- The Washington Times - Friday, July 7, 2006

The United States and Kazakhstan hope to sign a wide-ranging “strategic partnership” accord when President Nursultan Nazarbayev travels to Washington in September, Kazakh Foreign Minister Kasymzhomart Tokayev said in an interview yesterday.

The agreement is the latest sign of the Bush administration’s desire for closer ties with the huge, oil-rich Central Asian nation, despite lingering concerns over Mr. Nazarbayev’s record on press freedoms and political liberties.

“Our two countries share a common interest in sustaining stability and security across Central Asia,” said Mr. Tokayev. “We are very much grateful for what the United States has done in Afghanistan, and I believe the U.S. side appreciates the political and strategic role we can play as well.”

Mr. Nazarbayev, who has ruled Kazakhstan since independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, will be making his first trip to Washington in five years. Mr. Tokayev said his meetings this week with senior U.S. officials were devoted to setting the agenda for the September trip.

Vice President Dick Cheney lavishly praised Kazakhstan’s economic and political progress during a visit in May.

Partly by default, Kazakhstan has emerged as the critical U.S. ally in the region. Uzbekistan, which also aided the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan, has closed a U.S. base and turned to Russia and China after U.S. criticisms of a violent political crackdown last year.

Kyrgyzstan has also moved closer to Moscow and is demanding a sharp increase in rents if the Pentagon wants to keep the key Manas Air Field for U.S. forces.

In a very uncertain region, “we are considered a very predictable partner,” said Mr. Tokayev, who added that bilateral ties are as strong today as at any time since independence.

But the closer ties are still complicated by aspects of Mr. Nazarbayev’s rule, at a time when President Bush has put promoting democracy at the heart of his foreign policy agenda.

Mr. Nazarbayev won another seven-year term as president in December in an election that Western monitors said was flawed, and just this month he consolidated his power by merging his party with one controlled by his eldest daughter.

Western press groups slammed a new law signed by Mr. Nazarbayev that they say greatly increases the state’s control of news outlets. The country’s information minister has also been quoted as saying the government plans to rein in Internet critics as well.

Mr. Tokayev in the interview defended the new press law, saying there was “real legal disorder in the media sector.” He said the law could be amended if it proved to have a chilling effect on critics.

He said U.S. officials have not pressured his country to reduce ties with its neighbors. He also dismissed reports in the Kyrgyz press that Kazakhstan might agree to host a U.S. military base if the Manas talks break down.

“That would not be feasible technically,” he said.

Mr. Tokayev acknowledged that Kazakhstan is seeking a larger role on the international stage to match its growing energy clout and steady economic progress.

Kazakhstan is making a strong push to become the first former Soviet nation to chair the 56-nation Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in 2009 or 2010.

Mr. Tokayev said his country’s bid is gaining support and will be discussed during Mr. Nazarbayev’s visit.

“Considering our economic development and political reforms, Kazakhstan has every reason to claim its right to serve as head of the OSCE,” he said.

But U.S. Ambassador to Kazakhstan John Ordway told reporters in Almaty that the international criticism of the new press law could hurt Kazakhstan’s chances.

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