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US Seeks to Strengthen Kazak Relations

Washington and Russia are battling for influence over the Central Asian republic
By Dosym Satpaev

The US Secretary of State's special adviser for former Soviet republics held talks with the Kazak government last week in what is seen locally as an ongoing struggle between Moscow and Washington to maintain influence in Kazakstan.


On December 5 and 6, ambassador-at-large Stephen Sestanovich met Foreign Minister Yerlan Idrisov for talks on combating terrorism in the region, where Islamic guerrillas based in Afghanistan are extending their activities.


Idrisov said they discussed work on initiatives raised during the visit of US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in April, particularly the provision of 3.8 million dollars of aid in the struggle against terrorism. "The first stage of this programme, with a cost of 2.1 million dollars, is planned for implementation in the very near future," Idrisov said.


Analysts said Sestanovich's visit, his second this year, underlines Washington's concern that Russia has begun trying to regain its geo-political influence in Central Asia under the guise of providing for the security of the states in the region.


"The United States is trying to make up for lost time and, following in Russia's tracks, wants to move Central Asia close to itself by exploiting its fears with regard to radicalism and regional wars," said political commentator Kairat Telibaev.


Sestanovich confirmed Washington's interest in seeing Kazakstan remain an independent, sovereign state. This was "a subtle hint to Russia that Washington still sees Kazakstan as a zone for its geo-strategic interests," according to local analyst Dauren Mynbaev.


Analysts said that despite Albright's concerns over human rights during her recent visit, the issue appeared to have been sidelined. "The fact that the USA doesn't want to ruin its relations with Kazakstan, even in the light of the most recent scandals involving highly placed official figures in the republic and the infringement of human rights, is evidence that Madeleine Albright's words on the subject remained just that - words," said Telibaev.


But Sestanovich's denial of reports that Washington was considering the use of Central Asian military bases to launch air strikes against Islamic guerrillas in Afghanistan may have set back his cause. Moscow has refused to rule out the possibility of doing the same.


"The level of collaboration between the USA and the states of Central Asia in the sphere of the struggle against terrorism does not provide a basis for such talk," Sestanovich said.


The US is keen to ensure security and stability in Kazakstan and the whole region for its business and oil interests. But it is not prepared to commit itself to the extent of Moscow, which has already supported the creation of an anti-terrorist coordinating body within the framework of the CIS.


"Even the purely geographical factor of Russia's proximity to the region and the presence of a significant Russian diaspora here gives Moscow certain advantages and a reason with which to justify the strengthening of its influence in Central Asia," said Mynbaev.


On the economic front, Washington appears to have been less effective in exerting influence over Astana.


The US has not managed to secure Kazakstan's backing for its pet project, the proposed Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline. The initiative is an attempt by Washington to buttress the economies of former Soviet states bordering the Caspian Sea and, at the same time, assist its regional ally Turkey.


During last week's visit to Kazakstan, a senior Iranian foreign ministry official announced that Kazakstan plans to build an oil pipeline to Iran - regarded by some specialists as one of the cheapest ways of getting Kazak oil to Western markets.


Although Kazak officials later denied these reports, local experts see this as a sign that Astana is not giving up in its efforts to diversify its export routes.


Russia, meanwhile, has strengthened its economic cooperation with Kazakstan, increasing quotas for the transit of Kazak oil across its territory. The 10 million tons a year that Moscow offered Astana represents a three-fold increase on 1998 figures.


The implementation of the Caspian Pipeline Project - to transport oil from Kazakstans'Tengiz field via the Russian city of Novorossiysk - will also tie Astana closer to its neighbour.


Dosym Satpaev is IWPR Project Editor in Almaty