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Russia/Kazakhstan: New Phase Emerges In Mutual Misunderstanding

Prague, 9 July 1997 (RFE/RL) - The latest developments in relations between Kazakhstan and Russia indicate that the "old friends," as the two neighbours like to call themselves, have opened a new phase of mutual misunderstanding. Or to characterize it in another way, Kazakhstan seems to be plucking up the courage to remind Russia that they are equal partners.

The latest troubles center largely upon who owes what to whom. Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbayev said in Moscow a few months ago that Russia was slow paying its debts to Kazakhstan for leasing the Baikonur space complex in Central Kazakhstan, and to pay for purchase of the Ekibastuz coal mines complex in Northern Kazakhstan.

Later, on May 16, when meeting with delegation of Russian journalists led by the Russian President's Press Secretary Sergei Yastrzhembskiy, Nazarbayev returned to the debt theme, saying that Kazakhstan owed nothing to Russia, but that Russia owed $488 million to Kazakhstan. He also mentioned that Kazakhstan, understanding the current tough economic situation in Russia, had never pressed Moscow for the money. Nazarbayev's frank references set something of a precedent, in that leaders of former Soviet Republics have not previously said that kind of thing so openly.

Immediately after the Kazakh president's comments, Russia's Amangeldy Tuleyev - an Ethnic Kazakh who was then Russian Minister for Cooperation with CIS countries - made an official statement saying that Kazakhstan in fact owed more than $2 billion to Russia in various ways. Kazakhstan of course denies this. At this point one can recall comments made early this year by Russian Vice Prime Minister Valeriy Serov, who said that if all CIS countries could manage to rid themselves of their debts to Moscow, the Russian Federation would lose its main tool to influence the former Soviet Republics.

The debts-and-influence game apparently also spreads to the skies above Kazakhstan. Russia has complained about the survey work being undertaken in northeast Kazakhstan by a U.S. research plane. The aircraft is an Orion P 3, a type which is also used in the U.S. military for such tasks as airborne surveillance. It arrived to Almaty last month and is working in the Semipalatinsk region, gathering data about ecological damage caused by decades of nuclear testing by the big Soviet-era nuclear test field in the Semipalatinsk area.

The Russian Foreign Ministry made an official statement earlier this month saying that Kazakhstan was providing the secret services of non-CIS countries with opportunities to research territories of Kazakhstan and neighboring Russian Federation.

Some analysts in Kazakhstan consider that the mutual debt issue lies behind this assertion also. If Kazakhstan, with international help, is able to prove that the damage to the Semipalatinsk area's ecology from the nuclear tests is very considerable, and worse than any data provided previously by Moscow, then Almaty will hold another trump card to claim compensation from Russia - which bears responsibility as heir to the Soviet Union.

In a linked development, a group of Kazakh parliament members, led by deputy Engels Gabbasov, insist that Russia's debt for the Baikonur space launch complex should be revised to take into consideration the ecological damage caused to the area by Russia's space programs.

All this pre-occupation with debts continues despite a 1995 agreement to partially annul the mutual debts between the two countries. Kazakh Prime Minister Akejan Kajegeldin and his Russian counterpart Viktor Chernomyrdin signed a joint declaration in January that year. According to that document, Kazakhstan annulled Russian debts to Almaty for 1991 to 1993 for the leasing of Baikonur, and Russia annulled Kazakhstan's debts for financial credits granted in 1991 to 1994. But the Russian Foreign Ministry said last month that the document signed by the two prime ministers was not an agreement but just a memorandum of intentions.

So the game goes on. Kazakhstan, the usually tame southern neighbour, has grown tired of all the activities of Kremlin to maintain its influence and has started to remind Russia of its rights. Russia is responding in the old Soviet style, forgetting its obligations and reminding instead the Kazakhs of theirs.