WASHINGTON, September 25, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- On the surface, Kazakh President Nazarbaev and U.S. President Bush don't seem to have much in common: one is a former Communist Party official whose father was a shepherd; the other is a former baseball-team owner whose father was a U.S. president.
But they do share two important qualities: powerful family dynasties and powerful ties to oil.
An Energy Power
Oil is the natural resource that has lifted Kazakhstan to wealth and prominence among its neighbors in Central Asia. It is also a big reason why Kazakhstan's relations with Russia and China are as close as its ties with the United States.
In his 16 years as president -- first of the Soviet Socialist Republic of Kazakhstan and then of an independent Kazakhstan -- Nazarbaev has centralized his hold on power and given his relatives and close associates positions in government that help protect his position. His daughter, Darigha Nazarbaeva, and son-in-law Rakhat Aliev reportedly control several major media outlets.
Nazarbaev won another seven-year presidential term late last year with more than 90 percent of the vote. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), however, called the voting rigged and said the outcome was assured before polling began.
All this matters less to the United States than the fact that annual economic growth in Kazakhstan has averaged around 10 percent each of the past five years, the country is relatively stable, and Nazarbaev has joined Bush's "coalition of the willing" against terrorists. Kazakhstan is the only Central Asian country to send troops to both Afghanistan and Iraq. When U.S. relations with Uzbekistan collapsed following the brutal government crackdown in Andijon in May 2005, the United States needed a new, reliable partner in the region. Nazarbaev -- seen as a smart and affable politician who knows how to maintain stability -- was Washington's choice.
Strong Economic Ties
The United States is the largest investor in the country with more than $12 billion invested. In 2005, the two countries did $1.8 billion in bilateral trade, nearly twice as much as in 2004. There are currently more than 370 companies with U.S. capital in Kazakhstan.
The United States has been helping Kazakhstan since 1991 dispose of its massive nuclear arsenal, which was leftover from the Soviet era.
Professor S. Frederick Starr, the chairman of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute at Johns Hopkins University in the United States, says the Bush-Nazarbaev relationship is critical.
"For the Kazakhs, the U.S. is a strategic partner on the same level of relationship as their neighbors Russia and China, therefore it is very important for them," he said. "For the United States, Kazakhstan is a very valued and respected partner and friend in the region that is developing fast and successfully. So each side has a serious interest in regular meetings."
White House spokesman Tony Snow said on September 12 that at their meeting in Washington on September 29, the two leaders will discuss a range of issues, including the war on terror, economic matters, energy diversification, and the "common commitment to working together to advance freedom and security."
Regional Economic Giant
But Starr says the most important issue on the table will be Kazakhstan's role as a "responsible and rapidly developing" country in the Central Asian region. He believes Kazakhstan could play a crucial role in the development of Afghanistan's economy. He is even more certain that Kazakhstan can have a massive impact in the Eurasian region by opening up trade routes in every direction.
Kazakh Foreign Minister Qasymzhomart Toqaev "has played a very active and positive role in this issue of continental trade," he said. "Everyone benefits from it, no one loses: the Europeans, the Chinese, the Russians, the Indians and Pakistanis, they all benefit from continental trade. And Kazakhstan, being at the heart of the Eurasian landmass, can play a critical role in opening up these long-blocked channels."
At a summit for foreign investment in Almaty in June 2005 that was hosted by the U.S.-based Asia Society, Nazarbaev told an audience that Kazakhstan's Western investment partners shouldn't try to import their democratic principles to the country, because democracy is something that must be learned over time. He made the comments less than a month after the Andijon uprising and three months after the Kyrgyz Tulip Revolution. Nazarbaev declared to listeners that the path to stability in the region leads through open borders and economic cooperation.
Starr acknowledges that Nazarbaev is frequently criticized for centralizing and protecting his power base. But he says Nazarbaev's centralization is considerably less than that of Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose governing style is less remarked upon. And he gives Nazarbaev high marks for the progress Kazakhstan has made under his leadership.
"I think Nazarbaev has [overall] been a very cautious, but steady and progressive leader of the country," Starr said. "Like anyone in a leadership position he has made mistakes. But I think he has -- on the key issue of direction and tempo -- the fundamental direction has been toward greater openness, steady progress toward democratization, toward better governance, investment in education, reduction in poverty -- that's the direction. But the key matter in which Nazarbaev deserves credit for accomplishing is setting a pace that is too fast for some and too slow for others, which suggests that it may be just about right."
Borat On The Agenda?
Despite media reports to the contrary, Bush and Nazarbaev probably won't discuss the upcoming movie, "Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan." The British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen has invented a character called "Borat" who supposedly hails from Kazakhstan. Cohen portrays a fictional character named Borat, and Kazakhstan, as ignorant, rude, racist, anti-Semitic, and antifemale, among other things.
Roman Vassilenko, the press secretary at the Kazakh Embassy in Washington, D.C., has given dozens of media interviews in recent weeks about exactly this. The Kazakh government has shut down the "Borat" website in Kazakhstan and held a press conference to officially protest Cohen's act. There have been reports that the government planned to sue the movie studio that made the picture, and that Bush invited Nazarbaev to the White House to discuss the controversy.
"We were particularly upset about his portrayal of Kazakhstan as a country of virulent anti-Semitism and misogynist people who mistreat women and hate Jews," he said. "It is absolutely wrong, has nothing to do with the real Kazakhstan, and we are hoping that people would learn about what the real Kazakhstan is, and what it stands for, particularly in the area of interreligious and interethnic relations."
But since the diplomatic flap began, Vassilenko says the government's thinking has "evolved" and it now sees the satire as a comment on the "societal ills" of the West and people's ignorance of the wider world. In this sense, he says, Cohen is doing a public service by highlighting the problem. He says people know Borat is an invented character and that his description of Kazakhstan is also fictional.
The Kazakh government has indeed been running a public relations campaign in the United States for months. There are special sections in newspapers like "The New York Times" that contain information about Kazakhstan's economic progress, investment opportunities, and cultural diversity -- and the campaign will peak just before Nazarbaev arrives in Washington. But the campaign does not mention Borat.
As to the question of whether Bush and Nazarbaev will discuss Borat, Vassilenko says "no" and adds that the presidents will decide themselves what to talk about.
And will he go see the movie when it comes out? He laughs and says that he will. Because, Vassilenko says, although it is tasteless it is also funny.
RFE/RL Central Asia Report
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