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What Does Kazakhstan’s New Military Doctrine Reveal about Its Relations with Russia?
What Does Kazakhstan’s New Military Doctrine Reveal about Its Relations with Russia?

Central Asia: Water and Conflict

Competition for water is increasing in Central Asia at an alarming rate, adding tension to what is already an uneasy region.

Executive Summary

Competition for water is increasing in Central Asia at an alarming rate, adding tension to what is already an uneasy region. Agriculture is the mainstay of the region’s economy, and thirsty crops such as cotton and rice require intensive irrigation. Water use has increased rapidly since the Central Asian states became independent in 1991 and is now at an unsustainable level. Irrigation systems have decayed so severely that half of all water never reaches crops, and several years of drought have cut available water by a fifth even as demand continues to soar. Efforts to rebuild Afghanistan will now put yet more strain on supplies.

The problems of increasing demand and declining supplies have been compounded by the failure of the region’s nations to work together. Under the Soviet Union, water and energy resources were exchanged freely across what were only administrative borders, and Moscow provided the funds and management to build and maintain infrastructure. Rising nationalism and competition among the five Central Asia states has meant they have failed to come up with a viable regional approach to replace the Soviet system of management. Indeed, linked water and energy issues have been second only to Islamic extremism as a source of tension in recent years.

An annual cycle of disputes has developed between the three downstream countries – Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan – that are all heavy consumers of water for growing cotton, and the upstream nations – Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. The downstream countries require more water for their growing agricultural sectors and rising populations, while the economically weaker upstream countries are trying to win more control over their resources and want to use more water for electricity generation and farming.

Tensions focus on the two main rivers of the region that both flow to the Aral Sea – the Syr Darya from Kyrgyzstan through Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan and the Amu Darya from Tajikistan through Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. The Amu Darya and its tributaries form part of the border between the Central Asian states and Afghanistan.

This report identifies four key areas of tension among the Central Asia nations:

  • lack of coherent water management;
     
  • failure to abide by or adapt water quotas;
     
  • Non-implemented and untimely barter agreements and payments;
     
  • uncertainty over future infrastructure plans.

Water management has suffered from the Soviet legacy of top-down control and general rivalries between the states. The Interstate Coordinating Water Commission (ICWC) that was set up in 1992 has failed to take into account changing political and economic relations. It is an inter-governmental body with little transparency that focuses almost exclusively on the division of water. There is no representation from agricultural or industrial consumers, non-governmental organisations or other parties. Management is dominated by officials from Uzbekistan, leading to suspicions that it favours that country’s national interests. This has contributed to a lack of political commitment by other countries to the commission, resulting in a serious shortage of funds. In the meantime, the individual countries have done little to contribute to the maintenance of water systems that benefit the region.

Western donors have started to develop other management systems such as the Global Environment Facility (GEF) program, in coordination with the International Fund to Save the Aral Sea (IFAS). The UN-backed Special Program for the Economies of Central Asia (SPECA) is also working on water management. However, none of these initiatives have made much headway in dealing with the key political obstacles, particularly the unwillingness of the states to cooperate.

Shortly after independence, the five countries agreed to maintain the Soviet-era quota system, but this has become unworkable. The civil war in Tajikistan and the decay of Kyrgyzstan’s economy has meant that water-monitoring facilities have fallen into disrepair. Control and enforcement mechanisms no longer function and the various countries now often accuse each other of exceeding quotas. Turkmenistan is using too much water to the detriment of Uzbekistan, which in turn has been accused by Kazakhstan of taking more than its share. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan say that the three downstream countries are all exceeding quotas. Even within Uzbekistan, provinces have accused one another of using too much water.

Some of the most serious tensions have centred around barter agreements and payments. The upstream countries trade water to Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan for energy in the form of gas, coal or power. Since energy deliveries have been unreliable, Kyrgyzstan has responded by releasing more water through its hydropower dam in winter, which results in downstream flooding and less water for summer irrigation. Attempts by Kyrgyzstan to demand payment for water have been resisted by the downstream countries.

