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Central Asian Perceptions In Transition

Central Asia is in transition, but it's not the much-ballyhooed transition from Soviet communism to Western capitalism that pundits and advisers spun into a cottage industry in the 1990s. That transition has produced decidedly mixed results. The current transition is one of perception -- from Central Asia as a place where the great powers play out their ambitions to Central Asia as a region to be assessed on its own merits. Recent travels by Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev and Uzbek President Islam Karimov served to underscore that while a shift is under way, it is not proceeding at the same pace in all places.

Nazarbaev's visit to Germany focused on traditional nuts and bolts -- euros and eurocents. On 19 April, Nazarbaev was present at the opening of Hanover Messe 2004, a major industrial and trade fair, which this year featured a German-Kazakh Economy Day to showcase investment opportunities in Kazakhstan and successful German-Kazakh joint ventures. Deutsche Welle summarized economic ties between the two countries in a report the same day, noting that while Kazakhstan is Germany's third-most-important trading partner in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), it occupies 54th place overall. German direct investments totaled a modest 157 million euros ($185 million) at the end of 2001, with an unsure legal environment the primary hindrance.

The official program followed a similar script. A brief report by the German news agency dpa on 19 April described the subject of talks between Nazarbaev and Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder as "the development of trade ties between the two countries." During a December 2003 visit to Kazakhstan, Schroeder set a goal of doubling the two countries' current 1.8 billion euros in trade volume over the next three years, a pledge which received respectful mention at the 19 April meeting.

Pecuniary pleasantries were somewhat less evident in the reception the German press accorded the Kazakh leader. "Der Spiegel" ran a short and unflattering piece on 19 April, describing Nazarbaev as an "authoritarian former Community Party leader" who faces "allegations of massive corruption." A longer article in "Sueddeutsche Zeitung" the same day provided further details of the corruption charges at the heart of the "Kazakhgate" trial that is about to start in earnest in New York. Finally, an 18 April article in "Die Welt" -- pointedly titled "The President with the Numbered Swiss Bank Account" -- questioned the wisdom of overly close ties with Nazarbaev. The article noted that Nazarbaev was invited for a working visit, not an official visit. It continued: "Billions and billions of dollars in oil revenues are to be handed out in Kazakhstan in coming years. The German economy will apparently profit from this as well. Still, Nazarbaev is not the sort of guest one wishes to shower with official honors -- his bearing is too little that of an enlightened democratic politician and too much that of an old-time oriental emir."

Concerns of a different order sprang to the fore when Nazarbaev arrived in Moscow on 20 April for quick chats with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov, and Moscow Mayor Yurii Luzhkov. The short visit received scant coverage in the Russian press, but the comments it did draw focused on the overriding concern of Russian relations with its former imperial subjects -- influence. "Kommersant-Daily" wrote on 21 April that Moscow is concerned at "Kazakhstan's increasingly pro-Western orientation." Kazakhgate reared its head here as well, but in a far different light. "Kommersant-Daily" argued that the corruption trial, which is fraught with unpleasant consequences for Nazarbaev, provides proof that Nazarbaev's "eloquent reverences to the West are caused by Astana's fears that the United States will try to repeat in Kazakhstan the 'Georgian scenario' of regime change that was successfully employed in Georgia last November." (Germany's "Der Spiegel" also mentioned Georgia's "Rose Revolution," but only to argue that Nazarbaev is considered too "Russia-friendly" and that "Republican hard-liners are betting that the ruler will fall in the manner of the Georgian 'Rose Revolution.'")

The Rose Revolution was in full bloom in a 21 April commentary by RBC, which quoted Kazakh political scientist Rustam Lebekov as saying that "Moscow and Astana are now troubled by the issue that faces Russia and the majority of post-Soviet states after the United States successfully implemented its 'Georgian' regime-change scenario." For his part, the author argued that Russia and Kazakhstan's "mutual interest in closer integration is linked to the accelerated expansion of the United States in Central Asia." Kazakhstan, he concludes, fears that Washington's increasing influence will force it to "give up its ambition of becoming one of the leading states in Eurasia." Russia, meanwhile, "is interested in speeding up military and political integration with Kazakhstan, which will allow it to stop the Americans' 'victorious progress' across Central Asia."

Discussions of Uzbek President Islam Karimov's 15 April visit to Moscow proceeded along similar lines. The requisite meeting with President Putin produced only two real quotes: Karimov professed to understand why leaders travel to Moscow to "set their watches"; and Putin offered Russia's "full and conditional support" in the fight against terrorism. The Moscow "commentariat" sprang into action to divine the direction of Uzbekistan's movement along the East-West axis. "Vremya novostei" wrote on 16 April, "For the first time in many years, Tashkent has for all practical purposes counted itself among the capitals ready to orient themselves toward Moscow." "Izvestiya" interpreted Karimov's comment about "unused reserves in relations between the two countries" as an indirect indication that "Karimov is ready to cooperate more actively with Moscow, and not with Washington." Finally, state-run "Rossiiskaya gazeta" wrote on 15 April that "Uzbekistan is fed up with the moralistic preaching of Western financiers and politicians." The newspaper went on to predict that Uzbekistan may seek refuge from meddling Western moralists in the Single Economic Space that is supposed to bring together Belarus, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Ukraine.

Reactions to Nazarbaev's and Karimov's travels reveal a disjunction in the perceptual transition of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Western perceptions are moving toward an evaluation along two axes -- the practical, in the form of trade volume and investment, and the contextual, in the form of concerns over human rights and corruption. At the same time, Russian perceptions are still floating in the metaphysical ether of empire, replete with obsessive analyses of each diplomatic twist, turn, and feint in order to determine whose sphere of influence extends farther and runs deeper amid fears that the United States unveiled in Georgia a new formula for regime change. These, then, are the policy considerations that Nazarbaev and Karimov must juggle as they shuttle between Moscow and Western capitals. They are also the considerations and categories that analysts must bear in mind as they watch Central Asia's leaders do their best to keep all of the balls in the air.

(This article appears in the 26 April issue of "RFE/RL Central Asia Report." For the full report, click here.)