The highest foreign-policy goal for Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev since the country gained independence in 1991 has been to promote integration – within Central Asia and the former Soviet Union and with global markets and institutions. Nazarbayev is widely applauded at home and abroad for trying to bring the benefits of globalization to a traditionally isolated country. Unfortunately, various obstacles must be overcome for Kazakhstan and its neighborhood to realize these benefits.
Nazarbayev’s support for globalization partly results from his perception that insufficient integration has prevented Kazakhstan and its neighborhood from resuming their natural status as a linchpin of global commerce. In the economic sphere, greater integration would allow Kazakhstan and its neighbors to better exploit their natural resources, economic comparative advantages and pivotal location.
Kazakhstan’s leaders argue that, thanks to their country’s strong economic development, market reforms and commitment to regional prosperity, the country can become a driver in regional economic integration mechanisms among Eurasian states. Propelled by its vast energy resources, Kazakhstan has developed the largest economy in Central Asia, with a gross domestic product exceeding the combined total of its four Central Asian neighbors. Per capita annual GDP, only $2,000 less than a decade ago, already exceeds $11,000, on par with that in Russia, and continues to rise.
In addition to global and regional integration among all former Soviet republics, Nazarbayev has called for a geographically narrower but functionally deeper union of Central Asian states that could entail the sharing of water and energy resources, improvements in regional transportation infrastructure, establishment of common customs and trading tariffs, mechanisms to respond collectively to environmental threats and natural disasters, and support for region-wide tourist networks. His administration envisages an evolutionary path from free-trade zone to a customs union to an economic union with ancillary political and other institutions.
Within Eurasia and beyond, Nazarbayev has sought to make Kazakhstan a “transcontinental economic bridge” and a “regional locomotive” of economic development. Kazakhstani officials have promoted closer commercial integration among Eurasian nations, with priority given to improving regional transportation, pipeline and communication networks; reducing customs and other man-made barriers to trade; encouraging tourism and other nongovernmental exchanges while strengthening regulations governing labor mobility in Eurasia; and promoting Kazakhstani private investment in other Eurasian economies, especially through joint ventures.
Unfortunately, various obstacles have prevented Nazarbayev from realizing his dream of better integrating Kazakhstan in local, regional and global processes.
Despite Nazarbayev’s proselytizing, the Central Asian countries have found it difficult to cooperate. These states share unresolved disputes over borders, trade, visas, transportation, illegal migration and natural resources such as water and gas. Uzbekistan, in particular, has often been seen as a rival for regional influence with Kazakhstan, with its leader, Islam Karimov, unenthusiastic about Nazarbayev’s claims to regional and often global leadership. The poor state of mutual relations among Central Asian states has meant that these countries regularly enjoy closer ties with external actors – through bilateral and multilateral mechanisms – than with one another.
Within the former Soviet Union, the structures established with Kazakhstan’s support have not flourished. For example, the member countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States and the Eurasian Economic Community have encountered problems achieving consensus given their divergent political, economic and security agendas. Their weak, opaque and inefficient mechanisms for making and implementing decisions have contributed to stagnation.
Major frictions between Russia and their other members have arisen over a number of issues. For instance, the member governments have diverged over appropriate prices for Russian energy and Russia’s restrictions on labor mobility. Perhaps the major obstacle has been that many of the former Soviet republics have serious reservations about forming any alignment with Moscow given the unhappy history of Soviet and Russian domination. The former Soviet republics, even those whose leaders did not initially seek independence, jealously guard their sovereignty and autonomy.
Kazakhstan’s quests centered on the chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. It only succeeded in securing Western support by pledging in 2007 that, in return for receiving the chairmanship for 2010, Kazakhstan would bolster the organization’s influence in the former Soviet bloc and pursue comprehensive domestic political reforms that moved Kazakhstan closer to Western democratic standards.
Kazakhstan’s OSCE chairmanship was successful in several respects, especially in re-energizing the organization’s traditionally neglected economic dimension, which seeks better economic integration within Europe and Eurasia. Against the odds, the Kazakhstanis also succeeded in convening an OSCE heads-of-state summit for the first time in more than a decade. But the summit deadlocked over the issue of Russia’s occupation of Georgia.
Many Western governments believe that Kazakhstan has failed to meet pledges to improve their country’s civil rights and political liberties. Freedom House, moreover, calculates that Kazakhstanis’ civil liberties have deteriorated since its chairmanship. For example, the restrictions on media freedoms limit Kazakhstanis’ ability to profit from the most advanced global communications technologies.
Nazarbayev’s team considers Kazakhstan’s deeper integration into Central Asia, the Caspian region, the former Soviet bloc and the rest of the world inevitable processes. But the country’s rising generation of new leaders must adopt new policies to overcome the difficulties of globalizing a landlocked, authoritarian, multiethnic state in a volatile neighborhood.
Richard Weitz is a senior fellow and director of the Center for Political-Military Analysis at Hudson Institute. This commentary is reprinted with permission from YaleGlobal Online (www.yaleglobal.yale.edu), Copyright © 2012, Yale Center for the Study of Globalization, Yale University.