Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 3 Issue: 165

Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s upcoming official visit to the United States will be his sixth summit meeting with U.S. President George W. Bush. As the trip approaches, more questions arise concerning the future shape of Kazakh-U.S. relations, specifically whether it should become a genuine, “strategic” alliance and not merely paper pronouncements. Until quite recently Astana and Washington, while thousands of miles apart, had much in common in the economic and political spheres. But despite the ostentatious display of close ties bordering on political alliance, it appears that Washington is losing interest in this Central Asian country.

Political scientists in Kazakhstan are warning Nazarbayev of the potential pitfalls of his talks with his U.S. counterpart, and they are suggesting strategies he should follow to avoid future mistakes. The well-known analyst Yuri Sigov thinks that Nazarbayev would be well advised to try to get a clear view of future U.S. policy towards Kazakhstan and refrain from rhetoric that could be interpreted as hostile posturing in Moscow and Beijing. After all, it is more important for Astana to maintain balanced relations with Russia, China, and the United States than to proffer a momentary demonstration of loyalty to Washington.

The Bush administration appears to duly appreciate the contributions made by the Kazakh peacekeeping battalion (Kazbat) that was deployed to Iraq in 2003 and also the recent assurances by Deputy Kazakh Defense Minister Bolat Sembinov that Kazakhstan would not withdraw Kazbat from Iraq. The Kazakh peacekeeping mission in Iraq offers Nazarbayev an opportunity and a justification to ask Bush for more technical and financial aid to equip the Kazakh army with sophisticated weapons. Nazarbayev also should not miss the opportunity to seek active U.S. support in Kazakhstan’s drive for WTO membership and chairmanship of the OSCE.

As Washington’s most reliable partner, in Central Asia over the last five years, Astana should get substantial support from Bush as a reward for this loyalty. Kazakhstan stands out as the only country among its Central Asian neighbors that sent troops to a Muslim country, Iraq, more to please an important funder than to defend the cause of peace in a distant land. But the non-combat mission assigned to Kazbat, sparked little criticism from other Muslim countries, including Astana’s Central Asian neighbors. Washington should also acknowledge Kazakhstan’s contributions in Afghanistan, such as training local personnel and providing financial support for the Afghan government (Delovaya nedelya, July 29).

As long as economic interests prevail in Washington, Astana has no reason to fear U.S. grumblings over its own deviations from democratic standards, such as the sporadic murders of opposition political leaders, occasional legal persecution of editors of independent newspapers, and even the notorious Kazakhgate scandal related to corruption in the top echelons of power. Most likely, Bush will tactfully remain silent on the thorny issue of democratic behavior in his talks with Kazakh leader, as he has many times in the past. After all, the human rights situation in Kazakhstan is not as bad as in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkmenistan. Kazakhstan has still an important role to play in Central Asia not only as a model of democracy by Central Asian standards, but also as the most reliable supplier of energy resources for U.S. allies in Europe and the United States itself (Azat, September 1).

All these considerations lead observers to conclude that Kazakhstan remains Washington’s first choice in the Central Asian region. Kazakhstan has succeeded in conducting a safe multi-vector policy that has managed to avoid intensifying geopolitical collisions between the United States, China, and Russia and their allies. This policy was brilliantly illustrated during Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s August 28 trip to Kazakhstan, the first visit of a Japanese leader to Astana, during which he worked to develop uranium cooperation. Nazarbayev, using his diplomatic skill, has managed to reconcile the conflicting economic and political interests of China and Japan in his country. Likewise, he gave equal treatment to Russian- and U.S.-supported leaders in Georgia and Ukraine. Astana’s diplomatic advantage over other Central Asian states is that Kazakhstan has no political problems linked to the presence of U.S. military bases, a situation that created problems for Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan in their relations with Russia.

For all these positive developments, the future role of Kazakhstan in U.S. policy looks uncertain. Kazakhstan’s geographical position, squeezed between China and Russia, and its rich oil reserves are attractive to U.S. companies, giving Astana considerable economic and political importance. But compared to European countries, Japan, China, or Latin American countries, Kazakhstan is insignificant for U.S. interests. However unimportant as a strategic partner, Astana has its own interests to defend. At least in the short term, Washington will need Kazakhstan, as much as Kazakh oil will need U.S. investments.