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Central Asia: Could Regional Dynamics Spell Closer U.S.-Kazakh Ties?

U.S. Vice President Cheney (left) at a joint news conference with Kazakh President Nazarbaev on May 5 (epa) Officials in the United States have been busy weighing Washington's policy options in Central Asia since obstacles emerged to the continued military presence there. The Uzbek government evicted U.S. troops from the Karshi-Khanabad air base late last year, and tough U.S. negotiations continue with neighboring Kyrgyzstan over use of Manas Air Base there. Meanwhile, regional media reports have suggested that Washington could consider redeploying its troops to Kazakhstan pending a deal with officials in Astana. Such speculation highlights the U.S. relationship with Kazakhstan, which has sought to maintain balance in its relations with major powers like Russia, China, and the United States.

PRAGUE, June 8, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Kyrgyz media have suggested that Washington could redeploy U.S. troops to nearby Kazakhstan if talks collapse over use of Kygyzstan's Manas Air Base.

Those reports emerged as lease talks dragged on between Washington and Kyrgyzstan, over rent of the Manas facilities. The United States has used Manas as part of its declared "war on terror" since December 2001, and appears eager to maintain operational support in the region.

But many observers say the U.S. rapprochement with Kazakhstan began long ago -- and is likely to continue regardless of the outcome of the Manas talks.

Key New Ally?

Official statements from Washington suggest that Astana is emerging as a key Washington ally in Central Asia. U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Eurasia James MacDougall on May 16 praised Kazakhstan's contribution to the war on terror.

Speaking during a senior Kazakh defense delegation's visit to Washington, MacDougall said "everything suggests that [Astana] will be an even more important partner as we look to the future."
"You cannot allow your security interests to prevent the agenda of political development, and you cannot prevent your agenda of political development from stopping your interests in the security and energy fields. These have to go hand in hand."

"Kazakhstan as a strong and stable country in the Central Asia region has the ability to play a leadership role and a stabilizing role to ensure in part that the Central Asia region geographically doesn't become more susceptible than it may already be to terrorism and to terrorist elements," MacDougall said.

Regional Chill

Some analysts argue that the United States has little choice but to cooperate with Kazakhstan as relations sour with other governments in the region.

Central Asia became increasingly important to Washington after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. U.S. troops were deployed in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, while Kazakhstan allowed overflights to attack terrorist bases in Afghanistan.

The key U.S. ally early in the "war on terror" was Uzbekistan. But the Uzbek government's bloody crackdown on peaceful protesters in May 2005 and its subsequent plans to evict U.S. forces from its territory changed the equation. Uzbek officials have subsequently sought closer ties to Russia and China.

Kyrgyzstan appears to have gravitated away from the United States, as well. Its reported demand for a manifold increase in rent for the Manas Air Field is the most obvious result. But many observers note Kyrgyz dependence on Russia. They predict that officials might give in to pressure from Moscow and cease military cooperation with Washington altogether -- despite Bishkek's assurances to the contrary.

Awkward Partner?

Washington is clearly interested in more than just military cooperation with energy-rich Kazakhstan, which boasts mineral and metals wealth in addition to its enormous fossil-fuel reserves.

U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney visited Kazakhstan last month (early May), and promoted new oil and gas pipelines to bypass Russia. He expressed "admiration" for post-Soviet advances in the "economic and political realm," according to a White House transcript of a May 6 news conference.

U.S. President George W. Bush has urged Azerbaijan to back Kazakh participation in the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) oil-pipeline project. President Nazarbaev today (June 8) confirmed his country is on board that U.S.-backed project, which should pump Kazakh and Caspian oil to Western markets.

Is Washington prepared to look the other way over a lack of democratic reforms in Kazakhstan to further U.S. goals? President Nursultan Nazarbaev has kept a tight rein on a fragmented opposition, official regard is low for press and other freedoms, and the international community has criticized elections there as flawed.

Svante Cornell, research director of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute at Johns Hopkins University in the United States, argues that democracy does not take a back seat to energy and security in America's Central Asia policy.

"Very often, it has been portrayed as there is a contradiction between interests in security and energy, on the one hand, and human rights and democracy on the other," Cornell said. "I would say this is a mistaken -- this is a flawed understanding of the situation. Because, first of all, the excessive focus on immediate democratization is unrealistic to begin with, because of the strong post-Soviet legacy, because of the strengths of regional and kinship networks, and because of the lack of resources to develop political culture in this region."

Cornell told RFE/RL that Washington's chosen path for dealing with these problems is to engage with Central Asian governments, rather than isolate them.

"What the United States and the West in general needs to do is not to stay in the dilemma of whether to focus on human rights or whether to focus on security, but to focus on both simultaneously," Cornell said. "You cannot allow your security interests to prevent the agenda of political development, and you cannot prevent your agenda of political development from stopping your interests in the security and energy fields. These have to go hand in hand."

Other Suitors

But Washington is not alone in its interest in Central Asia. Could increasingly close ties with Kazakhstan lead to more tension with Russia?

Russia has increasingly sought to restore its influence over what Moscow used to consider its "underbelly." Some see Moscow's hand in Uzbekistan's decision to evict U.S. troops, and they suggest it is pressuring Kyrgyzstan to do the same.

Irina Zvyagelskaya is a professor at the Russian Academy of Sciences' Institute for Oriental Studies (IVRAN). She told RFE/RL that while there is "healthy competition" between Moscow and Washington in "some spheres," Russia does not want to turn Kazakhstan into a bullring.

"We cannot say [Russian] policy in Central Asia is aimed at excluding the United States," Zvyagelskaya said. "We may dislike American policy in the region, but one should not have unrealistic goals -- and no one actually has them. Americans can do a lot of good in the region that Russia cannot. Therefore, there should be a wise [Russian] approach-- and there is one."

Zvyagelskaya argued that Kazakhstan will inevitably have close relations with Russia because of common economic interests, and deep cultural and historical links.

Cornell agreed. He said that Kazakhstan, for its part, is likely to continue its multivector policy. That will allow it to reap benefits from its cooperation with the United States and Russia, as well as China, the European Union, and other international players.

Military Bases In Central Asia

Military Bases In Central Asia

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PROJECTING POWER: Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the onset of the war on terror, Central Asia has played an important role in military-security issues. At times, Russia and the West have clashed over questions related to military deployments. RFE/RL has provided extensive coverage of this increasingly important geopolitical matter.


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THE COMPLETE STORY: Click on the icon to view a dedicated webpage bringing together all of RFE/RL's coverage of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.