Dr Charles Tannock

Member of the European Parliament for London

Backing Kazakhstan's 'great game'

The Guardian - February 18th 2008

Those who oppose western rapprochement with Kazakhstan cite the country's lack of political and human rights. But, while Kazakhstan has not gone down the "colour revolution" route to democracy that other post-Soviet republics such as Ukraine and Georgia have followed, its timidity about reform does not justify isolation.

After all, the west is not deterred in the slightest from dealing with authoritarian Russia and communist China. Moreover, Kazakhstan, though a Muslim majority country, has established the type of secular, multi-ethnic, and multi religious polity that the west is seeking to encourage throughout the Muslim world.

But the principal reasons for the west not to isolate Kazakhstan are geo-strategic. The Kazakhs are keen to sell their oil and gas to the west at the very moment that the European Union is anxious to shed its dependence on Russian supplies. Yet the window of opportunity for an EU-Kazakh partnership may be closing.

Kazakhstan's historical ties to Russia and its geographical proximity to China have caused a keen competition between those two countries for influence. It is vital that Europe joins in this "great game" for influence and draws Kazakhstan's political orientation westwards.

There are signs that Europe is finally waking up to the possibilities that Kazakhstan offers. Indeed, two recent developments may help anchor Kazakhstan as a western ally. The first is the country's election to the annual rotating chairmanship of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in 2010.

Kazakhstan had lobbied for years for this opportunity in the face of fierce opposition from Britain and other EU countries. Its selection to lead the OSCE is seen as a reward for President Nursultan Nazarbayev's policy of engagement with the west. Russia is deeply suspicious of the OSCE - the Kremlin recently restricted the number of OSCE observers for Russian elections - so Kazakhstan's future stewardship hints that the Kazahks are anxious to move closer to the west, and unafraid to challenge their former masters in the Kremlin.

In the long term, the European neighbourhood policy (ENP), the EU's blueprint for relations with states on its periphery, offers the best chance for nurturing this relationship. The ENP is designed to forge a "circle of friends" around the EU based on shared interests in security, economic development, the rule of law, and respect for human rights.

The European parliament has, for now, rejected the idea that Kazakhstan could one day become an ENP member. But this narrowness of vision will have to be overcome if Kazakhstan is not to be lured into either the Chinese or Russian orbits.

Kazakhstan is a suitable partner for the ENP in every respect. The country's southwest edge is on the same longitude as the countries of the south Caucasus and Turkey, all of which are already ENP countries, or in the case of Turkey, an EU candidate. This alone makes a strong geographical case for Kazakhstan's ENP status.

There are of course concerns about freedom of speech and a lack of media diversity, but conditions in Kazakhstan are no worse than in, say, Azerbaijan, its ethnic Turkic cousin, which is fully in the ENP. Moreover, Kazakhstan is already in formal talks with the EU about human rights issues.

But it is Kazakhstan's strong secular tradition, inherited from its Soviet past, and a very large European Christian minority (approximately 40% of its 15.2 million people) that make it a society that the west needs to encourage, given the Islamic arc of instability upon which it sits. Drawing Kazakhstan westward would help embed this secular tradition.

The challenge is clear. Russia and China will not wait for the EU to make up its mind about whether Kazakhstan is a worthy partner. Kazakhstan already plays a key role in the Shanghai cooperation organisation (SCO), a group that comprises Central Asian countries, along with Russia and China. The SCO focuses on regional security, economic ties, and cultural cohesion in much the same way as the OSCE and EU do.

There is little doubt that the SCO is an instrument for Russia and China to make the case for a multi-polar world based on regional security blocs that counterbalance American strategic hegemony. It would therefore be tragic if the EU missed the opportunity to tie Kazakhstan firmly to the west. There may not be many more chances.