Kazakhstani President Nursultan Nazarbayev's recent trip to Washington was long on style and rhetoric and short on substance. Even so, Kazakhstani leaders are hailing the visit as a success.
State and pro-government media in Kazakhstan showed breathless coverage of US movers and shakers lauding Nazarbayev. Khabar TV and the Kazakhstanskaya Pravda government newspaper were among the media outlets quoting US press reports on the visit extensively but selectively -- ensuring that questions raised about human rights and corruption did not reach the ears of Kazakhstan's public. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight].
What Kazakhstani citizens did hear was effusive praise for Nazarbayev's leadership, as well as American recognition of Kazakhstan's role as a regional powerhouse. A joint statement issued September 29 by US President George W. Bush and Nazarbayev emphasized US support for Kazakhstan's "leadership in regional integration efforts." The statement also praised Kazakhstan's "traditions of religious tolerance and its efforts to promote inter-ethnic harmony," as well as "efforts in preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction."
Nazarbayev was clearly satisfied with the reception he received. "America has traditionally remained our key partner in fulfilling our long-term plans," the Gazeta.kz website quoted the Kazakhstani president as saying during a formal dinner September 27 hosted by former US president George H. W. Bush.
As for concrete results, the visit did not appear to produce much. The joint statement committed the United States and Kazakhstan to pursue a "shared vision of stability, prosperity, and democratic reform in Central Asia and the broader region," relying on "an increasingly dynamic and varied partnership." In addition, the statement stressed a joint desire to "ensure the development of energy resources," and to expand educational exchanges. The statement didn't outline specific programs that will help the two states realize the stated goals, however.
Underscoring the significance of energy in the partnership, the joint statement described Kazakhstan as among "the world's leading reliable suppliers of hydrocarbon reserves" and welcomed its decision to use the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline to export energy, but it contained no details about the amount of oil that Kazakhstan intends to transport via BTC.
The joint statement voiced US support for Kazakhstan's state commission for democratization, which was established to discuss reforms and political modernization. At the same time, the statement failed to acknowledge Kazakhstani opposition concerns that the commission is heavily weighted in favor of the government. Neither was there any sign of US pressure for political liberalization. Nazarbayev, who secured 91 percent of the vote in the 2005 presidential election, has come under fire from human rights and civil society groups for allegedly stifling opposition to his administration.
Kazakhstan is an exception when it comes to US pressure for democratic reform, suggested the pro-government Karavan newspaper: "A Western diplomat in Astana described democracy in Kazakhstan as the only black spot in relations with Washington, but the [United States] focuses on the question of human rights much less than in relations with other former Soviet republics," a newspaper commentary said.
The joint statement did dwell on democracy, but only in the broadest of terms: "The United States and Kazakhstan reaffirm the importance of democratic development, and are committed to accelerating Kazakhstan's efforts to strengthen representative institutions that further invest its citizens in the political process, such as an independent media, local self-government, and elections deemed free and fair by international standards."
In addition, the statement lauded Astana's "agreement-in-principle" on a nuclear non-proliferation deal, setting out plans for down-blending highly-enriched uranium stored at Kazakhstan's Institute of Nuclear Physics. Kazakhstan has long stressed its role as a leader in non-proliferation matters - dating back to its voluntary surrender of nuclear weapons on its territory after independence - as part of its bid to present itself as a reliable US security partner.
Kazakhstan has also been pushing the message that it is a stable partner in the war on terror. As well as providing over-fly rights for the war in Afghanistan, it has a small contingent of troops in Iraq. Bush thanked Nazarbayev for his contribution to "helping a new democracy in Iraq survive and thrive and grow."
Energy and trade were also high on the agenda. Nazarbayev's aim of attracting more US investment enjoyed limited success. While the US is Kazakhstan's largest investor - accounting for roughly 30 per cent of all its investment - most funds are concentrated in the oil business. Investment across different sectors would help Kazakhstan diversify its oil-dependent economy, but there was only a broad expression of support for diversification in the joint statement.
Neither was there any major breakthrough on trade; the only deal reported so far was for Kazakhstan to buy US locomotives. In voicing support for Kazakhstan's WTO membership bid, the US was simply restating its known position.
Foreign Minister Kasymzhomart Tokayev characterized Nazarbayev's visit as "exceptional," adding that it raised the level of US-Kazakhstani relations to that of a strategic partnership. "Kazakhstan's leading role is recognized not only in the Central Asian region, but also at a broader geopolitical and geographic scale. It is very important," Tokayev stressed.
Despite such statements about the strength of the US-Kazakhstani relations, it remains unclear whether Astana is prepared to significantly increase its cooperation with the United States at the expense of the country's ties with Russia and China. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Nazarbayev was scheduled to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin on October 3 in the western Kazakhstani city of Uralsk.
From the Kazakhstani perspective, the only setback for Nazarbayev during his US visit was the lack of Washington's endorsement for Kazakhstan's bid to chair the OSCE in 2009. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Even so, Tokayev attempted to put a positive spin on the issue. "I would not say that the American side is skeptical about the idea of Kazakhstan's chairmanship of the OSCE," the Interfax-Kazakshtan news agency quoted Tokayev as saying. "The American side welcomes our country's chairmanship of the OSCE, but the question is when it is going to happen."
Joanna Lillis is a freelance writer who specializes in Central Asian affairs.