To many in Kazakhstan, Islamic fundamentalism and global terrorism are something vague and ominous. Some political analysts, however, are convinced that the new geopolitical situation taking shape in the wake of the American-led war against Taliban in Afghanistan offers a rare chance to Kazakhstan to gain a leading position in Central Asia.
Hardly a week passes by in Kazakhstan without national television carrying images of gas-masked young soldiers of anti-terrorist detachments or special task forces bravely crushing their imaginary enemies on training fields. The defense Minister never misses an opportunity to pride himself on the "high level" of combat readiness of the military. Yet the harsh reality is something different from routine training exercises.
When not so long ago Islamic fundamentalists made their first attempts to infiltrate into Kyrghyzstan, the Kazakh government chose to limit its solidarity with its neighbor to moral support rather than rushing its troops to the troubled Batken region. Terrorist attacks in Tashkent, reportedly masterminded by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, were also shrugged off as an internal affair of the neighbor. But today officials in government seem to understand that Kazakhstan cannot distance itself from the global anti-terrorist campaign. More than that, some analysts predict political gains to be derived by Kazakhstan from the present situation. Closer ties with the countries of the Western anti-terrorist coalition can boost the military infrastructure and modernization of the army. According to Dosym Satpayev, director of the Risk Assessment Group and a political scientist from the Institute of War and Peace, it is yet uncertain who will be the winner in this war against terrorism, but if and when Kazakhstan gains economic and political dominance in Central Asia it will become a really powerful nation to be respected by superpowers.
Meanwhile Kazakhstan has made significant steps in the recent past to mend its relations with Central Asian countries. In April, Kazakhstan hosted a meeting of the border control authorities from member-countries of the Shanghai Cooperative Organization, during which concerted actions against terrorism were discussed. On September 9 in Astana, the presidents of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan finalized a border delimitation agreement, removing the last psychological hurdle in bilateral relations. Two days earlier, Kazakhstan made a symbolic gesture of goodwill, handing over to Uzbek security forces the Malayev brothers, Uzbek nationals wanted for setting off bombs in Tashkent in the spring of 1999. Significantly, before their detention, curiously timed to the signing of the final Border Delimitation Agreement, the suspects spent three years in hiding in Kazakhstan undisturbed by the police, using false passports given by bribed authorities.
No less important for Kazakhstan is to strike the right balance of relations with the U.S., China and Russia. There has been some softening of the otherwise adamant Russian stand and it seems to have put up with the American military presence in Central Asia. China, having enough to deal with the unruly separatists in East Turkestan can hardly exert a significant influence in the region for now. Quite recently, policy makers in Kazakhstan jealously murmured about the bright economic and military prospect opened for Uzbekistan which offered its airfields to American plains. The same American jets flying missions to Afghanistan use the airspace of Kazakhstan. Besides, the U.S. is pouring in millions of dollars to provide border guards of Kazakhstan with the most sophisticated military equipment, including night-vision binoculars, various types of detectors.
While the military are restlessly haunted by the ghost of long-bearded gun-toting fundamentalists, recent opinion polls conducted by the Institute of Comparative Social Studies "Tsessy-Kazakhstan" revealed that a wide section of the population is not much alarmed at the possible infiltration of terrorists into the country. 66,7% of the respondents admitted that the extremist or terrorist attacks could be provoked if the authorities commit serious errors in domestic and foreign policy, but 16,7% of the questioned think that there is no threat of terrorism in Kazakhstan.
Probably none of the respondents has ever seen a living terrorist and is not likely to see one. But the potential threat is still there. Promoting public awareness in turbulent Central Asia may be more important than fighting imaginary terrorists.
Marat Yermukanov, Kazakhstan