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Qishloq Ovozi

U.S. Ambassador to Kazakhstan George Krol

Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev has ended his official visit to Washington and headed to New York to preside over a session of the UN Security Council.

Nazarbaev's meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump dominated media coverage, but the Kazakh leader had other items on his agenda.

After the visit, RFE/RL spoke to current U.S. Ambassador to Kazakhstan George Krol, who was also in Washington.

Krol has met with the Kazakh leader many times, and the ambassador said Nazarbaev "views ties with the United States very positively in the context also of Kazakhstan's own foreign policy where it is what they describe as the multivector policy where they have strategic partnerships with their neighbors, particularly their large neighbors to the north [Russia] and to the east [China] and farther afield to the United States."

RFE/RL spoke recently to former U.S. Ambassador William Courtney about the rapid progress in U.S.-Kazakh relations after Kazakhstan gained independence in late 1991.

Krol offered this take on the subsequent period: "Over these last 25 years, the relationship has grown -- and the contacts, of course. President Nazarbaev has met every American president since President George Bush Sr., so this was another opportunity to connect with the leadership, the new administration of the United States."

'Enhanced Partnership'

Krol said of this week's U.S. visit, "Right now the priority -- and this is something that came out in the preparation for this visit, and it's stated in the joint statement of the United States and Kazakhstan -- is an enhanced strategic partnership for the 21st century, with an emphasis on "enhanced."

He said that part of that strategy includes "particularly Afghanistan, which is a key part of my president's South Asia strategy...as the world changes and has its challenges of dealing with violent extremism, if you will, [and] dealing with issues like the North Korean nuclear issue," Krol said. "The fact that the United States and Kazakhstan are now members of the Security Council of the United Nations...[means] the relationship has been transforming in the number of ties, the number of issues, and also increasing the level of engagement between our governments...to push for engagement beyond the traditional sectors, which have been in the energy sector."

U.S. President Donald Trump (left) and his Kazakh counterpart Nursultan Nazarbayev in Washington.
U.S. President Donald Trump (left) and his Kazakh counterpart Nursultan Nazarbayev in Washington.

One area was business and opportunities for the United States to become further involved in Kazakhstan.

"I know that Kazakhstan has a priority to move from being a source of raw materials to be a source of processed goods and services and wanting to transform and diversify their economy and also to diversify that relationship with the United States, to encourage American business and investment in areas outside the energy sector, and that is something that both governments are pushing for particularly in this meeting," Krol said.

One achievement he pointed to was "an agreement signed between the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, OPIC, which is a U.S. government agency, and Kazakhstan. OPIC which provides investment insurance, it also provides investment itself, is sort of open for business in Kazakhstan for American COMPANIES? That wish to develop business in Kazakhstan to have that focus and diversification in the economic side."

And Krol said that, after the meeting with Trump, Nazarbaev "had...a meeting at Blair House with the secretary of energy, Secretary [Rick] Perry, and then he spoke at a roundtable at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. There were present the CEOs of numerous American companies that are doing business in Kazakhstan or those that are intending on doing business [in Kazakhstan]."

'Fruitful Meetings'

RFE/RL asked about some specific issues in Kazakh-U.S. ties.

One was speculation that Nazarbaev might offer his services as a mediator to smooth ties between Russian and the United States. Nazarbaev successfully helped mediate between Russia and Turkey after a Turkish fighter shot down a Russian warplane near the Turkish-Syrian border in November 2015 and several rounds of international talks on Iran's nuclear program were held in the Kazakh capital, Astana.

Krol said simply: "The subject of trying to alleviate tensions in relationships around the world was certainly touched upon and spoken about. Let's just say that, obviously, as President Nazarbaev said, he wishes to have a relationship, a productive relationship among all the partners that Kazakhstan has, which includes the United States and [Kazakhstan's] neighbors."

At the end of December, the Bank of New York Mellon froze more than $22 billion of assets from Kazakhstan's National Fund over a lawsuit launched by a Moldovan businessman.

Asked whether those funds were a topic of conversation during Nazarbaev's visit to the United States, Krol said, "No, because as I understand it, this freezing of [Kazakh assets], it's a London filial of the Bank of New York Mellon, and I think the court which froze it was a British court.... It's not an issue of the United States government being involved."

But Krol indicated Nazarbaev's meetings were fruitful. "I think one of the big takeaways of this visit is, again, the reason why these are so important is they meet together and they spend [time] together to understand each other and where they're coming from -- and not just the leaders but the delegations that came together. Because for those who are on the [Kazakh] delegation, this is also an opportunity to have the first meetings with senior members of the American administration. I should simply say as a result of this visit, because they discussed so much, I think we're going to have a very busy bilateral relationship to move a lot of these things forward in diversifying the relationship."

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

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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 some of the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change. Content will draw on the extensive knowledge and contacts of RFE/RL's Central Asian services but also allow scholars in the West, particularly younger scholars who will be tomorrow’s experts on the region, opportunities to share their views on the evolving situation at this Eurasian crossroad. The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.

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