- The Washington Times - Friday, September 3, 2004

ALMATY, Kazakhstan — It is said that President Nursultan Nazarbayev wakes up every day in Astana, his spanking new capital, and hears the growl of a Russian bear to the north and the roar of a Chinese tiger to the East.

And these days, he frequently finds Uncle Sam at his front door holding an empty gasoline can.

A sprawling expanse of steppes, mountains and deserts, this country extends from the eastern limits of Europe to the western border of China. It is four times the size of Texas but has just 15 million inhabitants, compared with the estimated 22 million in “the Lone Star State.”

Russia and China are interested in expanding their footholds in this oil-rich country, but Mr. Nazarbayev makes overtures to the United States and Europe to counterbalance his heftier neighbors.

Alone among the nations of Central Asia, Kazakhstan has a booming economy, a stable political culture, and the potential to be one of the world’s petroleum powerhouses within 10 years. With proven oil reserves of 35 billion barrels — twice the volume of the North Sea fields — its projected oil reserves in the Caspian Sea are three times that amount.

The head of Kazakhstan’s state oil company announced Aug. 9 that the country may triple its yearly oil output by 2015, according to CBSMarketwatch.com. Uzakbay Karabalin, president of KazMunaiGaz, said the country expects to triple oil output by 2015, pumping between 1.2 billion and 1.3 billion barrels annually, compared with 396 million barrels last year.

Most of the increase would come from the TengizChevroil, a joint venture with ChevronTexaco, and giant Karachaganak and North Caspian projects, he said.

Recent geological findings indicate that a decade from now, this former hinterland of the Soviet Union will be one five top oil producers in the world.

American companies are in the forefront of the exploration: More than 100 have invested there, accounting for $9 billion of $26 billion of foreign investment overall.

“Kazakhstan is unique among the Central Asian nations in that, with GDP growth rates of 9 percent and more every year for the last four years. It has a high economic growth rate that is sustainable, and it spills over into the non-energy sector,” said Ariel Cohen, a Eurasian-affairs specialist at the Heritage Foundation.

“True, the economic model is not Western; it is more statist, along the lines of Singapore and South Korea,” he conceded.

Russia’s economic ties to Kazakhstan grew closer Aug. 27 when the foreign ministers of the four members of the Central Asian Cooperation Organization — Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan — ratified Russia’s entry into their 2-year-old economic bloc. That move, and ratification by the Uzbek parliament late last month of a strategic partnership with the Kremlin, signal Russia’s reintegration with Central Asia.

This year, Mr. Nazarbayev is taking every opportunity to flex his nation’s newfound political and economic muscle. Kazakhstan is quietly campaigning to chair the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which has never been led by a former Soviet state. The OSCE includes all European and Eurasian countries, plus the United States and Canada.

Kazakhstan belongs to a bloc in the OSCE — with Russia, Belarus, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan — that would like the OSCE to refocus its mission more on economic aid and fighting Islamic terrorism and drug trafficking, rather than its present emphasis on fair elections, a free press and freedom of religion.

Among these seven post-Soviet states in the OSCE, Kazakhstan, is one of the most economically advanced and has a better human-rights record than the other six. The decision is to be made in 2006.

That bid has ruffled feathers in some Western European capitals, where diplomats challenge the qualifications of this fledgling democracy for such a post. That’s because the powerful one-year chairmanships are decided by consensus, and only countries that pass muster on OSCE rules regarding political and press freedom — which Kazakhstan currently does not — can seek the chair. Almaty announced its candidacy last fall without securing enough support from other countries to ensure its election.

Kazakh officials told The Washington Times that the OSCE, which achieved prominence in the 1970s and ‘80s for negotiating human rights concessions from the Soviet Union, needs to change with the times.

Foreign Minister Kasymz-homart Tokayev points to his country’s record of improved freedom of expression and political organizing, which OSCE observers monitor in all former Soviet countries, as proof that the country has outgrown the label of “authoritarian police state,” which is routinely pinned on all Central Asian states by human rights critics.

On the other hand, Mr. Tokayev said in June: “If Kazakhstan is rejected as the first of the Central Asian countries to make a bid for chairmanship of the OSCE, it will result in the isolation of the OSCE, which will become a club of Western countries talking among themselves [about democratization].

“You have to recognize that Kazakhstan, in relation to our neighbors China and Russia, is far more advanced than they are. And they are not eager to proceed with the political transformation toward more democracy,” he added.

“Why does the OSCE think they should recommend to us which model of democracy we should have? Why don’t they respect our thinking?” demanded Imangali Tasmagambetov, Mr. Nazarbayev’s chief of staff, who charged that the OSCE has a double standard when it comes to appraising the progress of human rights in the newly independent countries.

