The United States is gently pressing Kazakhstan to do more to reform its political system in the wake of parliamentary elections that failed to meet international standards and a violent crackdown on labor protests in the country's oil-rich western region.
Kazakhstan's foreign minister, Yerzhan Kazykhanov, visited Washington and met with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on February 1. Clinton was “encouraged by the wide range of our positive cooperation in our strategic partnership,” including on nuclear security and Afghanistan, said a State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
But Clinton also had a mild rebuke for Kazykhanov on the Zhanaozen events and the January 15 parliamentary vote. “Secretary Clinton urged that Kazakhstan expand its space for civil society, freedom of the press, and religious freedom. Secretary Clinton also urged Kazakhstan to hold an open and transparent investigation into the violence in Zhanaozen and ensure that responsible officials are held accountable,” the official said.
While US criticism of Kazakhstan's failure to open up its political system is not new, Astana has recently displayed a willingness to rhetorically fight back. After the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe gave a poor review to the elections, for example, Kazakhstan's government attempted to discredit the OSCE observer mission. Nazarbayev suggested that critical observers were “hired,” and the government emphasized the positive reviews by less reputable election monitors, like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the Commonwealth of Independent States, suggesting that the OSCE was an outlier.
Given the circumstances, American officials and analysts say, the United States should not hector Astana, but rather act quietly, trying to get Kazakhstani officials to embrace the view that reforms are in their own interests, that democratization is a hedge against future instability.
“Problems in the human rights area will have an effect overall on our relationship. But I also think that we need to do a better job of how we frame that issue. Countries don't like to be preached at,” said Richard Morningstar, the US special envoy for Eurasian energy issues, speaking at a January 31 conference on US-Kazakhstan relations in Washington. “The issue needs to be framed in terms of, what's in their interest. Whether you're Kazakhstan or anyone else, all you have to do is look around the world at what's happened over the past few weeks, and how do you avoid that? What steps can you create to make a more open society that can avoid those types of situations?”
“The United States needs to remain true to its values. We have to realize that we're not perfect and we should not demand perfection from our partners,” said Jackson McDonald, the interim American charge d'affaires to Kazakhstan when the two countries first established relations in 1991. “What we should do is encourage our partners to come to the realization that it's in their own self-interest to improve political liberties, democratization, human rights, etc. And it's only when they internalize that you'll see change.”
Speaking at the same conference, Robert Blake, Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs, appeared to appeal to Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev's clear desire for Kazakhstan to be seen as a global political player. (In Washington, Kazykhanov said that Astana is seeking a seat on the UN Security Council as a non-permanent member starting in 2017).
“A more open and dynamic political system would reflect the maturity of the country, and provide the institutional basis for long-term stability, predictability, and development that the people of Kazakhstan deserve,” Blake said. “President Nazarbayev has the opportunity today to demonstrate the same far sighted leadership to build democracy that he showed in renouncing nuclear weapons and initiating market reforms.”
Speaking at a panel discussion at the conference, William Courtney, who served as the American envoy in Almaty from 1992-95, described Kazakhstan as being at a “strategic turning point.” At a late January hearing of the US Helsinki Commission, Courtney said the Zhanaozen tragedy should serve as a wakeup call for Kazakhstani leaders, highlighting how a lack of political freedom can undermine stability in a state that is rapidly modernizing.
“The arrogant, official response to Zhanaozen suggests dulled leadership awareness of human conditions,” Courtney said at the hearing. “Repeated promises of democratic reforms go unfulfilled. Popular expectations may be climbing faster than the brittle political system can accommodate. Limits on independent political life weaken safety valves for peaceful change.”
The general, though gently expressed consensus among Central Asia watchers in Washington is that Kazakhstan needs to take steps to institutionalize politics and curb corruption to give the country the best chance of enjoying stable economic growth.
Sean Roberts, a Central Asia expert at George Washington University, agreed that a gentle approach is likely to be the most effective way to encourage Kazakhstani leaders to liberalize. “We really need a policy of engaging Kazakhstan because I think that that’s going to bear much more fruit than just beating them up,” he said. When it comes to encouraging democratization, Roberts added that the United States underestimates its influence in Kazakhstan, and thus doesn’t use its leverage with Astana to its maximum potential.
“A chronic problem in the US approach to Kazakhstan is there’s a general belief that Kazakhstan doesn’t need the United States; there’s a sense that they have these other partners. They have Russia; increasingly China is a major trading partner and a major ally,” he said. “It’s important to realize that Kazakhstan has always been very interested in having a very good relationship with the United States, because precisely their other partners are countries they don’t necessarily trust exclusively.”
“There’s a lot of suspicion of China’s interest in Kazakhstan among Kazakhstanis, including within the government. And there always has been a certain reticence to be dependent on Russia. So I think it’s important that the United States recognizes where it does have leverage, that there is an interest,” Roberts continued. “It is important to Kazakhstan that they have a strong relationship with the United States. And we have to at least express what that relationship means to us beyond just the oil and gas and security issues.”
Joshua Kucera is a Washington, DC,-based writer who specializes in security issues in Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Middle East. He is the editor of EurasiaNet's Bug Pit blog.