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Russia: Medvedev Looks East, Not West, On First Foreign Visit

Dmitry Medvedev, a former Gazprom chairman, is well aware of the race for Central Asian energy supplies (ITAR-TASS) MOSCOW -- When Russian President Dmitry Medvedev's plane touches down in Kazakhstan on May 22, he will be sending a message to the European Union and the United States that Russia's interests lie East as well as West.

Medvedev, who took over as president from mentor Vladimir Putin in early May, appears to want to keep Western governments waiting while he courts major players to the east.

"He's going east, not west, thereby sending a signal that the East is more important than the West for Russia," Masha Lipman, a Russia expert at the Carnegie Moscow Center, says. "I would say we're in no rush to send signals to the West that we are interested. I think, in fact, the current government is quite eager to improve Russia's image [to the east], at least as far as the investment climate is concerned."

Traditionally, Russia and Kazakhstan have enjoyed friendly relations. Kazakhstan's well-entrenched president, Nursultan Nazarbaev, has always cultivated good ties with its vast neighbor to the north.

Nazarbaev "made the relationship with Russia, as a state, work, and he did that by engaging with presidents one after another," John MacLeod, a senior editor at the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, tells RFE/RL. "He worked with Yeltsin very successfully and then he smoothly went on to work with Putin, who was quite a different character; but he made that relationship work."

MacLeod says that "there's no doubt really" that Nazarbaev will work effectively "with President Medvedev and any future Russian leader."

But Kazakhstan's abundant energy reserves have turned the Central Asian republic into a battleground between East and West, says Lipman, and Russia is keen to maintain its influence in the region.

"I think Kazakhstan's leadership feels very confident in its position where both Russia and the West are interested in good relations," Lipman says. "The West has demonstrated that it's ready to look the other way at human rights issues and the decline of democracy."

Lipman draws a contrast between Nazarbaev's approach to Moscow and the policies of his CIS colleagues.

"I think that unlike many other ex-republics of the USSR, with Kazakhstan, the relations are not bad at all," he says, "it's just that there is a competition, and a serious competition, with the West in the energy sphere."

A member of the Kazakh parliament, Kamal Burkhanov, insists that Medvedev's decision to travel to Kazakhstan for his first foreign visit sends a powerful message.

With this trip, "he is demonstrating the Russian Federation's geopolitical priorities," says Burkhanov. "Particularly that his first official visit will be to Kazakhstan, with which Russia has always had friendly relations, in Medvedev's words -- it's a very symbolic event."

Similarly, in China Medvedev will want to cultivate relations in order to secure potential deals for the energy-hungry Chinese market. In the past, the two governments have discussed possible oil pipelines between China and Russia, but they have yet to agree on any specific route.

Next week, Medvedev will continue his foreign tour with a visit to Germany, where he is due to meet with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

But the significance of traveling to Kazakhstan and China first is unlikely to have been lost on Merkel and other EU leaders.

"I think, talking symbolically, it is Kazakhstan and China where Russian interests are," Lipman says, "and we're not in a rush to go West to begin Medvedev's presidency as a foreign-policy maker."

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