“Why did France adopt a law prohibiting the wearing of veils [in state-run schools]? Isn’t it a violation of human rights when people are prevented from wearing symbols of their religion,” he asked hotly.

The crunch time for Kazakhstan will come Sept. 19, when national parliamentary elections take place. Twelve OSCE observers headed by U.S. Ambassador Robert L. Barry recently arrived to monitor the fairness of the elections and the way campaign disputes are resolved.

An additional 400 observers will be on hand on the day of the election. A good report card from the observers would go a long way to help Astana defend its OSCE bid.

Mr. Nazarbayev, Kazakhstan’s Communist Party boss before independence in 1991, seeks re-election in 2006 and there seems little chance he could lose. Parliamentary elections are hotly contested, however. The two leading parties are Otan, headed by Mr. Nazarbayev, and Asar, led by his daughter Dariga Nazarbayeva, 40.

Of the 12 registered parties, Otan and Asar apparently favor the incumbent, seven are single-issue parties, and the other three are authentic opposition parties. They are Ak Zhol, Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan and the Communist Party of Kazakhstan; each claims to have more than 70,000 supporters, and the latter two are campaigning as a bloc.

Unlike Uzbekistan to the south, Kazakhstan does not have U.S. troops on its soil, but “President Nazarbayev in his annual address has highlighted cooperation with the United States as one of his highest priorities,” said Gen. Bolat Sembinov, the vice minister of defense.

Kazakhstan has won high praise from U.S. Army officers for sending 27 engineers from the Kazakh peacekeeping battalion to disarm mines and explosives in Iraq.

On July 19, the Defense Ministry announced that Kazakhstan’s army engineers had destroyed 2.7 million explosive devices in Iraq. The United States is “very appreciative of the role played by Kazakhstan in regional stability and in supporting efforts in Iraq,” Gen. John Abizaid, commander of the U.S. Central Command, said at an Aug. 2 press conference in Almaty.

“The Kazakh military is effective, mobile and small” said Gen. Sembinov of the nation’s 70,000-man force. This is a big change in a newly independent nation that was once a nuclear power and the centerpiece of the Soviet Union’s space program.

Kazakhstan unilaterally divested itself of nuclear weapons in 1990s, transferring bombs and missiles to Russia, but scars from Soviet nuclear testing still remain in the form of environmental pollution and high instances of cancer in some areas. Before independence, 4 percent of Kazakhstan’s territory was occupied by Soviet military sites.

Today, Kazakhstan’s army is 85 percent volunteer. Astana aims to have an all-volunteer force by 2005, Gen. Sembinov said.

An unusual accomplishment for a nation of 15 million is its new space program. On Aug. 11, a Russian RS-18 (Stiletto) intercontinental ballistic missile was launched from Baikonur Cosmodrome in the Kyzylorda region, attesting to the expanding Russian-Kazakh cooperation in space exploration.

Baikonur was the center of the Soviet space program until 1991, and now Astana has plans to use the facility for its own space exploration. A communications satellite is to be orbited from there next year, and two Kazakh astronauts are training for spaceflight.

Along with the growl of the Russian bear and the roar of the Chinese tiger, Mr. Nazarbayev now worries about the chants of radical Islam welling from the south. In contrast to neighboring Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan’s secular government is not a target of Muslim fighters.

Officials in Astana recently repudiated charges from the chief prosecutor in Tashkent that Uzbek terrorists were operating training camps on Kazakh territory. The fact is that cells of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan have used safe houses in Almaty and the border areas around Shimkent for years. But training camps for al Qaeda militants have not surfaced in Kazakhstan, as they have in Pakistan and Chechnya. And to date, there have been no terrorist attacks in Kazakhstan.

Amid a mostly secular population, a relatively high employment rate among Kazakhstan’s young people and prospects of a better economic future, Islamic militants find “jihad” a tougher sell than in poorer, neighboring countries.

Astana’s evenhanded treatment of all religions in this mainly Muslim country has drawn high praise from visitors and observers. Almaty’s Jewish community is growing and undergoing “a renaissance,” said Rabbi Yeshaya Cohen.

Stephen Schwartz, author of “The Two Faces of Islam,” told The Times: “The relationship between government and religion is very low-profile in Kazakhstan. That’s good. The model one looks for is not state Wahabbism [as in Saudi Arabia] or state Sufism [as in Uzbekistan]. It’s the right balance. Kazakhs are very comfortable with their Islamic tradition, and they don’t feel a need to prove anything to anyone.”

Douglas Burton is a contributor to The Washington Times and a former editor of Insight on the News.

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