Kazakhstan is a large and important country in the heartland of Eurasia. Its vast and relatively untouched oil resources have attracted the attention of a number of countries eager to invest in Kazakhstan's oil fields or at least import some of that oil.
And the country's leader -- President Nazarbaev -- is anxious for Kazakhstan to be known internationally for more than simply being an oil exporter. Nazarbaev has organized international conferences on religion and building mutual trust in Eurasia that have drawn the heads of church and state and other famous people.
Nazarbaev has skillfully charted Kazakhstan's political course by balancing good relations with neighbors Russia and China as well as with the United States. He has also maintained good ties with his Central Asian neighbors to the south.
But the Kazakh president has not forgotten about the West either, in some part because it was mainly Western nations that sent corporate officials to Kazakhstan with multimillion dollar -- and sometimes multibillion dollar -- contracts in the initial years after Kazakhstan declared independence in 1991.
Western nations also expressed interest in helping Kazakhstan with its security needs. Kazakhstan is a member of NATO's Partnership for Peace Program and Kazakhstan contributes a small force of ordnance disposal specialists to the multinational force in Iraq.
But at a Kazakhstan Civic Party meeting on November 10, Nazarbaev unexpectedly said there were limits to being a partner with some Western countries.
Ignore Western Criticism?
"We have enough advisers now, from here and from there, from the West, from beyond the ocean [telling us] how to live, how to work," he said. "In this connection it reminds me, and I often quote the words of Mr. Lee Kuan Yu [Singapore's first prime minister] -- with whom I often speak, write, and meet -- that there was always criticism addressed to him about the policies he implemented: about dictatorship, and pressure on parties, and so on and so forth.... And he said if one reacts to every criticism and runs to fulfill the proposals of each person, then it's impossible to get anything done. Our chief interest should be the people and Kazakhstan, the rest is crap."
The Kazakh leader apparently wanted to emphasize this point, as he continued.
"We've had enough," the president said. "Kazakhstan is no longer a state that can be ordered about and told what to do. We know what we have to do. We shouldn't run after foreign recommendations with our pants down."
Was there a message to the West in Nazarbaev's comments? Did the speech mark a turning point in Kazakhstan's relations with the West?
John MacLeod, a senior editor with the London-based Institute of War and Peace Reporting, specializes in Central Asian affairs. He said Nazarbaev's comments were not that significant.
Off The Cuff Remarks
"Well, I think he was speaking to a particular audience, and it wasn't a Western audience and it wasn't even a national-level government audience in Kazakhstan," MacLeod said. "He was speaking to members of his own party and to members of the Civic Party, which is going to merge with his party-- the big Otan Party. I guess that he was just veering off the script and trying to tell [them] if you like local politicians [think] that everything is fundamentally ok with the country, that he's in charge, that he's not driven by external interests, and that they can rest comfortably with the merger of the two parties and with being part of his kind of big national project."
MacLeod said that good ties with Russia and China do not mean that Kazakhstan will forsake relations with the West. And he noted that as part of Astana's effort to boost Kazakhstan's international image there is something Nazarbaev wants from Western nations.
"Well, in the very short term what they're looking for is to chair the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the OSCE, and they're doing that to claim a kind of political legitimacy, internationally, to match an economic legitimacy that I think they already have; I mean [Kazakhstan] is already a major oil player, maybe not by Gulf standards, but by any other standards," he said.
Kazakhstan is hoping to get the OSCE rotating chairmanship in 2009 and the country's diplomats have been touring OSCE countries and others trying to gain support for that bid. Nazarbaev was in Washington in September and the OSCE bid was part of his agenda there. A sign that Nazarbaev has not rethought his policy toward the West came November 14 when Nazarbaev attended the opening of the new U.S. Embassy in Astana and said ties between Astana and Washington -- the United States is the largest investor in Kazakhstan -- are continuing to strengthen.
(Merhat Sharipzhan of the Kazakh Service contributed to this report.)