Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbaev leaves Moscow today following a two-day official visit during which he met his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin. The two leaders pledged to boost bilateral relations, with an emphasis on economic cooperation including the Russian use of the Baikonur cosmodrome in central Kazakhstan. Putin officially announced that 2003 will be the year of Kazakhstan in Russia.
Prague, 20 December 2002 (RFE/RL) -- During their meeting, Vladimir Putin and Nursultan Nazarbaev publicly expressed their satisfaction concerning bilateral relations. The Kazakh president praised 2002 has been a "breakthrough year" for bilateral ties, and said his country has no unresolved problems with Russia. Putin, in turn, said all sources of potential conflict between the two countries had been solved effectively.
But some analysts say that despite such outpouring of mutual support, the meeting between the two leaders -- held during Nazarbaev's two-day trip to Moscow -- is not likely to amount to much. Artem Malgin is deputy director of the center for post-Soviet studies at the Moscow State Institute for International Relations. He said: "[Russia's] relations with Kazakhstan are relatively stable and that is why this visit could be considered a regular visit. It might bring some new things to our relations, but these things [were] planned. [So] in general I think nothing extraordinary will happen during this visit."
Aleksei Malashenko, an expert at the Moscow Carnegie Center, agreed. He stressed, however, the visit still holds political significance. Malashenko says Nazarbaev is seeking the support of Moscow and Kazakhstan's Russian community at a time when he is facing growing domestic discontentment.
At the same time, Malashenko added, Moscow is eager to restore its political and economic influence in Central Asia, which appeared to have waned over the past year as the United States became a more regular presence in the region. "Now Nazarbaev faces big pressure from the local opposition. They try to present themselves as democrats oriented to the United States, [and] oriented to the West. Of course, in that situation, Nazarbaev is seeking support from Russia. Besides, now, with a Russian minority of approximately 32 or 31 percent [of Kazakhstan's population] -- by keeping good relations with Russia -- Nazarbaev thinks that he will be able to receive domestic support from the Russian part of his state."
In addition, Malashenko noted, Central Asian leaders -- including Nazarbaev -- continue to characterize China as a potential threat. Under that circumstance, he adds, Nazarbaev might be seeking Moscow's support out of concern that China's growing economic power might evolve into military aggression against its Central Asian neighbors.
After the first round of negotiations yesterday, Putin announced in the Kremlin that the official opening of the "Year of Kazakhstan in Russia" -- a series of events stressing cooperation and exchange in culture, science, education and business -- was to take place in February.
Malashenko and Malgin agreed that the initiative might not bring much in the way of concrete results. But, Malgin said, the project might prove useful to a certain extent. "It [will create opportunities for] more intensive contacts between Kazakhstan and Russia on different levels, starting from the presidential level, to the level of local communities. That is to say it could give a kind of impetus to bilateral relations, [and] to the cooperation between civil societies, between scientific institutions, between academic institutions."
The two presidents also discussed trade and economic cooperation, including the extension of Russia's use of the Soviet-built Baikonur cosmodrome, an important source of revenue for Kazakhstan. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia has leased the facility as a launch pad for manned space flights.
Nazarbaev expressed hope that a final decision on the joint use of the facility will be made at the beginning of 2003. Speaking on Russian television, he said he was willing to consider extending Russia's Baikonur lease for up to 50 years.
The two leaders also focused on energy issues. Nazarbaev said the outgoing year has seen significant progress on energy issues such as the division of the northern Caspian Sea, the transit for Kazakh oil through Russia via the new Tengiz-Novorossiisk pipeline, and the integration of Kazakhstan's Ekibastuz hydroelectric-power station with the Unified Energy Systems of Russia.
Malgin said new "knots" of cooperation have been established in recent months that will help integrate Kazakh and Russian energy industries, including the transport of hydrocarbons. "The Kazakh and Russian presidents initiated the idea to integrate energy and transport on a new base. There were even talks about a kind of natural-gas OPEC-style organization. So I think these plans will find their continuation during this visit. I mean closer cooperation in the spheres of gas [and] oil [as well as] transport routes between Kazakhstan and Russia."
Putin noted that bilateral trade between the two countries had fallen by 12 percent this year. But Malgin said Russia remains Kazakhstan's main trading partner, a situation he expects to lay the groundwork for further economic cooperation.
In particular, he said, Russian arms exports to Kazakhstan are due to increase in the coming years. The Kazakh Army, which is fully supplied by Russian military industry, needs to overhaul much of its Soviet-era equipment.
In the course of negotiations, the parties concentrated on international and regional issues, and cooperation in the fight against international terrorism.
Putin said he believes that the active work of Russia and Kazakhstan at the bilateral level -- in the framework of Community of Independent States, the Collective Security Treaty, and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization -- is "an important factor of stability, successful economic integration and sustainable development in Eurasia."
Malashenko said, however, that he does not believe any greater integration of Russia and the Central Asian region will happen soon. He said for now, Moscow's relations with the area -- including with Kazakhstan -- will remain strictly bilateral.
Nevertheless, Malashenko highlighted the importance of cooperation on security between the two countries. "[Concerning security], Kazakhstan cannot be compared to Uzbekistan or Tajikistan where we have big Islamic activity. But in the southern territories [of Kazakhstan] some Islamic forces are becoming more and more powerful. I had the chance to talk to some Kazakh experts, and really they are beginning to feel more and more the threat coming from the southern territories. It means that Nazarbaev may think about the potential Russian support if they have, for instance, some troubles with Muslim radicals."
Security concerns are expected to be one of the main issues discussed during Nazarbaev's four-day official trip to China next week, during which the Kazakh president will meet the new Chinese leadership for the first time.