WASHINGTON -- Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev thanked U.S. President Donald Trump for Washington’s support of his country’s territorial integrity, as the two leaders met for talks focusing on regional security, economic issues, and bilateral relations.
In brief comments to reporters on January 16 before a scheduled luncheon, Nazarbaev also congratulated Trump on his first year in office.
"Kazakhstan has always enjoyed the very good political relations, and we appreciate the American support for independence and territorial integrity," he said, speaking through a translator.
Nazarbaev did not elaborate on the remarks. However, the Central Asian nation has been uneasy about Russia’s policies toward former Soviet states like Kazakhstan ever since Moscow seized Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula in March 2014 and stoked an insurgency in eastern Ukraine.
Predominantly populated by ethnic Kazakhs, Kazakhstan has a sizable ethnic Russian population, estimated at around 20 percent, much of it concentrated in northern parts of Kazakhstan along its winding border with Russia.
Trump is at least the fifth U.S. president that Nazarbaev has dealt with during his 26 years in office, since Kazakhstan gained independence from the Soviet Union.
During that time, Nazarbaev has helped shepherd the country into a regional economic powerhouse, and attracted sizable foreign investment for extracting natural resources, first and foremost oil and gas.
The country's Tengiz and Kashagan fields in the Caspian Sea hold some of the world's largest proven reserves of oil.
But Nazarbaev has also overseen the virtual elimination of any opposition political forces and made it difficult for civic organizations or human rights activists to operate independently.
At 77, he is the oldest serving president of any ex-Soviet republic, and questions about who will succeed him -- and how -- have grown in recent years.
In remarks later at the White House's Roosevelt Room, Trump called Kazakhstan "strong, sovereign, independent" and added that the country was "a friend and strategic partner" to the United States. He also thanked Nazarbaev for helping in the transit of U.S. military equipment and personnel to Afghanistan.
Nazarbaev, meanwhile, made reference to Kazakhstan’s location between two regional superpowers -- Russia to the north and China to the east -- and asked for continued U.S. support for an effort known as "C5 + 1." Started by Trump's predecessor Barack Obama, that program aims to deepen U.S. cooperation with Kazakhstan and the four other ex-Soviet Central Asian countries: Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan.
"Kazakhstan, being a neighbor of Russia, physically, of course is following closely the dynamics between the United States and Russia, which suddenly plunged into the abyss," Nazarbaev said.
Nazarbaev also said his country had reached $7.5 billion worth of deals with U.S. companies, including agreements to purchase more Boeing-made airlines and to assemble 900 new General Electric locomotives in Kazakhstan.
The two leaders also discussed North Korea, with Trump calling Kazakhstan a "valued partner in our efforts to rid the Korean peninsula of nuclear weapons."
"Together we are determined to prevent the North Korean regime from threatening the world with nuclear devastation," Trump said.
Nazarbaev said he hopes to serve as an intermediary between the United States and both North Korea and Iran, neither of which have formal diplomatic relations with Washington.
Trump has harshly criticized Iran's 2015 nuclear agreement with world powers and has threatened to withdraw from it.
Nazarbaev said he is in a good position to mediate because his country once had one of the world's largest nuclear arsenals, but voluntarily gave it up after the Soviet Union collapsed.
"Kazakhstan has a moral right to talk to the nations that are seeking nuclear weapons, and this is the way we're talking to Iran, and this is the way we will be talking to North Korea," he said.
Neither president took any questions from the press.
Ahead of the meeting, the White House said the two were expected to discuss the deteriorating security situation in nearby Afghanistan.
Russia, Syria Talks
The Kazakh state news agency Kazinform said Trump and Nazarbaev would also be discussing relations with Russia and the war in Syria, along with trade issues.
"From a political perspective, we cooperate on solutions and promotion of regional and global security. The meeting will focus on the situation in Afghanistan, the Syrian conflict, and relations with Russia," Sanat Kushkumbaev, deputy director of the Kazakhstan Institute for Strategic Studies, which advises the president, was quoted as saying.
Kazakhstan also currently holds the rotating presidency of the United Nations Security Council.
On January 14, Kazakh Ambassador Kairat Umarov headed a UN delegation that met in Kabul with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah.
That delegation also included the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, and diplomats from China, Russia, and Britain.
Nazarbaev's press service said he would attend a meeting of the UN Security Council on January 18 to preside over talks focusing on nuclear nonproliferation.
After a January 9 meeting with U.S. Ambassador George Krol in Astana, the Kazakh president said he was seeking to build on the "amicable relationship" that Kazakhstan and the United States have established in the past 26 years.