As each country has started to view the problem as a zero-sum game, it has taken steps to increase control over water, often to the detriment of the others. There is increasing uncertainty in Central Asia over plans to build new reservoirs and dams or to expand irrigation. There has been little consultation over most of these projects, leading to intensified suspicions between states. Since the fall of the Taliban in November 2001, there has been concern about the implications of efforts to rebuild agriculture in Afghanistan. Currently that country uses very little of the water from the Amu Darya but reconstruction of irrigation systems will put additional pressure on the river.

Tensions over water and energy have contributed to a generally uneasy political climate in Central Asia. Not only do they tend to provoke hostile rhetoric, but they have also prompted suggestions that the countries are willing to defend their interests by force if necessary. Uzbekistan has carried out exercises that look suspiciously like practice runs at capturing the Toktogul Reservoir. The gas shortages and winter flooding that Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan have inflicted on each other have a direct and widespread impact on the peoples of those countries and have the potential to inflame ethnic tensions in the Ferghana Valley. Competition for water can only increase, and tensions will rise unless better mechanisms are put in place to manage the problems.

A multifaceted regional approach is needed that addresses energy, agriculture and demographic aspects of water use. Thus far, emphasis has been on bilateral agreements that lack political weight and cannot resolve what is a regional problem. Management of water must be reformed to increase accountability and transparency as currently the public, NGOs and the media have little access to information or the decision-making process. Efficient water management requires quotas that are sustainable and are backed up by enforcement mechanisms and sanctions against violators. The Central Asia nations still approach the issue purely as an engineering problem rather than one of managing multiple political, social and economic factors.

There is considerable scepticism in Central Asia about foreign involvement in resolving the water issue. Donors have favoured technical rather than political solutions, and funds have been earmarked for the repair and replacement of inefficient irrigation installations. Technical solutions will only have a limited impact, however, if not accompanied by political measures.

Osh/Brussels, 30 May 2002

Op-Ed / Europe & Central Asia

What Does Kazakhstan’s New Military Doctrine Reveal about Its Relations with Russia?

Originally published in Eurasianet

Without much ado, Kazakhstan adopted a new military doctrine in September, replacing a 2011 document that had become dated. The new document states that Kazakhstan does not have enemies. Yet, Astana seems alarmed enough by Russia’s aggressive actions toward Ukraine since 2014 to have produced a doctrine that is an obvious reaction to Moscow’s hybrid warfare tactics, which include cyber-disruption and propaganda.

Kazakhstan is not alone in sensing that it now lives in a rapidly changing security environment that demands new policies. Belarus, another neighbor of Russia, introduced a new military doctrine in July 2016. But while Belarus made explicit that it is reacting to Ukraine’s fight against Russian-backed separatists and Moscow’s use of hybrid warfare, Kazakhstani authorities have not commented publicly on changes to their military doctrine.

Still, similarities between the new Kazakhstani and Belarussian doctrines abound, and it is not difficult to see the origin of  Astana’s threat assessment. Kazakhstan shares a 7,500-kilometer land border with Russia and northern Kazakhstan is home to a significant Russian minority with deep roots in the region. Though their numbers are dwindling, Russians still account for roughly 20 percent of Kazakhstan’s population. Much to Astana’s irritation, the area is romanticized by some Russian politicians as still being Russian territory. In January 2017, a State Duma deputy, Pavel Shperov, suggested the Kazakhstani-Russian border was not a permanent fixture and that Kazakhstani territory was merely on loan to Kazakhstan.

Kazakhstan pursues a multi-vector foreign policy with Russia, China and the European Union as its main partners. Balancing these relationships allow it to demonstrate that it has the political clout to act more independently of Russia than other Central Asian states.

Kazakhstan pursues a multi-vector foreign policy with Russia, China and the European Union as its main partners.

