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22nd Jul 2018

Nato woos Kazakhstan at security forum

  • Astana, the new capital of Kazakhstan, wants to keep close ties with Nato, but also Russia and China (Photo: EUobserver)

The remote capital of post-Soviet petro-state Kazakhstan hosted this year's security forum of Nato's partner countries, the first time the event took place outside Europe in a bid to secure more support for the alliance's mission in neighbouring Afghanistan.

Barely 12 years old and still largely a construction site, Astana, the new capital of Kazakhstan, is a strange blend of Soviet-style apartment blocks, modern skyscrapers and artsy projects bearing the signature of famous architects such as Norman Foster.

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In his keynote address on Thursday (25 June) during Nato's security forum with its partner countries (EAPC), secretary-general Jaap de Hoop Scheffer praised the city as a "haven for contemporary architecture in the vast steppes of Kazakhstan."

The new capital, built from scratch in the middle of the deserted landscape of central Kazakhstan mirrors the ambitions of the country's perennial president, Nursultan Nazarbaev, who just celebrated 20 years of uninterrupted leadership.

The only former Soviet leader and close ally of Mikhail Gorbachev to have stayed in power after the break-up of the USSR, Mr Nazarbaev is a careful navigator between Russian, Chinese, American and to lesser extent, EU interests in his oil-rich country.

A Nato partner country with no ambitions of joining, Kazakhstan – a nation almost the size of the whole of western Europe and bordering Russia and China, is also part of all the economic and military alliances of its two powerful neighbours, including the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation (SCO).

One of the achievements of the forum, according to Mr Scheffer, was the participation and "interaction" for the first time with the secretary general of the SCO, Bolat Nurgaliev, a native of the small town that was later to become Astana.

Admitting that the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation was an "intriguing subject for some in the West," Mr Nurgaliev, a Kazakh diplomat, explained that the organisation was mainly aimed at "instilling people of the six nations a sense of shared political, economic and informational space."

Apart from China, Russia and Kazakhstan, the members of SCO comprise three other 'stans' – Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

The Chinese-Russian set-up also includes a counter-terrorism office in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, with all six members bound to co-operate and share information in this field, Mr Nurgaliev said.

Yet it is unclear how this co-operation is working in practice and if could ever help the Nato mission in Afghanistan, with all four 'stans' having large Muslim populatios that, although moderate, are unlikely to support a foreign war against the Taliban.

Mr Nurgaliev underlined that "terrorism has nothing to do with a particular religion [and] should not be transformed into Islamophobia." The SCO is committed to restore law and order "all over Afghanistan," he said, "but by respecting the state sovereignty and the right of Afghans to determine their own form of government."

Cold War spectre

With threats such as terrorism coming to the forefront of Nato's activities, it is time for the Cold War logic to be left behind and to step up co-operation with non-Nato members, Mr Scheffer said, hinting in particular at Afghanistan.

He said during the meeting with Mr Nazarbaev "good progress" was achieved on a transit agreement for the transport of non-lethal items to Afghanistan – but no document has been signed yet.

Mr Scheffer said the "working culture" of Nato and its partner countries – including Kazakhstan – had to change from "caution and hesitation to tackling difficult issues."

"Sometimes we shy away from having a meaningful, substantial debate, simply to avoid controversy," Mr Scheffer said.

"We must realise that [Nato] partnership is no longer about eliminating residual mistrust left over from the Cold War. Today, partnership has turned into something quite different: it has become a unique instrument to tackle common challenges in an increasingly globalised world."

Yet with Russia still perceiving Nato as a direct threat, Kazakhstan, a former Soviet republic, maintains a cautious line towards the alliance.

Russia's envoy to Nato, Dmitri Rogozin, who was present at the event, suggested Kazakhstan was Russia's wife, while Nato was a lover competing for her favours.

"I disagree with my friend Rogozin," Mr Scheffer replied at the closing press conference.

"We are not in the business of being a lover of anyone, this is a political military alliance and Nato does not compete with anyone. Let the nations decide for themselves how and if they want to get involved," he stressed.

Europe useful for training and environment

The EU dimension was noted briefly in the remarks of Kazakh foreign minister Marat Tazhin, who said his country was interested in adopting the "European model" on issues such as civil society, energy, technology and environment policies.

"Due to its geographical location, central Asia serves as a kind of testing ground for trends coming from the West and the East," he said.

"Our task is not to mechanically apply experiences of other regions but rather to creatively reconsider alternative models and gradually develop our own unique regional architecture."

Pierre Morel, the EU's special representative for central Asia, said the region was facing four major areas where the Union should intensify its assistance: counter-terrorism, border management, migration and environmental issues.

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