Kazakhstan's president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, granted the United States new over-flight rights for the resupply of US and NATO troops in Afghanistan, but his April 11 meeting with US President Barack Obama did not yield a clear commitment from Washington concerning the convening of an OSCE summit.
Kazakhstan is serving as the chair of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe during 2010 and the convening of a summit this year is a top diplomatic priority for Nazarbayev. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
"President Obama recognized the historic occasion of President Nazarbayev and Kazakhstan's chair of the OSCE, and we agreed to work together to try to develop a substantive agenda for a possible OSCE summit, although no decisions were made as to whether or not there would be a summit this year," said Michael McFaul, senior director for Russia on the National Security Council.
In addition to agreeing on a new air route to ship military cargo through Kazakhstan into Afghanistan, Obama and Nazarbayev signed agreements on economic cooperation between the two countries and discussed the human rights situation in Kazakhstan.
Kazakhstan already has been allowing some flights containing non-lethal military cargo over its territory, but that cargo took a long route eastward from the United States, over Europe, the Caspian Sea and then Kazakhstan, before heading to the Manas Transit Center in Kyrgyzstan.
The United States agreed with Russia last July to ship cargo through Russian airspace, but without being able to transit Kazakhstan, that pact was of little use. Now with the new Kazakhstan agreement in place, the United States can fly cargo northward over the North Pole, then south over Russia and Kazakhstan.
The new route "will save money, it will save time, in terms of moving our troops and the supplies needed into the theater," said McFaul in a conference call April 11 with reporters.
The air route through Russia and Kazakhstan does not appear to be a high priority among military officials who manage the Northern Distribution Network (NDN), a web of rail, road and air links that funnels supplies to US and NATO troops in Afghanistan. The agreement with Russia was originally proposed by Moscow as a concrete "deliverable" from Obama's trip to Moscow last July, said Andrew Kuchins, senior fellow for the Russia and Eurasia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. The Pentagon puts a higher priority on being able to transport lethal equipment on the existing network, Kuchins said. Officials from US Transportation Command and US Central Command, the military commands in charge of the NDN, did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Obama and Nazarbayev also discussed the case of Yevgeny Zhovtis, a Kazakhstan human rights activist who was sentenced to four years in prison for vehicular manslaughter after a controversial trial. "The presidents agreed that we need to try to find a creative solution to solve this very difficult issue," McFaul said. "Many human rights organizations have raised this issue about the processes that were used to convict him. Let's just leave it at that, the fact that both Presidents had a very frank discussion about this case." [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
McFaul raised eyebrows when he appeared to suggest that Obama had downplayed Kazakhstan's spotty record on human rights and democracy. "Both Presidents agreed that it's never -- you don't ever reach democracy, you always have to work at it. And in particular, President Obama reminded his Kazakh counterpart that we, too, are working to improve our democracy," he said. Pressed on that statement later, McFaul denied that Obama was equating the United States with Kazakhstan. "There was no equivalence meant whatsoever," he said.
Human rights advocates praised the fact that Obama brought up the topic of Zhovtis with Nazarbayev. "It's a very good thing that Zhovtis' case was discussed at such a high level," said Rachel Denber, deputy director of the Europe and Central Asia division at Human Rights Watch. "But the real test will be going forward, what they [Kazakhstani officials] do now."
Also on April 11, General Electric and Kazakhstan's Joint Stock Company Locomotiv and Joint Stock Company Kurastyru Zauty signed an agreement to jointly produce 150 shunter locomotives, which are smaller locomotives used in rail yards to put together freight trains, and to make short hauls. Under the agreement, the first five locomotives will be built in the United States and the remainder in Kazakhstan.
Nazarbayev also assured Obama that, while Kazakhstan officials have suggested that contracts of foreign oil and gas companies might be altered to change the tax provisions, existing contracts would be honored. "There's been some dispute in the press that they might try to rewrite those [contracts] in terms of taxation. I think we came out very assured that that will not happen," McFaul said.
Nazarbayev was in Washington to attend a nuclear security summit in Washington. Obama praised Nazarbayev's decision to give up the nuclear weapons that Kazakhstan inherited upon the fall of the Soviet Union. "On non-proliferation and nuclear safety issues, President Obama praised Nazarbayev as really one of the model leaders in the world," McFaul said. (In a press release that the Kazakhstan Embassy in Washington sent out after the meeting, however, Obama's comments were edited to suggest a more general endorsement: "President Obama praised President Nazarbayev as 'one of the model leaders in the world,'" the release said.)
Several other regional leaders were among the 40 heads of state gathered in Washington for the summit. Obama met with President Serzh Sargsyan of Armenia on April 12, and was also scheduled to meet with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Obama was expected to press both on ratifying protocols that the two countries signed in 2009 to open up their common border and resume diplomatic relations. Erdogan and Sargsyan also held a 90-minute, face-to-face meeting on April 12.
Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili also was in Washington for the summit, but will not meet Obama one-on-one. Instead, Saakashvili was due to meet with Vice President Joe Biden.
Joshua Kucera is a Washington, DC,-based freelance writer who specializes in security issues in Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Middle East.