- The Washington Times - Monday, July 30, 2001

As secretary of energy and ambassador to the United Nations during the Clinton administration, I traveled three times to Kazakhstan to underscore the importance of this key Central Asian country to U.S. interests. Of all the countries rising from the ashes of the Soviet Union, few offer the promise of Kazakhstan. In terms of both economic potential and political stability, Kazakhstan is critical to the long-term success of the Central Asian nations. The Bush administration should continue our policy of engaging Kazakhstan to ensure that this key country moves towards the Western orbit and adopts continued market and political reforms.
From its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 to the present, Kazak leaders have made the difficult and controversial decisions necessary to bring their country into the 21st century. In May 1992, President Nursultan Nazarbayev announced that Kazakhstan would unilaterally disarm all of its nuclear weapons. In the aftermath of the Soviet Union's collapse, Kazakhstan was left with the fourth-largest nuclear arsenal in the world, a tempting target for terrorists and other extremists. Mr. Nazarbayev's courageous decision to disarm in the face of opposition from Islamic nationalists and potential regional instability was one of the fundamental building blocks that have allowed Kazakhstan to emerge as a strong, stable nation and a leader in Central Asia. Then-President George Bush hailed the decision as "a momentous stride toward peace and stability."
Since that time, Central Asia has become an increasingly complex region. Russia is reemerging from its post-Soviet economic crises and is actively looking for both economic opportunities in Central Asia as well as to secure its political influence over the region. China is rapidly expanding its economic power and political influence in the region. Iran, despite recent progress made by moderate elements in the government, is still a state sponsor of terrorism and is actively working to develop weapons of mass destruction. Many of the other former Soviet republics have become havens for religious extremists, terrorists, drug cartels and transit points for smugglers of all kind.
In the center of this conflict and instability Kazakhstan has begun to prosper by working to build a modern economy, developing its vast natural resources and providing a base of stability in a very uncertain part of the world. With the discovery of the massive Kashagan oil field in the Kazak portion of the Caspian Sea, Kazakhstan is poised to become a major supplier of petroleum to the Western world and a competitor to Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). It is critical that we continue to facilitate western companies' investment in Kazakhstan and the establishment of secure, east-west pipeline routes for Kazak oil. This is the only way for Kazakhstan to loosen its dependence on Russia for transit rights for its oil and gas and secure additional, much needed, oil for the world market.
American policy in the region must be based on the complex geopolitics of Central Asia and provide the support required to enable these countries to reach their economic potential. We must continue to give top priority to the development of Kazakhstan's oil and gas industries and to the establishment of east-west transportation corridors for Caspian oil and gas. We must also remain committed to real support for local political leadership, fostering rule of law and economic reforms and to helping mitigate and solve the lingering ethnic and nationalistic conflicts in the region. Only through meaningful and substantial cooperation with Kazakhstan, will we be able to realize these goals.
There are many challenges ahead for Kazakhstan, but there are enormous opportunities for economic and political progress. Mr. Nazarbayev has taken advantage of Kazakhstan's stability to begin transforming its economy from the old Soviet form giant, state-owned industries and collective grain farms into a modern, market-based economy. We have much at stake in this development. Will Kazakhstan become a true market-oriented democracy, or will it slip into economic stagnation and ethnic violence like so many of its neighbors? The stability of Central Asia and the Caucasus depends on how Kazakhstan chooses to move forward. The United States must do its part to enhance U.S.-Kazakhstan cooperation and encourage prosperity and stability for the entire region.

Bill Richardson is former secretary of energy and ambassador to the U.N.

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