Still, Astana and Moscow remain very close allies, bound by economic ties through the Eurasian Economic Union and militarily through the Collective Security Treaty Organization, or CSTO, which also includes Armenia, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. The CSTO functions as much as a vehicle for Russia’s bilateral security agendas with fellow member states as it does as collective entity. As an organization, it has also redefined what it sees as security threats -- a process that began after the pro-democracy “color” revolutions in Georgia, 2003, Ukraine, 2004, and Kyrgyzstan, 2005. Analysis and recommendations from the CSTO played a pivotal role in shaping Russia’s own military doctrine of 2014, after the annexation of Crimea.

The alleged basis of Russia’s actions in Ukraine is a self-proclaimed doctrine under which Moscow can act as the protector of the rights of Russians experiencing alleged discrimination wherever they may be. The circumstances that prevailed in Ukraine prior to the start of Russian meddling in 2014 are not evident in present-day Kazakhstan. Russia’s concern that Ukraine was drifting toward the EU’s orbit was an underlying motivation for its actions in 2014. There is no reason for Moscow to worry that Astana is tilting toward the EU these days. Meanwhile, the Russian minority in Kazakhstan experiences little or no discrimination.

Just because the circumstances are different, doesn’t mean Kazakhstan isn’t vulnerable. Astana should recognize that national and ethnic unity since independence in 1991 is a thin construction, far too dependent on fealty to President Nursultan Nazarbayev. Kazakhstan’s new military doctrine is explicit about the risks to its borders and also the potential for an outside party to manipulate ethnic populations inside Kazakhstan.

Alongside the outward-looking nature of Kazakhstan’s 2017 military doctrine, there is sharp focus on internal threats. Nazarbayev in the past three years has undertaken measures to strengthen the government, bolster the economy and to resist firmly any speculation that a Ukrainian scenario could happen in Kazakhstan. When citizens protested against plans to lease farm land to Chinese investors in May 2016, Nazarbayev issued a stark rebuke, using Ukraine as an example of what can go wrong if protests get out of hand.

Kazakhstan’s new military doctrine is explicit about the risks to its borders and also the potential for an outside party to manipulate ethnic populations inside Kazakhstan.

Nationalism is growing nonetheless. It not only showed itself during the May 2016 land protests, but also in long-term trends such as renaming previously Russian-language place names to Kazakh. Some Russian politicians see Kazakhstan’s move to Latinize the Kazakh alphabet, which is currently written in Cyrillic, as an anti-Russian move. It is indeed a highly symbolic gesture, one that a Western diplomat described as an act of defiance and post-Soviet national identity-building.

The Russian language has equal status in Kazakhstan, but Kazakh is ascendant, and knowledge of it is required for government jobs. It’s also worth noting that not one of Kazakhstan's ministers has an ethnic Russian background.

Astana has sought to manage its relationship with Moscow as an equal partnership. Its success in doing so is largely attributable to Nazarbayev, who has led Kazakhstan since independence. When the Soviet Union collapsed, Putin was a KGB functionarynt, while Nazarbayev was the already powerful and ambitious First Secretary of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan. With Nazarbayev turning 78 years old next year, a transition in the vast but sparsely populated Central Asian state is inevitable. The crisis in Ukraine has brought into focus the risks of any sort of transition or internal instability in Russia’s neighborhood.

As Nazarbayev ages, political transition is inevitable and unless handled smoothly that transition could be destabilizing. The Kremlin’s military doctrine and its foreign policies are premised on Russia exerting itself as a great power with historical privileges. Kazakhstan understands that in the long-term it could be vulnerable to Moscow’s expansionist tendencies. Its new military doctrine addresses that external risk in a clear-headed and robust manner. But when it comes to the domestic challenges that could provide the very opening required for an assertive foreign power to gain a foothold, Kazakhstan still appears to be sleepwalking.