Ukrainian Foreign Minister Leonid Kozhara has visited Kazakhstan and Prime Minister Mykola Azarov went to Belarus earlier this month to assure Russia’s Customs Union partners that Ukraine’s plans to sign an association and free trade agreement with the European Union in November will do them no harm. Judging by statements made during and after the visits, attitudes to Ukraine’s plans in Astana and Minsk are more pragmatic than in Moscow, which keeps threatening Kyiv with sanctions for preferring the EU to its own regional bloc (see EDM, October 10).
Kozhara visited Kazakhstan on October 13–14, officially as chairperson-in-office of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). However, discussions between Kozhara and his Kazakhstani counterpart, Foreign Minister Erlan Idrissov focused rather on bilateral ties, judging by a joint official statement issued after the talks. The statement said the two sides would “step up contacts as far as cooperation with the EU is concerned,” and stressed a “special interest” of Kazakhstan regarding the planned establishment of a free-trade area between Ukraine and the EU. The statement also said that the changes to the trade regime between Ukraine and Kazakhstan that are due to the Customs Union’s establishment should not negatively impact bilateral ties. Kozhara and Idrissov pledged to continue cooperation in the sectors of energy, aerospace and transportation, as well as to set up joint ventures in Kazakhstan to make machinery (mfa.gov.kz, October 14).
Kozhara announced that Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych would visit Kazakhstan in the first half of 2014 and told his host country’s First Deputy Prime Minister Bakytzhan Sagintayev, whose remit includes the Russia-led Customs Union, that free trade between Ukraine and the EU would not harm Ukraine’s cooperation with Customs Union countries. Sagintayev, in turn, told Kozhara that Kazakhstan was interested in Ukraine’s potential in the aerospace industry and railroad machinery manufacturing (unn.com.ua, Trend.az, October 14). Kazakhstan has been the second largest importer, after Russia, of Ukrainian freight cars, which have been among Ukraine’s main export items. However, both Russia and Kazakhstan cut these imports recently. Sagintayev’s statement bodes well for Ukraine’s ailing railroad machinery industry, especially after Russia last month banned freight cars made by one of Ukraine’s largest manufacturers, Kryukovsky (unn.com.ua, September 26).
Kozhara also must have discussed military cooperation in Kazakhstan, which is one of the main importers of Ukrainian arms. Military trade between the two countries was marred by the arrest in Kazakhstan last January of two officials from the Ukrainian state military export company, Ukrspetsexport. The two were accused of giving a bribe of $200,000 to Almaz Asenov, the head of the Kazakhstani army’s main department for armaments (TVi, February 5). In July, a court in Kazakhstan sentenced Asenov to 11 years in prison and the two Ukrainians to six years in prison. It was speculated that the three were involved in a scheme whereby Kazakhstan paid for the maintenance of a Ukrainian-made military transport plane that was never carried out. The plane, an Antonov-72, crashed in 2012, killing several Kazakhstani border troop officers (Azattyq, July 24).
Despite the incident, Kazakhstan’s and Ukraine’s defense ministries agreed at a meeting in Astana in August 2013 to boost military-technical cooperation. Interfax reported, citing its sources, that Kazakhstan offered Ukraine to participate in tenders in 2014 to deliver, upgrade and repair military aircraft and air defense means, as well as to repair and upgrade armored vehicles. The two countries’ military officials also agreed that Ukraine would build ships for Kazakhstan’s navy (Interfax-Ukraine, August 9).
During the Ukrainian prime minister’s visit to Minsk on October 7, Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka told Azarov that he saw no problem in Ukraine’s plans to sign the association agreement with the EU rather than joining the Customs Union with Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan. The Customs Union countries had to contend with the realities on the ground as they formulated relations with their neighbors—and the EU-Ukraine association agreement was almost reality, Lukashenko said (Regnum, October 7). Belarus’s leader added that Russia and Kazakhstan were also conducting free trade talks with the EU, so Ukraine should not be rebuked (Belta, October 11). The newspaper Sovetskaya Belorussiya, which is the Belarusian government’s official mouthpiece, had suggested ahead of Azarov’s visit that Ukraine’s planned agreement with the EU could help Belarus in its own efforts to enter third country markets. Azarov said Ukraine was grateful to Belarus for “a calm assessment” of its plans regarding the EU. Belarus, he said, was “drawing absolutely the right conclusions” (Sovetskaya Belorussiya, October 5). Thus, he juxtaposed Belarus with Russia, which has been openly unhappy with Ukraine’s integration into the EU.
Russia on several occasions accused Kazakhstan and Belarus of abusing their status in the Customs Union by helping Ukrainian exporters to reach Russian markets when Russia imposed embargoes on Ukrainian goods (EurasiaNet, August 16). Most recently, this has been the case with the candies made by the Ukrainian factories of the Roshen confectionery concern, which belongs to a vocal supporter of EU integration, former foreign minister and former economy minister Petro Poroshenko (see EDM, October 16). Yet, by all appearances, and despite the pressure coming from Moscow, Kazakhstan and Belarus seem to be pursuing independent policies from Russia regarding Ukraine and its relations with the EU.