Roger N. McDermott, Political consultant, Scottish Center for International Security, University of Aberdeen (U.K.)

Military reform has been discussed, even hailed as a success, over the past decade in Kazakhstan. Yet, in practical terms, there has been little progress toward resolving the key issues afflicting the Armed Forces. A glimmer of hope has emerged, in recent months, in the form of military cooperation with the U.S., though this does not provide a basis for resolving the long-term problems associated with military reform. Kazakhstan has a proud military past, contributing valiant soldiers to the Soviet Armed Forces during the Great Patriotic War of 1941-1945, and continuing to actively and willingly participate in the Red Army even in the twilight years of the U.S.S.R. Kazakhstan, since gaining its independence, has struggled with problems common to many post-Soviet Central Asian States, particularly as its Armed Forces have tangibly declined. In order to arrest that process, Astana has embarked upon a form of military reform, though it will take more concerted and systemic reform to achieve real success. The symptoms of decay will be considered in this article, as well as questions, such as: what is the nature of Kazakh military reform? Will international cooperative ventures help to secure real progress in improving its levels of training and combat readiness?

The Prospects for Military Reform

Central Asian militaries are generally in poor condition. Uzbekistan possesses the most capable military, by reputation, amongst Central Asian Republics with 59,100 servicemen (Paramilitary forces: 18-20,000). The Kazakh Armed Forces, by comparison, are numerically strong, at around 64,000 servicemen (Paramilitary forces: 34,500). Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan maintain relatively small militaries.1

Young Kazakh men served in the Armed Forces of the Soviet Union, even when the popularity of conscript service was in decline elsewhere amongst the Soviet Republics. Recruiting from the Central Asian Soviet Republics proved a stable source of conscript for the U.S.S.R. in the 1980s. During that period the proportion of conscripts from the Southern Republics steadily increased. That willingness to serve in the Soviet Armed Forces is shown below (see Table 1).

Table 1

The Soviet Military Draft by Republic in Spring 1989 & 1990

Republic Spring 1989 (%) Spring 1990 (%)
Azerbaijan 97.8 100
Moldavia 100 100
Ukraine 97.6 99.4
Kazakhstan 100 99.2
Byelorussia 100 98.9
R.S.F.S.R. 100 98.6
Tajikistan 100 92.7
Turkmenistan 100 90.2
Kirghizia 100 89.5
Uzbekistan 100 87.4
Latvia 90.7 54.2
Estonia 79.5 40.2
Lithuania 91.6 33.6
Georgia 94 27.5
Armenia 100 7.5

Source: Krasnaia Zvezda, 12 July, 1990.

In early January 2001 Maj-Gen Malik Saparov, then Senior Deputy Chief of the Kazakh General Staff, stated: We began real reforms of the Armed Forces last year.2 This was a remarkable statement given claims made more than three years earlier that other armies were examining the experience of military reform in Kazakhstan. It can, perhaps, draw attention to the fact that truth emerges slowly and intermittently in official statements in Kazakhstan, particularly regarding the state of the Armed Forces. Nonetheless, there has been tangible progress, albeit rather minuscule, in the area of military reform, though it has revealed many more problems than it has solved.

President Nursultan Nazarbaev, whilst proving himself to be no friend of democratic reform, has associated himself directly with military reform in Kazakhstan. In a comparatively short period, some progress has been made. A law on contract service has been passed, and one on alternative service is under consideration. A legislative basis for further military reform has been drawn up for the period up to 2005, with provisions for various sub-programs. A military doctrine has been written and the organization of the Armed Forces in Kazakhstan has been divided into four Military Districts (MDs): Southern, Western, Eastern and Central. Mobile Forces have been formed, currently stationed in Almaty, and the number of contract servicemen has increased to around 12,000. The Armed Forces are outfitted with S-75, S-200 and S-300 air defense missile systems, as well as Su-25, Su-27, and MiG-29 aircraft. Financing for the Armed Forces has also increased and military schools are active in Almaty, Shymkent and Karaganda. The groundwork has been laid for the creation of Naval Forces, with assistance from Russia, Turkey and the U.S., helping to protect the countrys energy interests in the Caspian Sea. Furthermore, Nazarbaev has directed the MOD to take measures designed to improve the social condition of servicemen and markedly enhance the prestige of military service. Yelim Menin (My Motherland), an open-ended campaign seeking to promote Kazakh patriotism began on the 10th anniversary of the formation of the Armed Forces. These measures seem positive, suggesting that the government intend to conduct necessary military reform.3

During the 1990s, defense spending was a low priority, and this was only addressed last year, as a result of improved economic performance. The 2001 military budget was 25 billion Tenge ($172 million), representing an increase of around 8 billion Tenge on the previous year. This may be viewed in perspective when read alongside the National Budget plans for 2002, affording 42 billion Tenge on building and reconstructing roads.4 The Armed Forces of Kazakhstan remain markedly under-financed. Rearmament is urgently needed, but this is practically ruled out on the basis of current levels of defense spending.

