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Kazakhstan: Nazarbayev Keeps Russia Guessing

Prague, 3 July 1997 (RFE/RL) - When explaining the essence of his country's foreign policy, Charles de Gaulle once noted: "France has no permanent friends, only a series of permanent interests." Rarely has a politician spoken a truer word. And just as it applied to Europe in the 1960s, the axiom holds true for Central Asia in the 1990s.

Uzbekistan's Islam Karimov set out months ago to define his country's independent interests, by bowing out of a customs treaty with Moscow and strengthening diplomatic ties with the United States. Now, it appears that Kazakhstan's Nursultan Nazarbayev is following suit. Almaty is courting new friends at the expense of its old ones - and Moscow is not amused.

The latest incident centers on Kazakhstan's decision to invite an American reconnaissance aircraft to survey the territory around its former Semipalatinsk nuclear testing site, which lies near the Russian border. Nazarbayev says the survey is needed to assess damage caused by atomic testing during the Soviet era and to see "what sort of economic activity" can be pursued around Semipalatinsk. He pointedly added this week that if Moscow had been more willing to share its information on the site with Almaty, the American flights would not be necessary.

Nazarbayev staffers went further, noting that Almaty even asked Moscow to provide one of its own aircraft for the survey, but the Russians only wanted to discuss money. The Americans flew in one of their aircraft for free.

Moscow has reacted with furor. Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Gennady Tarasov accused Kazakhstan of allowing the United States to conduct spying missions from its airspace. Tarasov said the flights violate agreements covering the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and "directly affect the security interests of the Russian Federation." He threatened unspecified retaliation.

Nazarbayev has remained nonchalant, expressing surprise that the vintage Orion P-3 aircraft should be causing "such a stir" in Russia, while neighboring China has kept mum.

Observers say the flights are part of a larger strategic gambit by Kazakhstan to use its economic potential as leverage against Russia's increasingly tight embrace. RFE/RL correspondent Merhat Sharipzhan says the turning point may have come this past winter, after Russia shut off electricity to Kazakhstan's five northern regions. Moscow said Almaty had not paid its energy debt, and the area's residents were left to freeze. But Sharipzhan points out that it is Russia which still owes Kazakhstan some $500 million in unpaid rental fees for the Baikonur cosmodrome.

Regardless of where the fault lies, the episode was an unpleasant reminder of Moscow's economic strangle-hold over Central Asia, and it appears that President Nazarbayev, like his Uzbek neighbors, is determined to loosen the noose.

Immediately after Chinese paramount leader Deng Xiaoping's death in February, Nazarbayev traveled to Beijing. He was received by President Jiang Zemin during the official mourning period - an unprecedented gesture towards a foreign politician. Soon thereafter, China's state-owned oil corporation beat out Russian and American contenders in a buyout of Kazakhstan's Aktiubinskgazneft concern. The two sides then signed a 20-year, $3.4 billion pipeline deal to link Kazakhstan with western China.

Visiting Chinese Defense Minister Chi Haotian stopped in Almaty to call for the expansion of Kazakh-Chinese military ties. Kazakhstan has been receptive and has obligingly pledged not to support Uighur separatists in China's western Xinjiang province.

Having secured a few deals with Beijing, however, Nazarbayev turned his flattering attention back to Moscow. He signed a customs treaty facilitating the transport of people and goods with Russia, Belarus and Kyrgyzstan.

But when Russia and Belarus signed their own separate union treaty, Nazarbayev called in Russian journalists to deliver a stern warning against Moscow's imperialist ambitions. His next guest was Turkmenistan's President Saparmurat Niyazov. The "Father of the Turkmen," as he is known at home, flew into Almaty and pledged support for Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan in their legal battle against Russia over rights to the Caspian Sea.

Then last month came Azerbajani President Heydar Aliyev to sign a deal to build a pipeline linking the two neighbors under the Caspian. The pipeline will allow Kazakhstan to funnel its oil to Europe, through Azerbaijan, without passing through Russia. Given the context, it is hardly surprising that when the Americans flew in with their surveillance plane, Moscow's anger boiled over.

Judging from Nazarbayev's past savviness, a conciliatory gesture towards Moscow is likely to follow. But who can tell? Kazakhstan is keeping Russia guessing, turning its resources and geographic position to its advantage and proving that indeed, in politics, there are no permanent friends.