The visit of Kazakhstani Foreign Minister Kanat Saudabayev to Washington in early February failed to produce any agreements on pressing issues, according to US State Department officials.
Kazakhstan's top priority for the visit was to gain US support for a summit of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, a meeting that Kazakhstani leaders hope to convene this year in Astana. Saudabayev also aimed to arrange a one-on-one meeting between US President Barack Obama and Kazakhstani chief executive Nursultan Nazarbayev in April. The United States, in return, was seeking to pressure Kazakhstan to implement some concrete measures on human rights, including a review of the controversial sentence of a human rights activist, Yevgeny Zhovtis. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Despite expectations that the two sides would be able agree on US support for an OSCE summit, that didn't happen. There was no official announcement made after Saudabayev met with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and no press conference. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Kazakhstan was not "at a decision point" on any of the specific measures that Washington wants to see, said a State Department official familiar with the discussions. The official spoke to EurasiaNet on condition of anonymity. Still, the official said there were "positive discussions" and "they didn't say no to anything."
In particular, Kazakhstan appears willing to address the Zhovtis case, the official said. "Saudabayev wasn't as hardline on this as they [Kazakh officials] were a couple of months ago, when they were saying 'We're just following the law.' But there's a growing realization that their own law wasn't applied well, there were flaws in the whole legal process," said the official. "They recognize that it's an issue and they need to deal with it."
In part, Saudabayev was unable to deliver any concrete promises because the Zhovtis case remains in the appeal phase in the Kazakhstan court system. "We're not telling them to break their own laws. We want them to figure this out within their own system," the US diplomat said.
"We emphasize that it's a stain on their reputation, and that they need to undo the mistakes that their legal system made." the official added. But Zhovtis's appeal is not expected to be decided before May, after the nuclear security summit. "If they want to deliver something before that on Zhovtis, they'll have to speed things up a little bit."
Similarly, while Saudabayev said he supported a US request for Kazakhstan to open new air routes to help speed the shipment military cargo to Afghanistan, he indicated that Astana's consent would require parliamentary approval. In the past, similar agreements have been implemented before being approved by the Kazakhstani legislature. But in this case, Washington is supportive of the notion of Kazakhstan's executive branch working with the parliament. "We don't want to discourage that, it's a little bit rare in that neighborhood," the State Department official said. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Even though the discussions were positive, the United States was not ready to commit to participating in an OSCE summit. "If they're so interested in a summit, we want to use it to drive them to take some steps, light a fire beneath them on a few of these things," the official said. The US position on a summit hasn't changed significantly since a December OSCE meeting in Athens, when OSCE members agreed, in principle, to the idea of Kazakhstan holding a summit.
"After Athens, they went around the world telling the world that the members support the idea of a summit. What they didn't emphasize is the steps we were saying you [Kazakhstani officials] need to do before that, and I suspect this time it will be the same thing," the official said. "They'll spin this very positively. I don't want to sound like we're negative, but it's not a 'yes' yet."
Indeed, Kazakhstan's official accounts of Saudabayev's trip implied strong US support for a summit. "The meetings witnessed a strong interest from the US government and public in Kazakhstan's foreign policy and the country's current chairmanship in the OSCE, as well as a principled support of President Nazarbayev's proposal to convene an OSCE Summit for find common responses to the challenges of the age," according to a statement on the website of Kazakhstan's foreign ministry.
Kazakhstan's Embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment from EurasiaNet.