However, the formation of the Military Districts is largely an administrative reform that does little in practice to address the key problems facing the Kazakh military, whilst most of the military hardware is a residue of its Soviet past. Furthermore, the military schools may indeed be active but the state wishes to avoid the risk of militarizing its youth, whilst promoting the usefulness of such schools. Their roles are rather overestimated as a means of resolving the obvious decline in the social prestige of military service in Kazakhstan. Equally, Nazarbaevs aim of improving the living conditions of servicemen may be noble, but there are no clear plans on how this might be achieved. The MDs are also at a formative stage; it is far from clear how successful their infrastructures will be in practice. Attention to the western area of the country was demanded as a result of the growing importance of the Caspian Sea to the various regional powers; and the south also necessitated further attention, owing to the crisis in Afghanistan and the awareness of the dangers of Islamic militancy.

In 2001 there were six key priorities for defense spending:

  1. Support for combat operations and combat readiness.
  2. Combat Training.
  3. Maintenance of Servicemen.
  4. Maintenance of military infrastructure.
  5. Repair of weapons.
  6. Repair of equipment.5

Salaries receive a significant place on the agenda, although the MOD has no plans to tackle this issue, progress has been made. According to Abai Tasbulatov, Deputy Defense Minister, captains and company commanders receive $156 and $82 respectively per month. Officers in the Soviet and Russian military system received separate rank and function pay: thus, a combined salary of $238 is a marked improvement. It is little wonder that Tasbulatov wishes to highlight this achievement.6

The priorities of supporting combat readiness and improving combat training have moved into the ascendancy, even though there are no clear plans on how to achieve reform within the restrictions imposed upon the military by an inadequate defense budget. There is not enough money for the repair of weapons and equipment and the maintenance of the military infrastructure conceals the truth of derelict buildings, poor storage facilities and the expense that is involved in redressing such problems.

Southern Military District

Maj-Gen Malik Saparov, Chief of the General Staff, has prioritized the development of the Southern Military District (SMD), reacting sensibly to the perceived increase in the threat from the south. In 2002 he will seek to form additional military units and formations in the Southern Kazakhstan and Zhambyl regions. In fact, the SMD is central to the whole process of military reform, since it is upheld as a model for the rest of the Kazakh military; unfortunately, for the time being, the familiar signs of decay denote it. Implementing its reform successfully will be restricted by the levels of defense spending, since the General Staff expect no more than 272 million Tenge ($1.8 million) to carry out their plans for the south, placing the emphasis upon cost saving and efficient spending.7 Maj-Gen Uali Yelamanov, Commander of the SMD, will find it difficult to deliver the improved combat readiness of his troops without serious state investment. This is a constant factor in Kazakh military reform; squaring the circle in making defense requirements fit into limited budgets. Despite this, Nazarbaev is reportedly paying great attention to the formation and development of the SMD as a battleworthy grouping of forces. However, as they currently stand, their battleworthy state is certainly open to question.8

Saparov believes that the Kazakh Armed Forces should be reduced numerically to a sufficient level that allows it to properly defend against either domestic or international bandit formations. Achieving this will require a shift in the emphasis of defense spending and a reassessment of threats and priorities.9 What is the purpose of reforming the Armed Forces only to meet the potential threat posed by armed bandits? Surely, this represents a departure from the traditional role of a countrys military, namely to protect the state against even the worst case scenario. Or, perhaps, it is an admission of the inability of the Kazakh Armed Forces to fulfill that mandate in its present under-financed condition? Indeed, Saparov gave a rather pessimistic assessment as to the capability of the Kazakh Armed Forces to cope with an invasion, during an interview with Panorama in Almaty in 2001 he intimated that the matter was unclear, saying: We are as ready as we can be.10 Statements such as these hardly inspire confidence in the combat readiness or effectiveness of the Kazakh military.

Reform by Legislation?

