and the Russian president, I think we are, as always, synchronizing our watches." Such statements may heighten concerns among some member states that Moscow is exerting behind-the-scenes influence on Kazakhstan's OSCE chairmanship.
Kazakhstan's administration, however, is also working strenuously to demonstrate its independence and has pledged to use its OSCE chairmanship to bridge divides, a role it says it is well suited for precisely because of its strong relationship with Russia.
Its diplomatic skills are presently being tested in the South Caucasus, where Foreign Minister Kanat Saudabayev is on a fact-finding mission to discuss frozen conflicts in the breakaway regions of Nagorno-Karabakh, South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Russia recognized the independence of the latter two in the wake of its war with Georgia over South Ossetia in 2008; on February 17, Saudabayev said Kazakhstan recognized Georgia's territorial integrity as a "constant," a clear hint that Astana's position diverges from Moscow's. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Putin used his meeting with Nazarbayev to take a swipe at fellow OSCE member state Ukraine, with which Russia has had prickly relations since the 2005 Orange Revolution. Congratulating Viktor Yanukovych on his apparent presidential election victory, he attacked the "quasi-revolutionary events" of 2005. "The leaders of this 'colored revolution' at the time took advantage of people's dissatisfaction, of people's expectations, of expectations of change," Putin said. "Incidentally, all these expectations were not actually fulfilled, and the people's hopes were deceived." Nazarbayev maintained a diplomatic silence on Ukrainian politics, agreeing only that the two leaders should congratulate Yanukovych.
Russian media reports suggested that Nazarbayev, while in Moscow, used his diplomatic skills to paper over a rift in the newly minted Customs Union involving Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus. Soon after the Customs Union agreement went into effect on January 1, a row between Russia and Belarus erupted over oil export duties. "Relations between Moscow and Minsk are not straightforward, and the figure of Nursultan Nazarbayev is successful for 'shuttle diplomacy,'" the Russian newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta quoted Yuri Solozobov, the Russian National Strategy Institute's director of international programs, as saying. "With his [Nazarbayev's] assistance it is possible to try and resolve problems that have arisen and quickly accumulated within the Customs Union."
The controversy stems from action taken in January by Russia, which slapped an export duty of $270.79 per ton on petroleum products to Belarus and imposed the same levy on Kazakhstan on February 1. The move restricted supplies of Russian oil to Kazakh refineries and drove up fuel prices. Five days later the tax was abolished for Kazakhstan and supplies resumed, while Russia and Belarus reached agreement on duty-free supplies of petroleum products to Minsk for domestic consumption only, with taxes on supplies for re-export.
The spat underlined the teething troubles of the Customs Union, which has not been universally welcomed. Kazakhstani manufacturers are concerned that they will be unable to compete with imports from more powerful Russian producers, and Russian importers are worried that Kazakhstan's lower tax burden will encourage entrepreneurs importing goods from third countries to clear customs in Kazakhstan, rather than Russia. There has also been controversy over Russia using the Customs Union as a negotiating tool in its World Trade Organization entry bid, first saying the three states would enter as a bloc, then vacillating before dropping the idea.
Joanna Lillis is a freelance writer who specializes in Central Asia.