If it is true that a good start to the year means that the whole year will be successful, then Vladimir Putin chose the right country for his first official visit in 2004, as Kazakhstan is Russia's most predictable strategic partner on the territory of the former Soviet Union.
The two countries both have great economic potential and have set ambitious tasks for the future. To some extent, both Russian leader Vladimir Putin and his Kazakh counterpart Nurslutan Nazarbayev are not only linking the implementation of these tasks with the dynamic development of bilateral co-operation. They are going further: Astana and Moscow are initiating the re-integration and the strengthening of the common Eurasian economic space.
How has the Kremlin reacted to the steps taken by Kazakhstan towards the West in the fuel and energy sphere and the defence industry sector? Is Astana's pro-western "drift" dangerous for Russia? Moscow realistically assesses the situation and believes that:
- firstly, Kazakhstan, with its huge natural resources (the world's sixth largest), is becoming the focus of many countries' economic interests;
- secondly, the effective development of Kazakhstan's natural wealth requires huge foreign investment;
- thirdly, Kazakhstan, as a large land-locked Central Asian state, largely depends on its neighbours, i.e. Russia and China.
Taking due account of these and other factors, Astana has to diversify its foreign policy, balancing between Russia and the West. Naturally, some aspects of this policy cannot satisfy Russia, but it reacts to them in a new way; in other words, quietly and with understanding. In the opinion of Sergei Karaganov, Chairman of the Council for Foreign Defence Policy and a well-known Russian political scientist, a negative reaction to other countries' independence is the legacy of a "big brother policy".
Besides, despite the West's tough diktat, Kazakhstan has demonstrated that it obviously prefers rapprochement with its northern neighbour. To a certain extent, Vladimir Putin's visit was unanimously regarded as a success. All the ten documents prepared for this visit were signed. They concern Russia's leasing of the Baikonur space centre in Kazakhstan, oil and gas transportation via Russia (32 million tonnes of oil were transported in 2003 alone), the processing of gas condensate from the Karachaganak deposit in Kazakhstan at Russian plants, co-operation on frontier issues, etc.
Prior to the visit, declarations had been made concerning Russia's possible participation in projects to build a nuclear power plant in Kazakhstan and Kazakhstan's first communication satellite.
Furthermore, co-operation in the fuel and energy sector is extremely active. The most significant document in this sphere is an agreement under which LUKoil will receive a 50% share in a project to develop the Tyub-Karagan oil field on the Caspian Sea and take part in geological prospecting in the Atashsky sea sector on a parity basis.
According to preliminary estimates, the extractable reserves amount to more than 100 million tonnes of conventional fuel there. Tyub-Karagan, with an area of more than 1,000 square kilometres, lies some 40 km away from the port of Bautino, and the Atashsky sea sector, which covers over 8,000 square kilometres, is 80 km away from Bautino. After additional exploration, some other promising geological structures may be discovered in its eastern section. The two projects' total costs may exceed $3 billion. The Tyub-Karagan projects are to be implemented within 40 years.
In the opinion of Vagit Alekperov, LUKoil's president, the implementation of these projects will be a major stage in the company's strategy in Kazakhstan as a priority region for the oil giant's international activity.
This year, another Russian-Kazakh project (on the Kurmangazy, Khvalynskoye and Tsentralnoye deposits) is to be launched with the Rosneft oil company acting on Russia's behalf.
Co-operation between the two countries' energy sectors is also developing successfully. Since 2000, their energy systems have been operating in parallel. The volume of power exchange and transit is growing, while nearly all measures to organise a joint Russian-Kazakh venture on the basis of the Ekibastuz state regional electric generating station (GRES-2) have been carried out.
The fuel and energy sphere in both Russia and Kazakhstan has long been the basis for achieving fairly high growth rates for both countries' economies. Indeed, bilateral mutually advantageous co-operation in this sphere is becoming a reliable foundation for the entire sphere of Russian-Kazakh relations and a model to emulate for other CIS countries.