The legislative basis for military reform, as laid out in the program to 2005 seems to lack vision for the future of the Kazakh Armed Forces. It fails to specify clear goals for the reform process, as well as providing little overarching guidance. In stark contrast, Kyrgyzstan has at least drawn up a document that delineates the targets of military reform. The Comprehensive Basis of Development of Kyrgyzstan Program until 2010 envisages the development of a small, mobile army capable of meeting the countrys defense needs, both from existing and predicted threats. Col-Gen Esen Topoev, Defense Minister, argues from the countrys economic potential, linking the kind of military required with its economic potential, whilst recognizing that reform will occur in several stages.11 The uniformed Armed Forces of Kyrgyzstan are modest in comparison with those of Kazakhstan: consisting of 12,500 troops, predominantly conscripts.12 By no means an ideal state of affairs exists in the military reform of Kyrgyzstan, but at least there are general goals toward which they aim, and against which success can be measured. Kazakh reform is denoted by nebulous statements concerning the desire to enhance combat effectiveness and develop mobile forces whilst saying nothing about how this might be achieved. There is of course, nothing new in these statements. Indeed, Minister of Defense, Col-Gen Mukhtar Altynbaev has promised, since 1999, that military service would be reduced from two years to one, as a stage in the transition to a numerically small, technically well equipped, mobile and professional army.13

Military reform in Kazakhstan resembles, in part, the slow and ponderous maneuvering that takes place in chess; the pieces move, and a plan unfolds as part of a grand strategy. Our simile points toward certain critical issues in analyzing the Kazakh military: each move entails risk and can expose weaknesses capable of being probed. Each move in Kazakh military reform highlights the inherent weaknesses in the military and the reform process itself, since it lacks an overall grand strategy. Serious problems are not difficult to find, such as the lack of discipline and the growing rates of crime, including desertion amongst the military, which is an on-going concern. Saparov has promised robust measures within the law aimed at curbing both crime and lack of discipline in the military, and the General Staff are also willing to recognize how deeply the problems run, blaming commanders for their irresponsibility. Indeed, according to Maj-Gen A. Tuleukhanov, Military Prosecutor General, there were 3,589 recorded crimes committed by servicemen in 2001, representing an increase of 14.2% on the previous year. Absence without leave accounted for 88% of those crimes, whilst there were many instances of crime in relations between servicemen.14

Mukhtar Altynbaev admits publicly to the existence of problems in the management structure of the Kazakh MOD. The structure during the first decade of independence was denoted by the absence of an intermediary post between the Chief of the General Staff and district commanders. Altynbaev believes this can be blamed for the many shortcomings in the military structure, and proposes as a solution the creation of the post of commander of the ground troops; an idea not unfamiliar in the recent history of military reform in Russia. The commander of the ground troops would join those of the Air Defense Forces, Mobile Forces and Missile and Artillery Forces, thus raising the profile of the Kazakh ground forces.15 Altynbaev considers that it would address the problems of vertical management of the Armed Forces and alleviate the burden on Saparov; the ultimate goal, however, is the improvement of the combat readiness of the Kazakh ground forces, which will require much more than structural management changes to resolve chronic and persistent problems. Recently forming the Kazakh MDs, whilst perfectly sensible as a military structure, highlights the slow progress of reform, as well as the historical weakness of the Turkestan and Central Asian MDs, for decades considered to be a Soviet backwater.

The individuals at the forefront of military reform are also a significant part of the problem. Entrenched views on the nature of the military, its role and precisely how it should be reformed are bound up with two key persons: Nazarbaev and Altynbaev. Neither of these are particularly keen to risk public debate on military reform, and the re-appointment of the latter as Minister of Defense, after his resignation in 1999 over controversial arms sales to North Korea, is confirmation that belonging to the same zhuz as the president remains a significant factor in the choice of leaders in the Kazakh Armed Forces.16

The countrys anti-aircraft defense system has allegedly been in need of re-equipping for some time, a fact that is occasionally commented on by the MOD. Rosvoorouzhenie sold the S-300 to Cyprus in 1998, arousing protest from Turkey17; such systems are appealing to Astana, despite the absence of a credible threat. There is little progress toward actually implementing any plan to purchase military hardware. Indeed, Altynbaev has stated that it is possible that Kazakhstan may look to France, Germany or the U.K. for such equipment, should a decision be taken to purchase hardware.18 It is evidently not a minor matter, given the importance of the Caspian oil deposits, as well as the need to adequately protect the southern, and central regions of the country and the southern CIS borders. Altynbaev wishes to procure western hardware, but given the restrictions imposed by the current defense budget, it is clearly beyond reach. Astana itself is protected by a modern system ensuring the security of territory in a radius of 100 km and airspace 25 km high. This modern system is the S-300. However, the S-200 is a perfectly reliable system capable of providing sufficient protection. The S-300 is a modern and therefore viable alternative to the procurement of western hardware. Though they have S-300 complexes, more are sought. It is entirely unclear, however, as to the source of the threat, against which such systems are designed to protect.

