- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 27, 2006

The visit by Vice President Cheney to Astana in early May is a landmark event showing the special priority Washington places on relations with Kazakhstan, a key country in Central Asia. Announcing the visit, the White House said President Bush “asked the Vice President to visit Kazakhstan to meet with President [Nursultan] Nazarbayev to strengthen our bilateral relationship on the basis of our shared strategic interests and desire to promote democratic reform and economic development.”

So, why is Kazakhstan important for the United States, and what sort of place is Central Asia? One view sees this region mainly as a potent mix of instability, unsustainable development, rising Islamic fundamentalism, huge energy reserves and great-power competition. Noting such realities, Zbigniew Brzezinski, writing in 1997, included Central Asia in his “arc of crisis.” Much has happened since this term was coined. Given today’s realities, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice recently referred to that region as an “arc of opportunity.” And if this is true of Central Asia as a whole, it applies especially to Kazakhstan, the most developed and stable country in the region, and at the same time the one moving most effectively towards democracy.

Kazakhstan is important in a number of crucial areas of concern to the United States: the war on terrorism, nuclear disarmament and new energy resources that can help stabilize world markets. On top of that, Kazakhstan’s successful experience in building a secular democracy with a market-based economy in a predominantly Muslim society is particularly important as an alternative model for other Muslim states to follow.

Soviet rule left Kazakhstan a heavily armed nuclear power. But independent Kazakhstan chose to voluntarily give up its might, ridding its soil of the world’s fourth-largest nuclear arsenal. Far from undermining our security, this bold and wise decision by Mr. Nazarbayev actually strengthened Kazakhstan. Today, when the world is struggling to contain nuclear proliferation, Kazakhstan’s example warrants close study and emulation.

Immediately after September 11 Kazakhstan offered the United States support in the war on terrorism. Together with the United States, today we continue working hard to restore normal life to Afghanistan. At the same time, Kazakhstan is one of the very few Muslim majority countries to send troops to Iraq, and the only Central Asian country to do so. We remain committed to our obligations there.

Kazakhstan’s large oil and gas reserves, estimated at 100 billion barrels and 200 trillion cubic feet, are too large to ignore in the effort to meet rising global demand. To attract needed investment, Kazakhstan modernized its laws, courts and administration. Nowadays, major companies from the U.S., Europe, China and Russia are Kazakhstan’s partners in developing oil fields and export pipelines. Within the decade Kazakhstan will become one of the ten top 10 oil exporters globally. The country also has rich reserves of uranium, which gain strategic importance as the United States and the world again turn their attention to nuclear energy.

After 14 years of reforms, Kazakhstan has moved from an impoverished command economy to a more open, market-based system. Its economy is now larger than all other countries of Central Asia and the South Caucasus combined, and Kazakhs’ living standards are much higher than the regional average. This is supported by our people’s strong intellectual potential, with more than 200 universities and research institutes for the population of 15 million. Moreover, thousands of bright students are sent to study at high-quality universities on government-sponsored scholarships. That’s why the World Bank now confidently lists Kazakhstan as a middle-class country. In a recent letter to the Kazakh leader, President Bush wrote: “The stability and prosperity that your country enjoys stand as a model for other countries in the region.”

Even though Kazakhs had no sustained prior experience with open and fair elections, democracy has taken root among them. International observers agree that each recent election has shown steady improvement of its predecessor. This reflects Kazakhs’ own growing commitment to their new democratic institutions. In recent competitiveelectionsMr. Nazarbayev won a decisive mandate to pursue his strategy of persistent, evolutionary development for our country. Against this background, Miss Rice did not exaggerate when she declared in Astana that “Kazakhstan is poised and ready to break a path for a new Silk Road, a great corridor of reform… Kazakhstan’s greatest days lie ahead of it. And the United States wants to be your partner.”

Notwithstanding some improvements, the region of which Kazakhstan is a part is a work in progress. Central Asia is still plagued by drug and human trafficking, poverty and, in some areas, Islamic fundamentalism. Human-rights violations and corruption persist. Both the causes and impact of these problems extend far beyond our region. The United States cannot flee from the challenges posed by these conditions, and these challenges cannot be met without committed and competent regional partners.

Kazakhstan and the United States share the desire to transform our region, including Afghanistan, into a Greater Central Asia, a region of peace, stability and prosperity. Kazakhstan is the logical and solid lynchpin for this effort and is eager to expand cooperation with the United States and with all others who share this goal.

The upcoming talks between Mr. Nazarbayev and Mr. Cheney provide a timely opportunity for Astana and Washington to coordinate their positions on wide range of issues. We hope this meeting will give a new boost to strengthening our countries’ strategic partnership.

Kanat Saudabayev is Kazakhstan’s ambassador to the United States.

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