Critics of the ruling regime in Kazakhstan were visibly disappointed by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who paid a two-day visit to Astana on October 12-13. She did not offer them any support ahead of the December 4 presidential election.
To the surprise of leaders from several political parties, Rice made few remarks in support of opposition forces and even praised the political and democratic processes in Kazakhstan as a good example for other Central Asian countries to follow. Striking the right chord with the prevailing mood among the ruling elite and nationalists, Rice stressed that the United States does not intend to teach democracy to Central Asian states, but rather will leave them with the right to come to democracy on their own. She depicted Kazakhstan as the “nexus” of future positive developments in Eurasia during the 21st century, as it is “the point where all roads cross” (Komsomolskaya pravda Kazakhstan, October 30).
Journalists pointed out that Rice, during a press conference with President Nursultan Nazarbayev and not her counterpart, Foreign Minister Kasymzhomart Tokayev, drifted away from some pointed questions from the press relating to Kazakhstan and expounded on the problems of democracy in Afghanistan instead. When one foreign journalist remarked that the Secretary of State was evading questions, she explained that it was due to the inaccuracy of the translation. She expressed her regret that her Russian was not good enough to use to converse with the press.
The main message of Rice’s visit to Astana is that Kazakhstan, as a model of democracy in the region, is at the top of Washington’s favored-nations list for Central Asia. As long as the Bush administration continues to hold this positive view, there is little fear that mild criticism over slight deviations from American-favored standards of democracy would lead to serious disagreements (Central Asian Monitor, October 14).
There were a few bumps in Rice’s otherwise smooth trip to Kazakhstan. Tolen Toktasynov, a prominent supporter of opposition presidential contender Zharmakhan Tuyakbay, was arrested on the day Rice arrived. But opposition forces were quite unrealistic in their expectation to get more attention from the American guest than perfunctory talks with two or three opposition leaders. Apparently Rice had more pressing business than to waste her time on a hopelessly weakened opposition that has fragmented into dozens of rival factions. Tuyakbay, from the “For a Fair Kazakhstan” opposition bloc, reportedly felt humiliated because Rice choose to meet first with Alikhan Baymenov, the leader of Ak Zhol. In the end, both politicians were dissatisfied with Rice’s hands-off approach toward the upcoming election.
Nazarbayev deftly handled an unexpected question from a persistent CNN journalist who asked if the two daughters of the president who control a number of media outlets and banks present an unbiased portrait of their father to the outside world. Nazarbayev dismissed allegations about shady businesses run by his daughters as “false information disseminated by the opposition.” He went on to say that currently there are 2,200 media outlets in Kazakhstan broadcasting in 13 languages. There also are 5,000 non-governmental organizations listed in the country. Nazarbayev reiterated that he would do everything in his power to ensure that the upcoming presidential election would be fair and transparent (Ak Zhol Kazakhstan, October 21).
The United States has made a visible choice, moving away from the disorganized, ragtag opposition towards the government of Kazakhstan. Another factor contributing to the new rapprochement in U.S.-Kazakh relations is the recent chill between Washington and Tashkent. Uzbek President Islam Karimov’s tilt towards China and Russia gives Kazakhstan more weight as a U.S. political and economic partner in Central Asia, although after being ordered out of Uzbekistan Washington will have to think twice before locating a new military base in any Central Asian country. Speaking in parliament on October 31, Foreign Minister Tokayev gave rather vague answers to questions from legislators who asked whether or not the United States was planning to locate an air base in Kazakhstan. “We must maintain friendly relations with all countries. But good relations with the USA does not mean the justification of every action taken by the United States,” he answered evasively. Tokayev stressed the importance of the United States as a strategic partner and reiterated that merging Kazakhstan with Russia would be impossible (Khabar TV, October 31).
Spoiling relations with Washington a few weeks away from presidential elections could be disastrous for Astana. Thus, it is not surprising that the Kazakh Foreign Ministry is turning a deaf ear toward a parliament disgruntled over the prolonged deployment of Kazakh servicemen in a peacekeeping mission in Muslim Iraq. The American administration seems well aware of the fact that Nazarbayev is the best choice from among the five or so candidates vying for the presidential crown.