In close proximity to Astana there is also an air base at Sary-Arka containing 36 MiG-31 aircraft.19 On the face of it, an apparently impressive indicator of military readiness. Nonetheless, given the chronic lack of flight training undertaken by Kazakh air force pilots, it may be symptomatic of the whole Kazakh military: afflicted by paper reform and where there seems to be high standards, lower levels are easily detectable within a military severely affected by more than a decade of under-financing.

The Kazakh military have reportedly experienced cuts in electric power, shortages of water and severe shortages in fuel. Military privileges have been abolished and often officers will go for several months without salaries. Against that background, waves of officers are quitting the Kazakh army.20 Stemming the flow may prove impossible, unless the concerns of such officers are listened to by the MOD, and these concerns form the basis of a systemic and well thought out remedy. The failures associated with the spring call-up have fluctuated in recent years, without any credible progress. In 1999, there were 12,000 called up in Northern Kazakhstan, though only about 1,000 were actually enlisted; such weaknesses in recruitment were a product of decline in the standards of health amongst potential conscripts.21 Yet, conscript service has been in decline. Caused by health issues, as well as increased levels of hazing amongst conscripts and poor conditions, contributing to draft evasion becoming an endemic problem in the 1990s. Far from confronting these important concerns, the government has preferred to speak generally about attempting to improve conditions and raise the social prestige of the military in the absence of specific policies on its fulfillment.

As a means of remedying the problems of manning, a plan to professionalize the military has been mooted since 1999, though its success is limited.22 Whilst the number of contract servicemen has risen to between 10,000-12,000, complaints abound concerning low pay. Crucially, even if the Armed Forces were entirely contract based, there is little infrastructure to supply adequate training to support a professional military. According to the Kazakh MOD, it is hoped that by 2010 the component of contract servicemen in the army will reach 50%. Supporting the claim that contract service is growing in popularity, the MOD cite the number serving in the air defense forces as 70%. Nonetheless, the figures in the SMD are less encouraging, at just 17%, emphasizing both the formative stages of the SMD and the difficulties in increasing the levels of contract manning.23

Problems associated with training are never far from the surface of the Kazakh Armed Forces, though it is rarely publicly acknowledged. Creating mobile forces particularly in formations in the Western MD supplies a semblance of actual progress in reform. Nothing is known about how these forces are trained, nor is the issue of the overhaul of the training apparatus openly discussed. Training is however mentioned by the MOD in the context of training specialists, such as those sent to China, Russia, Turkey and the U.S. In Kazakhstan itself it is planned to base specialists at the Aktiubinsk Higher Military Institute, Defense Ministry Cadet School and the Zhas Ulan School, as well as providing specialists for the Radioelectronics and Communications Institute and the Naval Academy.24 However, specialist-training levels, more promised than implemented in practice, conceal the chronically poor levels of military training in the Kazakh Armed Forces, and the equally curious absence of plans to rectify the issue.

There have been moves toward ensuring that more military exercises are held, in order to develop command structures and improve levels of coordination. Altynbaev announced in February 2002 that large-scale military exercises were scheduled in the Saryshagan military range, Karaganda Region in May 2002, involving all branches of the Armed Forces and all 4 MDs.25 The exercises, marking the 10th anniversary of the founding of the Kazakh Armed Forces, are far from a common occurrence for the Kazakh military. In fact, these are the first such exercises to be held in Kazakhstan, by Altynbaevs admission for two or three years. The exercises included a demonstration of the high precision Tochka U and Smelchak missiles (tactical cruise missile system) and rehearsed an air attack on an enemy.26 The common absence of military exercises confirmed by the Minister of Defense, serves to highlight the poor standard of training and military preparedness that currently exists.


