Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s three-day visit to the United States was a well-planned event. Foreign Minister Kasymzhomart Tokayev did his best to create a favorable climate for the visit long before Nazarbayev arrived on September 26. Up until the very last moment the exact date of the visit had remained guesswork even for the president’s immediate staff (Central Asia Monitor, September 8).
Astana was allowed enough time to eliminate the last remaining hurdles that could irritate Washington. Just before his departure to the United States, Nazarbayev received his loudest critics, Zharmakhan Tuyakbay and Alikhan Baimenov. Such opposition leaders no longer pose a serious threat to the establishment, but some sort of dialogue with them is necessary to signal to the West that the country is pursuing political reforms. As Nazarbayev was shaking hands with U.S. President George W. Bush, the government of Kazakhstan repealed the article of the election law that banned demonstrations and rallies during the campaign season. Justice Minister Zagipa Balieva added that the government had lifted the ban not under pressure from the OSCE, but to show respect for its people (Aikyn, September 30).
It is difficult to ignore the contrast between the praise given to Kazakhstan as a model for other countries in the region and Washington’s harsher tone with Moscow. While Kazakhstan received high marks on democracy in the joint statement issued in Washington, earlier this year U.S. Vice-President Dick Cheney criticized Russia for “stifling democracy.” Apparently relations between Astana and Washington are warmed by the rich energy resources in the region, which insulate Astana from blame for deviating from democratic standards.
No less important is the fact that one-third of the total investment in the Kazakh economy comes from the United States. Since Kazakhstan became independent in late 1991, U.S. investors have poured more than $12 billion into the country’s economy. Nazarbayev secured U.S. support in Kazakhstan’s efforts to join the World Trade Organization, pledges of additional investment in the ailing agriculture sector, as well as Washington’s approval of the Kazakh government’s scheme to build a nuclear power station on Lake Balkhash.
Nazarbayev also used the occasion to raise his international political profile, stating that the current global policy of granting one country the right to develop nuclear weapons while denying the same right to others was fundamentally unjust. He pointed out that Kazakhstan, which voluntarily scrapped more than 1,000 nuclear warheads, 40 long-range TU-95 bombers and joined non-proliferation treaties, has ample grounds to propose that the nuclear powers should reduce their arsenals and establish strict control over the disarmament process (Kazakhstanskaya pravda, September 30).
Even Nazarbayev’s toughest critics cannot deny that the trip to Washington was a great success. The U.S. administration stressed that energy cooperation would be the top priority in bilateral relations in the short-term. The broader agenda, which is almost completely economic, suggests that Washington knows it is dealing with a country that will not cause it any political headaches. For Washington, Kazakhstan is the most predictable and reliable partner in Central Asia, and has a thriving economy. Aware of the growing weight of Astana in U.S. policy, Nazarbayev presented himself as an equal, dignified leader in his talks with Bush (Delovaya nedelya, September 29).
Skillfully balancing among China, Russia, and the United States, Nazarbayev made it clear that none of the great powers can count on favored ties with Kazakhstan. Barely off the plane from Washington, he rushed to embrace Russian President Vladimir Putin in the city of Uralsk in West Kazakhstan on October 3. The two leaders signed six documents relating to bilateral border trade and economic cooperation, including a key agreement on setting up a joint venture at Russia’s Orenburg gas processing plant, which will open new opportunities for Kazakh gas supplies to Russia. Nazarbayev stressed the economic cooperation was the “cornerstone of Kazakh-Russian relations” and that Kazakhstan had reached a stage of development that allows it to invest in the Russian economy (Liter, October 4).
But Kazakhstan has a grim record of tense relations with foreign companies and investors. Nazarbayev’s trip to Washington coincided with an unprecedented wave of strikes by miners following the death of 41 miners in an explosion at the Lenin coal mine on September 20 (see EDM, September 22). All eight coal mines owned by Mittal Steel Temirtau stood idle during a week-long strike supported by steel workers from that company. Miners resumed their work only after the company agreed to triple their wages, up from the current $320 a month. Political scientist Dosym Satpayev believes that, in order to make foreign companies respect the laws of Kazakhstan, the government must treat them all equally, abandoning the practice of punishing some foreign investors with hefty fines for alleged environmental damages while favoring others at the same time.