Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev's visit to Washington this week is designed to cement his country's position as a US ally in Central Asia. But Washington has made a decision that could complicate the relationship: US officials are prepared to block Astana's bid to be chair of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in 2009.
Kazakhstani leaders make no secret of their desire to hold the OSCE chair in 2009. Leading the organization would significantly enhance the image of a government with a spotty record on democracy and human rights the core of the OSCE's mandate but which nevertheless has a better record than most of its neighbors. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
However, the United States seems prepared to dash Kazakhstani hopes. State Department policymakers believe it is too early to consider Astana for the OSCE leadership. More time has to pass, allowing Kazakhstan to sink deeper democratization roots, for Astana to merit the OSCE chair. Within the last two months, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice reportedly distributed a memo to US embassies in all 56 OSCE-member states, instructing American diplomats to resist Kazakhstani lobbying efforts. The OSCE operates on a consensus basis and so US opposition could well sink Kazakhstan's 2009 chances.
"[The State Department] put it much more diplomatically, but the message was, we would like to encourage Kazakhstan's aspirations to be chairman of one of the leading human rights multilateral institutions, but 2009 is premature," said an official at the United States Helsinki Commission, which advises Congress on OSCE-related issues and has opposed Kazakhstan's bid.
The US has also sent the message that if Kazakhstan improves its rights record, Washington would support a future bid, the Helsinki Commission official said. "The United States is fairly comfortable in the decision it's made that Kazakhstan is not ready at this time for the chairmanship."
The OSCE issue aside, Washington wants to cultivate its relationship with Kazakhstan and Nazarbayev. Thus, the Kazakhstani leader's visit could still prove fruitful. The US and Kazakhstani governments agreed on a strategic partnership in 2001, during Nazarbayev's previous White House visit. Since then, US investment in Kazakhstan has tripled to $15 billion, while trade between the countries has also tripled, to $1.8 billion a year. Kazakhstan receives substantial military aid from Washington and there is a steady traffic of top government officials between Washington and Astana. US Vice President Dick Cheney visited Astana earlier this year. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
The US sees in Kazakhstan a long-term, stable ally in Central Asia, one that Washington hopes will act as a counterweight to Russia's spreading influence in the region. Kazakhstan's role became all the more important last year when Uzbekistan, an erstwhile US ally, effectively severed relations in the wake of the May 2005 Andijan massacre. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
In addition, Washington wants to see Kazakhstan increase its participation in Western-backed energy export ventures, including the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) oil pipeline and a similar route for natural gas that is expected to open in October. While Kazakhstan already has committed to using these pipelines, Washington would like to see Kazakhstan's commitment to intensify.
After spending time at former US president George H.W. Bush's compound at Kennebunkport, Maine, Nazarbayev is scheduled to travel to Washington for meetings with cabinet officials, members of Congress and business officials. On September 28, he will unveil the Monument to the Independence of Kazakhstan at his country's embassy in Washington, and then will attend a dinner co-hosted by media mogul and anti-proliferation activist Ted Turner. He will meet Bush at the White House on September 29.
The delegation will also include Kassymzhomart Tokayev, Foreign Minister, and Karim Massimov, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Economy and Budget Planning. Last week, Tokayev attended the United Nations General Assembly in New York, where he touted Kazakhstan's qualifications to lead the OSCE.
"The expectations from Kazakhstan are very high for this visit, we hope it will be a successful and productive visit that will solidify the strategic partnership between the two countries," said Roman Vassilenko, a spokesman for the Kazakhstan Embassy in Washington.
But Nazarbayev's invitation has raised some eyebrows in Washington, especially in light of US President George W. Bush's avowed interest in making democracy the keystone of his foreign policy. Nazarbayev's government has banned opposition parties and closed media outlets. But it's not clear whether or not American officials will pressure Nazarbayev to open the country's political environment. [For background see the Eurasia insight archive]. It is also unclear how Nazarbayev will react to US opposition to Kazakhstan's bid for the OSCE's chair in 2009.
Just days before he was to depart on the US visit, Nazarbayev was working hard to boost Kazakhstan's OSCE chances. "Kazakhstan serves as an example of tolerance with its stability and the peaceful coexistence of its 130 peoples," the Russian news agency RIA Novosti quoted Nazarbayev as saying. "Our experience can be very important for the OSCE."
Meanwhile, a Kazakhstani delegation traveled to Vienna to participate in a special session of the OSCE Permanent Council running from September 25-28, the Kazinform news agency reported. Kazakhstani delegates were expected to lobby top OSCE officials -- including Secretary General Marc Perrin de Brichambaut and OSCE free speech czar Miklos Haraszti for the 2009 chair.
Kazakhstani officials have suspected both the United States and Great Britain of opposing Astana's OSCE leadership in 2009. In a late August article published by Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Kazakhstani Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister Rakhat Aliyev, who is also Nazarbayev's son-in-law, said that Kazakhstan could easily dispel lingering doubts about the country's fitness to lead. He added that the Kazakhstani parliament would adopt legislation designed to satisfy linger concerns by early next year at the latest.
When Nazarbayev makes the rounds in Washington, the issue of democracy "will certainly come up," said Sean Roberts, the Central Asian Affairs Fellow at Georgetown University.
"I think here it will be interesting to see how much of a focus [on democracy] there will be," Roberts continued. "Even within the US government, people are divided over that, there are people who see the realpolitik option of embracing the Kazakhs for their role as a partner geopolitically, and those who think that's a good idea, but it can only be done if we really make clear our concerns about democratic reform," he said.
Roberts said the Kazakh governing elite is likewise divided between the old guard who distrust the US and younger officials who want closer ties with the West. "Even though it's that [pro-western] group who would benefit the most out of a positive trip of Nazarbayev to Washington
Joshua Kucera is a Washington, DC,-based freelance writer who specializes in security issues in Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Middle East.