Nazarbaev has expressed support for the U.S. War against Terrorism since an early stage and has offered practical assistance in that regard. The political consequences are continuing to unfold, but the readiness of Kazakhstan to participate in the international peacekeeping in Afghanistan has succeeded in raising its military profile. In late March 2002 the U.N. Security Council approved the request of the Kazakh government to send a peacekeeping battalion to Afghanistan; Kazbat was duly stationed in Kabul as part of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), carrying out engineering and technical work, and helping with humanitarian relief.27 This was quite an achievement, since opposition and fears were aroused against the idea of Kazakh Armed Forces operating outside the borders of the country ever since Nazarbaev gained the capability to do so.28

Kazbat was rapidly formed and trained within a short period, for the purpose of serving abroad as a peacekeeping battalion. It was based upon the MOD landing assault brigade and equipped with relatively modern specialist equipment that meets international standards. It also includes a platoon of engineers, as well as medical and communications platoons. The political desire to participate, as part of ISAF was undoubtedly a critical factor in the effort required to form and pull together the necessary resources; whilst the presence of specialists in the battalion helped to portray the Kazakh Armed Forces positively for the benefit of foreign media. Moreover, the decision to enhance the level of international cooperation in the military sphere brought yet more attention to the Kazakh military. A joint U.S.-Kazakh Commission, held in January 2002, discussed how military cooperation between the two countries might be developed.29 This seemed entirely consistent with the multifaceted approach in the conduct of Kazakh foreign policy, and its participation in regional security structures within the context of the CIS. Astanas support for the U.S., in its War against Terrorism, also raised the possibility of exploiting its closer relations for military purposes.

The International Influence in the Development of the Kazakh Armed Forces

U.S. involvement in military cooperation with the Kazakh Armed Forces, which has developed since the late 1990s, remains in its early stages, though it principally entails providing advice and training in antiterrorist techniques. 12 U.S. specialist soldiers arrived in Kazakhstan in February 2002 to supply specialist training to the Alpine Chasseur battalion, consisting of around 200 Kazakh soldiers.30 They reported that inadequate basic standards existed amongst the Kazakh soldiers. The U.S. intended to deliver such instruction as part of its strategy in its War against Terrorism, encouraging Central Asian governments to take responsibility for defending against their own indigenous or particular terrorist threats. Washington has also promised increased expenditure on joint U.S.-Kazakh cooperation in matters of regional security, aimed at countering regional terrorism and preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction. In addition, the U.S. is expected to provide $5 million in 2002 for the development of a motorized infantry and improvements in its military infrastructure, particularly in the Caspian region. As a participant in the U.S. international military education and training program (IMET), Kazakhstan has already received almost $3.5 million.31

It is likely that the antiterrorist training took place within the context of the Zhardem 2002 (Assistance 2002) military exercises conducted jointly with the U.S. Army in the SMD. The Kazakh MOD confirmed the participation of the Alpine Chasseur battalion, and that priority was given to search and rescue, mountain and medical training. These were envisaged as part of the planned U.S.-Kazakh military cooperation, running over several weeks and ending in late March 2002.32 Although the MOD claimed that such exercises had been conducted annually, with U.S. involvement, since 1998 they failed in their attempts to properly train an antiterrorist force themselves for active duty in Afghanistan, a plan mooted by Nazarbaev that was evidently unrealizable in practice.

Kazakh forces were, therefore, unable to adequately train such specialists without foreign assistance. The involvement of U.S. forces, however useful in the short term, cannot prove to be a replacement for a sound structure within the Armed Forces whose role is to properly train soldiers. Turkey has also offered assistance in the training of a special force battalion, sending its instructors to Kazakhstan since December 2001.33 Ankara, clearly concerned with the potential risk of Islamic terrorism spreading through Turkey, has promised to assist the Kazakh military in combating international terrorism. However, despite committing itself to providing military aid in 2002 worth over $1 million, in practical terms this has related to office equipment and communications systems.

The deployment of a Kazakh peacekeeping force in Afghanistan and the specialist antiterrorist training received from U.S. forces, whilst very public in their nature, involve relatively small numbers of Kazakh servicemen. The training of specialist units can hardly be representative of the current condition of the entire Kazakh Armed Forces. Poor standards of training, even in basic military knowledge and competence, observed by the U.S. soldiers are undoubtedly more accurate. In the words of one anonymous U.S. soldier, Most of them are very young conscripts. It is not any kind of army. But that is why we are here, I guess.34 The U.S. cooperation revealed the following points concerning the condition of the military in Kazakhstan:

  • A weak military displaying the signs of decay, common in post-Soviet militaries.
  • Poor standards of basic training are evident amongst most soldiers, even in the specialist units.
  • The Armed forces are poorly organized.
  • Military airbases are in a state of disrepair.35

The Kazakh military has been exposed to serious under-financing during the first decade of the countrys independence, and during that time the gap between the kind of military required and what it actually possesses has widened considerably. Consequently, low-morale and poor standards of military discipline are commonplace amongst its conscripts and contract servicemen.

