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Kazakhstan: Albright Focuses On The Positive

Kazakhstan suppresses democracy much as its Central Asian neighbors, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, do. But during the U.S. secretary of state's visit to Kazakhstan on 15 April, she emphasized the positive rather than the negative. RFE/RL Central Asian specialist Bruce Pannier -- using words like "dollars" and "oil" -- explains why.

Prague, 17 April 2000 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright began a swing through Central Asia in Kazakhstan on Saturday, which may just be the least troublesome of the countries she visited.

Albright raised some of the same issues in Kazakhstan which were her concern later in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. Leaders in all three countries want to hear about security and other areas of cooperation and probably tolerate U.S. criticism of their poor human rights records and less-than-democratic elections.

But U.S. relations with Kazakhstan are substantially more positive than U.S. relations with Kyrgyzstan or Uzbekistan. When Kazakhstan became independent in late 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union, international oil companies were already aware that rich oil reserves had been left relatively undeveloped there. The companies scrambled to achieve footholds.

U.S.-based Chevron was one of the first to arrive. Chevron and the Kazakh state oil company formed a joint-venture named Tengizchevroil to work Kazakhstan's massive Tengiz oil field. The field began limited operations several years ago and is building up production. But the problem of exporting oil in mass quantities has yet to be resolved.

Numerous nations and international firms plan colossal projects to speed oil exports from Kazakhstan. The recent steep climb in world oil prices makes a country like Kazakhstan an especially important partner for industrial nations. Kazakhstan has vast oil reserves and is not a member of the international oil cartel OPEC (the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries).

The United States has developed an overriding economic interest in Kazakhstan. U.S. companies have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in its power-generating facilities, oil refineries, metallurgical works and other industries. This economic fact is bound to inhibit how tough the secretary of state wishes to be with Kazakh leaders.

And she has reason to want to reward Kazakhstan, if only by words, for being a leader in surrendering its nuclear arsenal. Kazakhstan inherited nuclear weapons from the Soviet Union. After it became independent, it emerged as the first nuclear Islamic state. The United States urged Kazakh leaders to dismantle the nuclear weapons and also bought large amounts of nuclear material stored there. Thus, Kazakhstan also became the first nuclear country to dispose of its nuclear capability.

While economic ties between the two countries have strengthened, political ties have suffered. Kazakhstan in the early 1990s showed promise of becoming a democratic state.

But Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbaev has gradually increased his powers. He dissolved the country's year-old parliament in March 1995, citing a Constitutional Court decision invalidating the 1994 election results.

Nazarbaev defended parliament twice against the court ruling, and then reversed himself, dissolving the body, saying it obstructed reforms. Two months later, he engineered a national referendum that resulted in extending his term in office.

He continued to increase his powers when parliament voted in October 1998 to hold early presidential elections and extend the president's term in office from five to seven years. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or OSCE, sent teams to observe parliamentary elections in October 1999 and then pronounced them "short of democratic." U.S. agreement with that criticism has produced a chill in U.S.-Kazakh relations.

In addition to her talks with Kazakh officialdom, Albright met with representatives from opposition parties in Astana on Saturday. One such representative, Seydahmet Kuttykadam of the Orleu Movement said in advance of the meeting:

"We will meet [Albright] at Astana's Intercontinental Hotel at 6 p.m. (1800). We will acquaint her with the situation in the country. And we hope Madeleine Albright will be able to understand this and will pay attention to the real situation in the country, that things are very critical. Our goal is to get the information to her to show that there is no democracy in this country."

Kazakhstan's CIS neighbors to the south have trouble with Islamic militants. Kazakh security officials certainly know the militants could strike in their country next. Earlier this month, they welcomed U.S. Central Intelligence Agency Director George Tenet and the head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Louis Freeh. And the government also will be eager to hear what Albright has to say on security.

But, since they also are receiving promises of military and other support from Russia, they may be unwilling to pay the price of listening to Albright's lectures on democracy.

So Albright, in public, at least, stressed economic ties, Kazakhstan's commitment to peace and regional stability, and U.S. support for battling terrorism. Privately, she very likely reminded government officials that suppression of freedom probably contributes to militancy problems and damages Kazakhstan's image in the international community.

(Merhat Sharipzhan of the Kazakh Service contributed to this report.)