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Ex-U.S. Envoy Cites 'Moderate' Kazakhstan, Its Desire For 'Global Role'

William Courtney, former U.S. ambassador to Georgia
William Courtney, former U.S. ambassador to Georgia

From the first days after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the emergence of the newly independent countries, the United States has had a unique relationship with Kazakhstan in comparison with other Central Asian states.

The two have disagreed on many issues -- notably on respect for human rights, freedom of speech, and the media, as well as their respective commitments to political pluralism -- but there are many spheres where the two have common interests.

RFE/RL spoke to a former U.S. ambassador to Kazakhstan, William Courtney, about Kazakh-U.S. relations ahead of an official visit to Washington by Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev. The January 16-19 visit will include a meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump.

ALSO READ: Nazarbaev Thanks Trump For Backing Kazakh Territorial Integrity

Courtney described Astana as reliably "moderate [and] pragmatic" in its decisions.

"One of the great strengths of Kazakhstan is that it has had moderate traditions, if you will, economic policy, political policy, other areas," Courtney said, "and that moderation in Kazakhstan's policies is probably a good sign for the future of Kazakhstan that whatever changes happen in the region,... one can count on Kazakhstan to take a moderate, pragmatic approach."

Courtney, the first U.S. ambassador to independent Kazakhstan, cited the U.S. recognition of Kazakh sovereignty. "The U.S. was the first country to recognize Kazakhstan. Our embassy was set up about five weeks after [Mikhail] Gorbachev signed the dissolution of the Soviet Union, right at the beginning of February 1992."

Denuclearization, Oil Wealth

Washington was quick to establish relations with all the former Soviet republics but, as Courtney noted, there were two areas of particular importance where the United States wished to engage with Kazakhstan.

"One was denuclearization. Kazakhstan had suffered horrible consequences of atmospheric nuclear testing at Semipalatinsk. And so, the [Kazakhs] were quite ready and willing to cooperate with the West and the United States, and Russia on denuclearization," Courtney said.

Belarus and Ukraine also relinquished nuclear arsenals that they inherited from the Soviet Union, but "Kazakhstan was the first of the three to eliminate...its strategic nuclear weapons."

"The second early priority," Courtney said, "was [that] Kazakhstan has immense oil wealth in western Kazakhstan right on the edge of the Caspian Sea, both onshore and offshore."

Many knew the oil was there, but a newly independent Kazakhstan faced enormous challenges to taking advantage of that resource.

"The oil, which was of a high quality of light oil, was very hard to get," Courtney said. "It's deep, it's below a salt dome, and it has high sulfur content. The Soviet Union did not have the technology to exploit that. So Kazakhstan was looking for Western investment. The U.S. company Chevron had been exploring that possibility, and so Chevron ended up negotiating what was the first huge foreign investment anywhere in the former Soviet Union for the rights to develop the Tengiz deposit."

Chevron continues to work the Tengiz deposit; another U.S. company, ExxonMobil, joined that project.

ExxonMobil is also a partner in another huge Kazakh oil field, at Kashagan, in the Caspian Sea.

"Those two projects have been by far the dominant major investments of Western companies in Central Asia," Courtney said. But he added that "General Electric has a locomotive factory close to Astana and there are other projects as well."

Multinational Force

Astana's relations with Washington have another unique feature: Kazakhstan is the only Central Asian country that sent troops (demining units) to participate in the U.S.-led multinational force in Iraq.

Courtney called that "part of [Kazakhstan's] overall strategy to play not only a regional role but really a global role." He added that Kazakhstan has trained some of its troops to serve as peacekeepers, should the need arise.

Courtney noted that Kazakhstan has chaired the Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe (2010), the Organization for Islamic Cooperation (2011), and founded and hosts the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures with "over 25 countries now participating in that organization." It currently has a rotating seat on the UN Security Council and took over the Security Council's rotating presidency in January.

All of which hints at a higher international diplomatic profile than other Central Asian states.

Topics on Nazarbaev's agenda in Washington include the situation in Afghanistan, which the Kazakh government has been watching carefully for more than two decades. "Kazakhstan is relatively well informed about Afghanistan and the subtleties of political and economic, and security life there," Courtney said.

International Terrorism

International terrorism will probably also be a subject of discussion. "Kazakhstan is also relatively well informed about the [militant group] Islamic State and activities surrounded that in Iraq and Syria," Courtney told RFE/RL. Hundreds of Kazakhs have left their own country to join extremist groups in Syria and Iraq, and Kazakhstan has hosted Syrian peace talks since last year.

Kazakhstan also hosted talks on Iran's nuclear program that contributed to the landmark deal between Tehran and world powers in 2015 that traded sanctions relief for curbs on Iran's nuclear activities. Trump has derided the agreement as "the worst deal ever" and urged the U.S. Congress and U.S. allies to seek modifications.

But Kazakhstan's position on the nonproliferation of nuclear weapons is likely to be welcomed by the Trump administration as it ponders the situations in Iran and a nuclear North Korea.

Courtney said there are reasons why the United States is likely to continue to seek strong ties with Kazakhstan.

"Kazakhstan is likely to be one of the top 10 oil producers in the world in a few years in great part because of Tengiz and Kashagan, and the United States also is a large producer of oil and will have a strategic interest in maintaining a close dialogue with Kazakhstan," Courtney said.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL

About This Blog

Qishloq Ovozi is a blog by RFE/RL Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier that aims to look at the events that are shaping Central Asia and its respective countries, connect the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change.​

The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.


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