Russia remains the key source of Kazakhstans military aid. Since 1994 Russia has operated the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan within the terms of a lease for 20 years at an agreed rent of $115 million. Russia pays substantial parts of that debt in military equipment and weapons. Kazakhstan also sends personnel to Russian military academies at no charge.

Astanas participation in regional security structures including the Collective Security Treaty (CST), Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), and the regional CIS Antiterrorist Centers, as well as the recent entry of the U.S. into the region in its War against Terrorism, serve to encourage its political leadership to pay more attention to the military. In this context, Astana, like its neighbors, will attempt to benefit from the West, whilst remaining open to the overtures of Moscow.

Counter-Terrorism as a Stimulus to Military Reform

In early 2002, Maj-Gen Nartai Dutbaev, Chairman of the National Security Council (NSC) warned of the growing threat by terrorist groups in Kazakhstan. The Kazakh government presented a package of bills to the Majilis (parliament) aimed at increasing state control over the media and religious groups on the basis of the terrorist threat. The terrorist threat currently facing Kazakhstan is as follows:

  • International organized criminal groups, and in domestic terms linked to financial industrial groups and corrupt state officials.
  • Radical Islamic organizations, in particular the Hizb ut-Tahrir group.
  • Uighur separatists, seeking separation for the Xinjiang-Uighur Autonomous Region of China.
  • Russian National patriots, seeking separation for the Northern and Northeastern regions of Kazakhstan.36

In October 2000, NSC agencies arrested 4 alleged members of the Hizb ut-Tahrir group. A small number of Uighur members were liquidated by a special sub-division of the Interior ministry in Almaty in September 2000. While a small group of Russian and Kazakh citizens were arrested by NSC agencies in Ust-Kamenogorsk in Eastern Kazakhstan in November 1999, after allegedly plotting a coup détat.37 The Kazakh newspaper in Almaty, Respublika-2000, questioned how serious the threat of increased terrorism is for Kazakhstan, suggesting an ulterior motive on the part of the government in seeking to implement its legislation. The threat, it seems, comes mainly from small radical groups and the evidence for its growth in Kazakhstan is sporadic, restricted to isolated incidents. Nazarbaev, keen to participate in the regional antiterrorist bodies under the framework of the CIS, has been equally supportive to the U.S. antiterrorist operations. In that context, the threat is perhaps more theoretical than real. In any case, it necessitates an invigorated antiterrorist emphasis within the Kazakh military.

True, the Hizb ut-Tahrir al-Islami (Islamic Liberation Party) terrorist group, with its headquarters thought to be in either Jordan or Saudi Arabia, is active in at least 7 CIS States, particularly in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. However, apart from the ongoing prosecution of 4 members arrested in October 2000, there is flimsy evidence for its growth in Kazakhstan, based mostly on the appearance of the groups literature in some parts of the country.38

A small radical anti-Chinese group has reportedly increased its activities in Kazakhstan. Yusupbek Mukhlisov, the leader of the Eastern Turkestan United National Revolutionary Front, has capitalized upon fears that the Chinese authorities might use the international war on terrorism as an excuse to crack down on Uighurs.39

The 11 September factor in regional politics has undoubtedly supplied a stimulus toward military cooperation, both at a regional level and in the involvement of the U.S. It remains, nonetheless, only a small part of the much broader issue and challenges presented by military reform. If Saparovs aim is making the targeting of small armed formations and terrorist groups the principal role for the Kazakh Armed Forces, then it not only implies an inability to presently cope with such a task, but suggests that the military are a long way from meeting larger-scale threats to the State.

Kazakhstans participation in the CST and SCO are factors that influence its political desire for military reform. The increased levels of U.S. military aid and cooperation have joined these factors. Astana clearly wishes to benefit from these developments, enhancing its antiterrorist capabilities and securing new military hardware, regardless of its source. Modern equipment and weapons, however, will have little impact on the wider issue of the decay of its Armed Forces. If Astana seeks to play a greater future role in multinational peacekeeping, participate in CST or SCO security structures, and significantly enhance its antiterrorist capabilities, then it could realistically afford substantial downsizing in the Armed Forces. Savings could be redirected toward professionalizing and training a military capable of meeting future threats. There is no evidence that such plans are under consideration.


