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Kazakhstan: Analysis From Washington--U.S.-Kazakhstan Relations Remain Fragile

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 24 November 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev's visit to the United States marked a major step forward in relations between the two countries. But it also highlighted both the nature of those relations and the limitations on their development in the future.

During a two-day visit to Washington last week, Nazarbayev met with President Bill Clinton, Vice President Al Gore, Secretary of Defense William Cohen, Secretary of Energy Frederico Pena and other senior U.S. government and business leaders.

Speaking to an investment conference during his visit, Nazarbayev said his aims had been to develop closer ties to the United States, indicate his commitment to developing a market economy, and expand his country's role in international affairs.

To a remarkable degree, Nazarbayev achieved a great deal on all three of these goals just by coming to the United States. But both his own comments and those of his hosts suggest that neither he nor Washington are likely to see any dramatic expansion in their relationship anytime soon.

There are three reasons for this conclusion.

First, both sides made it clear that the basis of the relationship was economic, but the two sides did not agree on what that economic relationship would lead to.

In his speeches and press conferences, Nazarbayev repeatedly made it clear that he believes his country's enormous oil resources represent the basis for the enrichment of Kazakhstan and for expanded ties with the West in general and the United States in particular.

At one level, American officials did not disagree. Indeed, the key document signed during the meetings was an "Action Program on Economic Partnership."

Like Nazarbayev, the American leaders focused on oil and other forms of economic cooperation. But in contrast to the Kazakhstan president, they suggested that these economic ties would have a variety of political consequences, including regional stability and even democracy.

Gore, for example, said that if Kazakhstan's resources are "developed properly," they "can promote regional stability. And U.S. First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton said in Almaty only a few days before Nazarbayev's visit that economic development there can promote human rights.

Specifically, she said that democracy depends on each individual's access to education, health care and jobs, three things largely dependent on economics. And she indicated that economic progress would lead to democracy.

In none of his publicly reported remarks did Nazarbayev appear to indicate that he shared this perspective about his country's political development.

Second, in their conversations with Nazarbayev, senior American officials found themselves caught between two imperatives of Washington's approach to this region: a desire to promote the independence of the former Soviet republics but an unwillingness to support their use of the most direct route out -- Iran -- for an oil pipeline.

Again and again, American officials stressed that they supported multiple pipelines for Caspian basin oil and gas, including that of Kazakhstan. But the two pipeline routes they preferred -- one through the Caucasus to the West and another to East Asia -- are far from completion. Moreover, each faces political as well as technical challenges.

The Russian government is not interested in seeing Caspian oil flow out except via its own territory. As a result, no Kazakhstani oil appears likely to flow anytime soon, and the economic basis of the Kazakhstan-U.S. relationship is thus likely to remain relatively weak for some time to come.

And third, the two sides agreed to a series of defense and security measures, but again they do not appear to agree on what those measures will actually mean for Kazakhstan and for other countries in Central Asia.

The two sides agreed to cooperate to limit weapons proliferation and to establish regular military-to-military contacts as part of an American effort to build up Kazakhstan's military forces.

American officials stressed that they see this cooperation as promoting regional stability, but Nazarbayev is likely to be emboldened by what he may see as American favour and thus behave in ways that could have rather difference consequences.

None of these differences is necessarily fatal to the development of relations between Kazakhstan and the United States. But all of them suggest that the bilateral relationship between them is likely to remain both difficult and fragile.

Difficult in that the two sides seem likely to view their ties in quite different ways. And fragile because the relationship now seems to rest almost exclusively on economic ties, a weak foundation unless Kazakhstan's oil begins to flow out to the West.