U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney praised Kazakhstan as “a good friend and important strategic partner,” particularly in fighting international terrorism, as he wrapped up his two-day visit to Kazakhstan on May 6. The trip culminated with the signing of documents to amend the agreement to eliminate facilities for developing and testing weapons of mass destruction, cooperation in preventing the illegal movement of nuclear material, and a memorandum on mutual understanding on economic development.
Although Cheney’s visit was highlighted as a new phase in U.S.-Kazakh economic relations, and he pledged assistance to Kazakhstan in its endeavors to join the most economically competitive states of the world, the trip carried a strong political subtext. Fielding questions from journalists in Astana, Cheney essentially reiterated his statement, made earlier in Vilnius, that Russia is using its control over energy resources to exert pressure on the Baltic and Black Sea states. He said his views on that point coincided with those of other participants at the Vilnius summit. Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev adopted Cheney’s conciliatory tone and said that there was no confrontation between Russia and the United States. “Rather, it was a friendly exchange of opinions. We all should be accustomed to thinking that every independent state solves its problems and pursues a certain policy. We all should learn to respect this policy” (Kazakhstanskaya pravda, May 6).
Cheney’s Vilnius speech also did not go unnoticed in China. Beijing media speculated, “Cheney’s harsh criticism [of Russia] infected fresh tension that is likely to be still felt when Russian President Vladimir Putin hosts U.S. President George Bush at the summit of the G-8 club of rich nations in St. Petersburg in July.” The official Chinese view is that Cheney’s criticism was provoked by “Russia’s new self-confidence” (China Daily, May 6).
On the eve of Cheney’s arrival in Astana, some analysts noted that the White House, no longer content with Kazakhstan’s role as an important economic partner in Central Asia, was scheming to draw Astana into its geopolitical orbit. Kyrgyzstan’s plans to revise the U.S. lease on the Manas air base and deteriorating relations with Uzbekistan make a long-term political alliance between Washington and Astana more realistic.
Cheney’s visit coincided with Kazakh Prime Minister Daniyal Akhmetov’s trip to Baku, where he conducted talks with Azeri leader Ilham Aliyev and Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Akhmetov stressed Azerbaijan’s need to ensure the security of the Caspian region and reaffirmed Kazakhstan’s readiness to deliver oil to the Azeri Sangachal sea terminal to be sent onward to Europe, bypassing Russia. Experts believe Azeri oil and gas supplies alone are not enough to meet Europe’s enormous demands for energy resources, and future deliveries from Kazakhstan through the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline could make up the shortfall. But at the same time, analysts warn that Kazakhstan will have to stick to its multi-vector foreign policy and keep the right balance among China, the United States, Russia, and other players in the Caspian region (Delovaya nedelya, April 28).
Like Aliyev, Nazarbayev is worried over the intensifying standoff between Teheran and Washington, which poses a direct threat to the Caspian region. Apparently, if Astana will not actively support the U.S. campaign against Tehran, the White House wants Kazakhstan to at least maintain a “friendly neutrality.” Washington does not want Kazakhstan, which possesses one-fourth of the world’s uranium reserves, to get too close to Iran. Talking to journalists, Cheney said the United States favors a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear problem. He said Iran would be well advised to follow the example of Kazakhstan, which surrendered its nuclear arsenal in the early 1990s (Liter, May 6). He also lauded Kazakhstan for its peacekeeping efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Yet Astana expects much more than just praise and friendly words from Washington. American investment in the Kazakh economy has reached $1.5 billion. Now Kazakhstan wants U.S. assistance for its nuclear energy program. Over the last two months the government has been actively discussing projects to construct nuclear power stations.
Nazarbayev told journalists that his talks with Cheney were conducted in an open and trustful atmosphere. But Kazakhstan cannot easily discard Russian and Chinese interests in the Caspian region. Just before Cheney’s visit Astana hosted the president of Russia’s Lukoil company, Vagit Alekperov, who took part in the ceremony opening Lukoil’s new branch office in Astana and announced plans to expand the company’s activities in Kazakhstan’s Khvalynskoye and Tsentralnoye oil fields (Kazakhstanskaya pravda, April 27).
Even taking into account Russian and Chinese strategic priorities in Kazakhstan, Astana markets itself as Washington’s most reliable partner in Central Asia. Thus, it is no wonder that the Bush administration toned down its criticism of political developments in Kazakhstan, mildly rebuking Astana for last year’s presidential elections that were “not fully conforming to international norms.” Cheney had only perfunctory talks with leaders of local political parties, conspicuously avoiding painful topics. He said Kazakhstan was on the right track with political reforms, but Astana still must prove that it deserves that assessment.