Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

US-Kazak Relations Thaw

Washington seeks better relations with Kazakstan in order to further its economic and military interests in the region.
By Marjan Kalpykova

In the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks, Washington's policy towards Kazakstan has shifted significantly, with security and economic priorities apparently overtaking concerns about the Central Asian state's excesses.


The Bush administration is apparently willing to turn a blind eye to Astana's human rights abuses and corrupt political practices in order to win support for the campaign against international terrorism and exploit Kazakstan's huge oil wealth.


A softening in US policy towards Kazakstan was evident at the end of last year, when President Nursultan Nazarbaev paid an official visit to Washington, at the personal invitation of his American counterpart, George Bush.


Kazakstan has been eager to improve relations with the US - which have deteriorated in the last few years because of Nazarbaev's excesses - and was quick to pronounce the trip a success.


While Nazarbaev was still conducting meetings, the website of the state broadcaster, Khabar, announced, "There is no doubt, that the atmosphere of the visit and the tone of negotiations are going to be favourable for the Kazak leader."


While in Washington, Nazarbaev declared his support for the anti-terrorist campaign: guaranteeing the international coalition access to the country's airspace and even suggesting that it might be able to use his military bases.


In so doing, Nazarbaev made sure he was keeping up with Central Asian neighbours, such as Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan who had already made similar pledges to the US. Erbol Japarov, from the Centre of Humanitarian Studies in Almaty, noted, "Currently, there's intense competition among the Central Asian states for the attention of the US."


Nazarbaev is keen to be on better terms with Washington for two reasons. It could help him secure greater investment in the country and help him diffuse Kazak anger over a number of domestic political scandals that have implicated members of his family.


In return for his pledge of support for the US, Nazarbaev was delivered a publicity coup, in the form of a senate resolution applauding Kazakstan's willingness to cooperate with America over security issues.


Just two years earlier, the senate filed a report criticising the Kazak government over its human rights record, the conduct of both parliamentary and presidential elections and the oppression of political opponents.


This change in US policy, however, is not solely driven by Washington's need to get Astana to back its anti-terrorism coalition.


Long before September 11, there were those in the US political establishment urging the administration to set aside its concerns over human rights and corruption in order to further America's economic and political interests in Central Asia and Kazakstan, in particular.


During Nazarbaev's visit to Washington, both countries signed a declaration on energy cooperation, which is likely to increase US investment in the country and, Washington hopes, enlist firm Astana backing for the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline.


Nazarbaev has in the past wavered over the project which would pipe Kazak and Azeri oil to world markets via Turkey. The significance of this venture is that it bypasses Russia and Iran and, therefore, reduces their respective influence in the region; which is precisely what the US wants.


The Kazak president in the past was unsure whether to back the pipeline because Moscow had let him know that they were unhappy with it.


This new phase of US-Kazak relations allows each side to pursue its own agenda. Washington strengthens its military and economic presence in the region, while Nazarbaev silences awkward US criticism of his regime and secures greater investment.


Marjan Kalpykova is the pseudonym for a journalist in Kazakstan