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Kazakstan: Nazarbaev's Gamble

Astana hopes support for US strategic goals will prompt Washington to turn a blind eye to flagrant persecution of opposition groups.
By Tolganai Umbetalieva

The Kazak decision earlier this month to allow the US to use three airfields for "non-civilian" purposes is yet another sign of the growing ties between the two countries.

The deal was announced in the first week of May after a meeting between President Nursultan Nazarbaev and the US Secretary of Defence, Donald Rumsfeld. The airfields are located in Almaty and the south Kazak towns of Shymkent and Lugovoye. Under the agreement, American planes may only use them for re-fuelling.

The move is part of American attempts to exert a greater influence in Central Asia.

The US needs Kazak support to extend its economic interest in the region, as the country is an important source of energy and plays a key role in the transport of oil.

At the same time, Washington wants to weaken Russian influence in the area by prising Astana away from Moscow.

An important factor bringing the two together is a long shared border and Kazakstan's large ethnic Russian population. Despite substantial emigration since the mid-1990s, the minority still accounts for 30 per cent of the population, making it the largest Russian diaspora in Central Asia.

The US is also keen to bolster its military presence in the region, in part, to counter the Shanghai Organisation for Cooperation - an alliance of countries in the region addressing local security concerns.

Although American officials insist they do not aim to stay in Central Asia for long and are not planning to establish permanent bases, their actions suggest otherwise.

Kazakstan has already begun to benefit from closer ties with Washington. A local news agency reported that it has become the first country in the CIS to have it market reforms approved by Washington - which will enhance Astana's bid to join international financial institutions and attract foreign investment.

Kazak opposition groups suspect the government is playing along with America's strategic goals to solve its own internal political difficulties. Nurbolat Masanov, a prominent opposition activist, says the authorities hope their support for the US will prompt Washington to turn a blind eye to the government's oppressive actions.

One former minister Mukhtar Ablyazov is already in prison, accused of abuse of power while in office. Another former top official, Galymzhan Zhakiyanov, facing similar charges, is under house arrest. The real reason for their punishment is thought to be their public criticism of the regime and support for the opposition Democratic Choice of Kazakstan movement.

Tolganai Umbetalieva is a political analyst at the Kazak Institute for Strategic Studies.