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Kazakhstan: Astana Puts New Emphasis On Military

  • Bruce Pannier

Kazakhstan is planning not only to reform its armed forces but reshape them entirely and rebuild a Soviet-era military-industrial complex. Faced with growing regional tensions and hoping to become one of the world's biggest oil producers, Kazakhstan may well feel the need to bolster its military capability. But if successful, this process will change the balance of power in Central Asia and may leave neighbors to the south feeling threatened.

Prague, 17 June 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Like all Central Asian countries, Kazakhstan's military is in the process of reform. The five nations of the region had been forced to place a higher priority on security following incursions by armed Islamic militants in 1999 and 2000 and by the fact that neighboring Afghanistan was governed by the ultraorthodox Taliban from 1996 to 2001.

Kazakhstan seems to be taking the situation seriously, despite the severe crippling of the homegrown Islamic movement and that fact that the Taliban is no longer in power.

In March, Kazakhstan signaled it was seeking to refit some of its air units with U.S. equipment. In addition, a March statement from Kazakhstan's Defense Ministry said the United States was planning to supply the Kazakh military with ships to create a Caspian Sea fleet. The statement also said the two sides discussed future deliveries of Hercules C-130 military cargo aircraft and Huey helicopters.

Defense Minister Mukhtar Altynbaev said a strong Kazakh Navy is very much in the interests of foreign companies with large investments in the country's oil industry.

"Before the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Caspian Sea was monitored by border guards," Altynbaev said. "Now it is up to us, up to the Kazakh Navy. You know that in Kazakhstan, there are many Western, foreign companies doing business, investing large sums of money. They are interested in security in the region, and in order to prevent a decrease in investment, we decided to create a navy."

For Kazakhstan, the price of U.S. help has been simply to allow the U.S.-led coalition fighting terrorism in Afghanistan to use an airfield in Kazakhstan. And Russia appears equally ready to help Kazakhstan, as Altynbaev explained.

"We are going to provide [the U.S.] with use of the Zhetigin air base for free, if they need it. This is one way of assisting them and, in return, the U.S. side promised to give us $10 million, which will mainly be used for increasing the armed forces in western Kazakhstan -- namely the fleet, the navy. But not only the navy because things need to be done on the [Caspian] shore. They also promised to give us a ship for free, a big cargo ship with a capacity of 1,000 tons. Russia is also going to give us a ship for free," Altynbaev said.

Only days after the agreements with the United States, Kazakhstan announced it intends to establish a state-owned company called Kazakhstan Engineering that will bring together 34 defense-industry enterprises.

In April, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev called for the revival of the defense complex, calling it a "top priority." During a visit to the northern industrial city of Pavlodar, Nazarbaev said "industrial development reflects the interests of the Kazakh armed forces."

Nazarbaev also said old arsenals will be restored, new types of weapons will be created and research and development programs will be promoted.

Alex Vatanka, the editor of the London-based "Russia-CIS Security Assessment Binder," part of the Jane's Sentinel group, said the Kazakh armed forces remain in need of improvement, despite an increase in funding and previous attempts at reform.

"Kazakhstan definitely has experienced an increase in expenditure on the armed forces, but if you actually look at reform and expenditure, and then measure that against increase in capabilities, that increase in capability, as far as armed forces are concerned, hasn't been that great. There hasn't been a notable increase in capabilities," Vatanka said.

Kazakhstan's president seems intent on changing that. On 7 May, Nazarbaev marked the Day of the Defender of the Fatherland by saying, "The quality of budget planning should be improved to shift the accent on troops' development, rather than maintaining today's levels."

The Kazakh president said if the Defense Ministry feels it needs more money from the state budget, "the government will consider doing so." Nazarbaev made those remarks as he unveiled the country's new Defense Ministry building in the capital, Astana.

On 20 May, Defense Minister Altynbaev said the re-equipping of the armed forces would firstly affect the country's paratroopers and air-defense personnel. Altynbaev stressed that Kazakhstan was "not going to depend on any other country" in this process.

Defense officials are already talking about selling off old, Soviet-era weaponry and equipment and replacing it with modern, homemade equipment.

That would give Kazakhstan an edge that its neighbors to the south do not possess. Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan are all weapons importers, depending on Russia to sell them the arms and equipment they need. Much of that weaponry dates back to the 1960s and 1970s.

However, the facilities in Kazakhstan that produce weapons are, no doubt, in need of repair. Kazakhstan was one of the key relocation areas for the Soviet military industry during World War II. Later, Kazakhstan was the location for some of the Soviet Union's leading nuclear and biological warfare programs.

No one in Kazakhstan is talking about restoring facilities that produce nuclear or biological weapons. Vatanka explained that such a program makes no sense, particularly since Kazakhstan does not wish to appear to be competing with its giant neighbors to the north and east -- Russia and China.

Vatanka said that, in the short term, there is no good reason for Kazakhstan to increase its military capability. U.S.-led coalition forces are based in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan and an additional layer of security is provided by Russia's 201st Division located in Tajikistan and the soon-to-open base at Kant, Kyrgyzstan, that will host the CIS rapid-reaction force.

Vatanka said, however, that the Kazakh government may have concerns about Uzbekistan. "In the medium to long term, what Kazakhstan would probably seek to do is to put in place measures that effectively seek to reduce the prospects of Uzbekistan consolidating its status as 'big brother' in the region," Vatanka said.

As ever more oil flows out of Kazakhstan along newly built export routes, the country is likely to find it has more than enough money to fund a military. With a relatively small population of 15 million in a country six times the size of France, Kazakhstan has unique military needs.

In addressing its security needs, Kazakhstan would do well to avoid creating a regional arms race, as its southern neighbors will surely keep a close eye on the Kazakh military's progress in rearming and improving itself.

(Merhat Sharipzhan of RFE/RL's Kazakh Service contributed to this report.)