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The White House’s Kazakh Dilemma

Prepared by: Lionel Beehner
Updated: September 29, 2006

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Kazakhstan is a country whose landmass is larger than Western Europe, blessed with vast reserves of oil, gas, and minerals. It sits at a nexus of continents, along popular corridors for drug traffickers and terrorists. A Muslim but moderate state, Kazakhstan recently joined a Central Asian no-nuclear zone and has managed to avoid ethnic conflict and extremist violence, giving it a veneer of calm uncommon for the region (BBC). It is therefore no surprise the White House is trying to curry favor with Kazakhstan, whose leader, President Nursultan Nazarbayev, is in Washington meeting with senior U.S. officials. On Friday he met with President Bush, who praised the Kazakh leader for his "commitment to institutions that will enable liberty to flourish" (AP).

At the top of the agenda are economic issues. The United States is Kazakhstan’s largest investor in its oil and gas industries. U.S. officials are eager to get the Trans-Caspian project off the ground, which would allow Kazakh oil to skirt Russia and flow through the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline and on to Western markets. Bilateral trade between the United States and Kazakhstan last year was $1.8 billion, nearly double what it was in 2004 (RFE/RL). S. Frederick Starr of Johns Hopkins University, writing in the Washington Post, argues that Kazakhstan’s petrodollars are beginning to trickle down to an emerging middle class, which has benefited from the government's revised tax code.

The United States and Kazakhstan also hold common geostrategic interests. During his May visit to Astana, Vice President Dick Cheney called Kazakhstan a "key strategic partner of the United States” in its war on terror. Nazarbayev’s government provides NATO planes with flyover rights, while Kazakh soldiers fight alongside U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. Kazakhstan—filling the void left by the severing of U.S.-Uzbek ties—has emerged as Washington’s most reliable partner in a region increasingly suspicious of American interests.

Yet U.S.-Kazakh relations have always been awkward, not least because of Astana’s poor human rights record, its habit of rigging its elections, and its harsh treatment of pro-democracy groups, which places it at odds with President Bush’s freedom agenda. Two opposition leaders were killed over the past year (HRW). Nazarbayev’s reelection last December was neither free nor fair, say poll monitors. And the Kazakh authorities shut down two prominent U.S. organizations financed by the National Endowment for Democracy just days before Cheney’s visit in May.

Corruption also remains problematic. Family members of Nazarbayev control most of the country’s media, which no doubt contributes to the Kazakh leader’s sky-high approval ratings. The president also stands accused of accepting bribes in the 1990s from an American businessman, James Giffen, who remains on trial in New York (RFE/RL).

Part of the reason for the Kazakh president’s trip is to burnish Kazakhstan’s image as a clean and corruption-free place for foreign investors, emphasized in large advertisements purchased by the Kazakh government in the New York Times and Washington Post this week. Yet a sideshow to his public relations efforts is a popular British comedian, Sacha Baron Cohen, whose Borat character, a Kazakh journalist, depicts Kazakhstan in a negative, if silly, light (NYT). Kazakhstan’s foreign ministry has tried to refute Cohen’s claims, however satirical, by educating Western audiences about Kazakh culture.

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