The development of specialist antiterrorist capabilities within the Kazakh Armed Forces represents merely the tip of the iceberg, accounting for no more than 200 soldiers. It reveals nothing concerning the progress of military reform. Indeed, it cannot be reasonably viewed as constituting a credible advance in the wider military context. The majority of the Kazakh military has been in decline since the disintegration of the Soviet Union, and little has been done to rescue it from further decay.

Other factors, such as the desire to participate in the regional security bodies and respond if needed to a crisis caused by border disputes, have influenced the government in Astana to begin military reform. Astana is particularly sensitive about its border with Uzbekistan, though this may be improved through the Shanghai forum. They would like to carry it out with minimal cost, and find it easier in the short term to concentrate on international peacekeeping and antiterrorist units. These may improve, providing some marginal evidence of progress in military reform, though there are risks entailed in neglecting the actual condition of the military.

One of the many anomalies at the heart of the reform process in the Kazakhstan is seen in the military service by Kazakhs even in the last years of the Soviet Army, contrasting starkly with an apparent lack of enthusiasm to serve in the modern Kazakh Armed Forces. Far from suggesting a decline in the ideal of an independent Kazakhstan, it points to the pronounced decline in the social prestige of the military. Moreover, Kazakh military reform is predicated upon the assumption that the Armed Forces it inherited after the disintegration of the Soviet Union are capable of reform. Not only was this neglected throughout the 1990s, but the Soviet hardware and military infrastructure inherited by Kazakhstan proved obsolete and even displayed signs of crumbling, since the apparatus did not exist either for the proper training or development of its Armed Forces. In other words, the poor condition of the former Soviet military within the Republic in 1992 was grossly underestimated by the authorities and opportunity to carry out reform was subordinated in its level of importance to the issue of the nuclear arsenal and subsequent debates that led to its renunciation in 1995.40 Paper reform is an all too easy option, especially in the absence of clear aims. But it does little to deflect attention from the lowly condition of the Kazakh Armed Forces.

There is an absence of public debate on what precisely should be reformed in the Kazakh Armed Forces. The government suggests that more modern weapons and equipment is needed, whilst ignoring the twin problems of little investment in the military and the widening gap between high-tech weaponry and chronic standards in basic military training amongst its servicemen.

The process of military reform has finally commenced in Kazakhstan, even in a small manner, but it has a long way to go in order to achieve genuine reform. Military reform ought to begin by reassessing the nature of external and internal threats, in order that it can be adequately trained and equipped to meet this in practice. In that context, it seems that external threats are minimal since Kazakhstan has no natural enemies, whilst internal threats are increasing, principally from nationalist or militant Islamic groups. Training and equipping armed forces that can cope with these threats will demand high standards of professionalism amongst servicemen. Unfortunately, current reform appears largely cosmetic, aimed at supplying peacekeeping or antiterrorist specialists, without engaging in systemic reform underpinned by serious investment. That is the challenge confronting both political and military leaders: it will be ignored only at the expense of further military decline.

