Globalization From the Heart of Eurasia
Globalization From the Heart of Eurasia
ASTANA: Situated in the heart of Central Asia, 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 intense support for globalization partly results from his perception that Kazakhstan would strongly benefit from enhanced ties with other countries. In his view, 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 ability to realize its potential as a natural crossroads for east-west and north-south commercial trade – as demonstrated with the Silk Road during ancient and middle ages – depends on reducing manmade political and economic obstacles to the free flow of goods and people among Eurasian nations. Deeper economic integration would also make these countries more attractive to foreign investors and enhance collective leverage with external actors.
In the security realm, greater integration would provide Kazakhstan and its neighbors with more room to maneuver among the great powers active in the region and reduce the risks of a great-power condominium emerging. It would also help them coordinate their responses to regional economic, political and security problems. The power play over the NATO use of Kyrgyzstan airbase for transit to Afghanistan offers a striking example of how these problems provide opportunities for external meddling. Instability in neighboring countries could easily spill across state borders, either directly through imitative popular protests and refugee flows or indirectly by discouraging international capital markets from investing in the region.
Regional integration would help avert potential inter-ethnic and inter-confessional discord among Kazakhstan’s heterogeneous population. The country has more than 100 distinct ethnic minority groups. The government promotes religious harmony at home and abroad. Kazakhstan, as a Muslim-majority country that respects religious diversity, represents a success story offering lessons for new regimes in the Middle East and North Africa. But Kazakhstan’s large population of ethnic Russians and other ethnic communities also makes it unlikely that Kazakhstan could remain unaffected by adverse developments in neighboring countries. Although millions of ethnic Russians have left Kazakhstan since its independence, the 4 million Russians, about 24 percent of the population, who remain have contributed considerably to the country’s economic development, educational achievements and other socioeconomic advances.
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 regionwide 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 manmade 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 zealous proselytizing, the Central Asian countries have found it difficult to cooperate with one another. 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 (OSCE). 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. And many Western governments believe that that Kazakhstan 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 senior fellow and director of the Center for Political-Military Analysis at Hudson Institute. His current research includes regional security developments relating to Europe, Eurasia, and East Asia as well as US foreign, defense and homeland-security policies.