Since gaining independence in 1991, Kazakhstan's foreign and defense policies have consistenly followed a so-called multi-vector policy. Although Russia and China are clearly prirority relationships for Kazakshtan, Astana has sought to balance its ties to those states in both foreign and defense policies by cultivating mutually beneficial relations with other key global actors. This pattern seems set to continue in 2010, when Kazakhstan serves as the chair of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.




The multi-vector approach received a boost with French President Nicholas Sarkozy's visit to Kazakhstan last October, and with the November signing of a defense-related Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the Italian defense firm Finmeccanica. France benefited from the visit by advancing French interests with Kazakhstan on energy access, aerospace deals, and gaining the right to move supplies to Afghanistan through Kazakhstan. But there is no doubt that Sarkozy's visit also significantly advanced Kazakhstan's status and interests.


Kazakhstan won French support for its imminent chairmanship of the OSCE and Sarkozy called Kazakhstan a powerhouse with whom the West must learn to do business. Sarkozy also acknowledged Kazakhstan's regional importance in providing security in Central Asia. Thus, the French president's trip, coming as it did during the final countdown to OSCE leadership, accomplished many goals for Kazakhstan.


First of all, it strengthened Kazakhstan's standing in Europe while at the same time helping Astana reaffirm its commitment to modernize its defense forces by 2015. At the same time the visit confirmed French recognition of Kazakhstan's leadership ambitions in Central Asia. Similarly the MoU with Finmeccanica underscored Italian recognition of Kazakhstan's regional significance as a military power.


While the development of Kazkhstan's military proceeds slowly and has already hit several snags, there is little doubt that Astana remains committed to a long-term goal of developing a relatively robust defense capability. For example, it plans to buld a high-tech destroyer to defend its Caspain-Sea interests.


The Finmeccanica deal in particular signifies the Kazakhstani government's desire to break out, at least to a certain degree, from a reliance on Russian military weapons and technologies. In the past Moscow has been able to maintain its position as Central Asia's chief purveyor of arms by selling equipment at subisdized prices that would otherwise be beyond Central Asian governments' reach. Astana's deal with the Italian firm is a way of telling Moscow that Kazakhstan has the financial flexibility to stand on its own.


The deal with Finmeccanica provides for the sale of electro-optic systems for upgrading Kazakhstan's T-72 tanks, joint projects especially in the rail and civilian helicopter domains, as well as the possibility of establishing technological hubs. The deal also contains a mechanism to create long-term mutually beneficial relationships for both parties. In addition to the Finmeccanica MoU, Kazakhstan has probed defense-related deals with French, South Korean, Turkish, Ukrainian, and US firms. For example, Rockville, Maryland,-headquartered BAE Systems Inc. has shown notable interest in Kazakhstan, specifically with a long-term interest in investing in Air Astana and Kazakhstan's overall aerospace infrastructure.


None of these relationhips, or Kazakshtan's expanding ties with major European governments and the United States, should be seen as a sign that Astana is abandoning its priority ties with Moscow and Beijing. That would be a serious analytical and policy mistake. But these deals are part of a process by which Kazakhstan assiduously expands the portfolio of its relationships, both in terms of the breadth and scope of contacts with major foreign governments. Astana policymakers hope that this expansion will give them more room to maneuver so that no one state gains too much influence over Kazakhstan.


As yet there is no sign that Astana's recent moves have alarmed anyone in Moscow or Beijing. But they do testify to the consistency and acumen with which President Nursultan Nazarbayev and his subordinates continue to pursue a carefully thought out, judicious, and nuanced overall security policy. It clearly is the case that Kazaksthan's international standing today is considerably more deeply and broadly established than semed possible when it became independent in 1991.