1 See: The Military Balance, 2000-2001, International Institute for Strategic Studies, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2001, p. 177.
2 25 Billion Tenge for the Armed Forces in 2001, Panorama, WPS Agency, Almaty, 19 January, 2001.
3 See: Kazakhstan Sets Up Navy with Foreign Assistance, Nezavisimaia gazeta, BBC Monitoring Service, 7 August, 2001; T. Izdibaev, Defense Ministry Does Not Intend to Radically Militarize Our Youth, Panorama, Almaty, 28 December, 2001; Kazakhstan Launches Military Patriotic Drive to Improve Army Prestige, Interfax-Kazakhstan, 2 May, 2002.
4 See: Kazakhstan to Spend Over $275 Million on Roads in 2002, Khabar TV, BBC Monitoring Service, Almaty, 6 April, 2002.
5 See: 25 Billion Tenge...
6 See: S. Zhagiparov, Kazakh Units Have Held a Fully Fledged Exercise on the Saryshagan Firing Range, Krasnaia Zvezda, 26 April, 2002, p. 3.
7 See: Rush Hour-the Battle Force Takes on All-Round Defense, Almaty Ekspress-K, 23 January, 2002.
8 See: Kazakh Defence Minister Inspects Southern Military District, Interfax-Kazakhstan, 9 February, 2002.
9 Saparov disagrees with the view shared by many Kazakh MPs that the Kazakh nuclear arsenal should not have been relinquished, since the nuclear capability would do little to achieve success in low-intensity conflict (see: Kazakh MPs Disagree with Militarys Abandonment of Nuclear Weapons, Almaty Kazakh Commercial TV, 21 February, 2002).
10 25 Billion Tenge
11 See: Rapid Reaction Forces Exercise Begins in Kyrgyzstan, BBC Monitoring Service, 13 April, 2002.
12 See: The Military Balance, 2000-2001, p.172.
13 Kazakh Military Service Could Be Cut to One Year, Defence Minister Says, BBC Monitoring Service, 25 February, 1999.
14 See: Interfax-Kazakhstan, 17 January, 2002; Panorama, Almaty, 29 March, 2002, p.6; official figures are lower, Serious Military Crime Up, Drug Figures Down in Kazakhstan, Interfax-Kazakhstan, 26 February, 2002.
15 See: Kazakh Defence Ministry to Introduce the Post of Ground Troops Commander, Interfax-Kazakhstan, 18 January, 2002.
16 See: V. Georgiev, That Same Altynbaev: Kazakhstans New Defense Minister Has Already Once Directed the Countrys Armed Forces, Nezavisimaia gazeta, 20 December, 2001, p 5.
17 See: Janes Defense Weekly, 22 July, 1998.
18 See: Interfax-Kazakhstan, 30 January, 2002.
19 Altynbaev, clearly proud of the air base, has suggested naming it after the Soviet hero Nurken Abdirov (see: Interfax-Kazakhstan, 21 February, 2002).
20 See: Panorama, WPS, Astana, 12 November, 1999, p.6.
21 See: Most Conscripts in Northern Kazakhstan Unfit for Military Service, BBC Monitoring Service, 6 May, 1999.
22 This was proposed in 1999, to commence in 2000 (see: Kazakh Defense Minister Speaks on Live Interactive TV Programme, BBC Monitoring Service, 23 July, 1999).
23 See: Kazakhstan to up Contract Servicemen Numbers, Interfax-Kazakhstan, 23 April, 2002.
24 See: T. Izdibaev, op cit.
25 See: Large-Scale Military Exercises to Take Place in Kazakhstan in May, Interfax-Kazakhstan, 21 February, 2002.
26 See: S. Zhagiparov, op. cit.
27 See: Kazakh Media Report U.N. Endorsement of Kazakhstans ISAF Role, Kazakh Commercial TV, BBC Monitoring Service, 28 March, 2002.
28 See: Reporting Central Asia, 17 November, 2000.
29 See: Kazakh Peacekeeping Battalion FormedDefence Minister, Interfax-Kazakhstan, 18 January, 2002.
30 See: Americans Covertly Training Kazakh Troops, The Times, London, 30 March, 2002, p. 20.
31 See: Trade, Aid, Oil and Non-proliferation the Keystones to New American Relationship, RFE, Vol. 1, No. 23, 27 December, 2001; U.S. Anti-Terrorist Exercises to be Held in Kazakhstan From 14 February, Kazakh Commercial TV, BBC Monitoring Service, 13 February, 2002; U.S.A. to Train Special Army Subunits to Fight Terrorists, Kazakh Commercial TV, BBC Monitoring Service, 6 March, 2002; Kazakhstan Officials Say the U.S. Is Offering Aid to Improve the Kazakh Military, Associated Press, 20 April, 2002.
32 See: Joint U.S.-Kazakh Military Exercises Underway in Southern Kazakhstan, Interfax-Kazakhstan, 7 March, 2002.
33 See: Ye. Belova, Kazakhstan-Turkey: The Scope of Military Cooperation Being Expanded, Voin Kazakhstana, Almaty, 21 March, 2002, pp. 1-2.
34 Americans Covertly Training Kazakh Troops.
35 Ibidem.
36 See: Attempts on Life of Kazakhstans President: Myth or Reality? Respublika-2000, Almaty, 7 February, 2002.
37 Ibidem.
38 The group has become more militant in recent years (see:; E Qarabalov, A Terrorist Organization Uncovered in Azerbaijan: But the Leader of Its Baku Cell Is Still on the Run, Baku Zerkalo (Internet Version), 3 January, 2002.
39 Channel 31 TV, Almaty, 7 January, 2002.
40 Although the 1,040 ICBMs and 370 warheads for strategic bombers were sent back to Russia in 1995, Kazakhstans status as a non-nuclear power has recently been questioned by the U.K. MOD, cf. U.K. Lists Kazakhstan as Country Posing a Nuclear ThreatKazakh TV, Kazakh Commercial TV, Almaty, BBC Monitoring Service, 3 May, 2002.

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