2013-07-03 by Richard Weitz
Erlan Idrissov, Kazakhstan’s Foreign Minister will be visiting Washington July 6 -10, at a crucial juncture in his country’s relations with the United States.
The two countries have successfully cooperated on a wide variety of economic and security issues during the last two decades.
Looking forward, Kazakhstan actively supports a continuing U.S. presence in Eurasia even as U.S. military presence in the region declines. Conversely, a prospering and secure Kazakhstan is vital to U.S. interests in the region.
The United States has enjoyed mutually beneficial and friendly relations with Kazakhstan ever since Washington was the first capital to formally recognize Kazakhstan’s independence in September 1991, following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Economic assistance and investment have been essential to developing the Kazakhstani-U.S. partnership. The Department of State reports that the United States contributed $1.2 billion in technical assistance and investment support to Kazakhstan between 1992 and 2005. Private U.S. firms have also made some $20 billion in foreign direct investments over the last 20 years, mostly towards developing Kazakhstan’s oil and gas industries but also to support the development of the country’s electrical power, telecommunications, and business services.
Bilateral trade between Kazakhstan and the United States amounted to $2.5 billion in 2012. This figure and other elements of the two countries’ bilateral economic partnership should grow immensely because Kazakhstan has the potential to become another Asian Tiger given its vast natural resources, internal stability, and a government committed to economic reform and transformation.
Since adapting its “Strategy-2030” more than a decade ago, Kazakhstan has outperformed Russia and Ukraine in important areas—including global competitiveness, quality of life, and ease of doing business.
Kazakhstan profits greatly from its hydrocarbons, but needs to diversify—and intends to do, including by using alternative energy sources.
Kazakhstan has also proved to be an U.S. important ally on security matters, especially concerning the war in Afghanistan.
Kazakhstani leaders declared their unequivocal support for U.S. international counterterrorism efforts following the invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001. Since then, their assistance has been essential in maintaining the U.S. military presence there. As part of the Northern Distribution Network, Kazakhstan provides alternative air and ground transportation routes to convey non-lethal supplies from Europe to NATO troops in Afghanistan.
The Kazakhstani government also partners with other governments and NATO to strengthen the Afghan National Security Forces through financial and logistical support. Kazakhstan has also independently financed humanitarian efforts in Afghanistan by funding hospitals, schools, and other infrastructure projects, including a railroad that will link Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan to encourage further economic growth.
In addition to its role as part of the international coalition in Afghanistan, the Kazakhstani government collaborates with the United States on several other key security issues, including nuclear weapons nonproliferation.
After Kazakhstan’s independence, the United States offered substantial financial assistance to help Kazakhstan eradicate the nuclear warheads, related infrastructure, and weapons-grade materials Kazakhstan inherited from the Soviet Union.
More recently, Kazakhstan recently demonstrated its authority on nuclear nonproliferation matters by hosting a series of talks between Iran and the P-6+1 (Germany and the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council) to discuss constraining Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
During her recent term as Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton highlighted the importance of the U.S.-Kazakhstani “partnership on nuclear proliferation, disarmament, and security.” She identified “Kazakhstan as not just a regional presence but a global leader” on the nuclear weapons issue since “there are few countries that can match Kazakhstan’s experience and credibility when talking about nonproliferation.”
In addition, the Pentagon recently signed a five-year defense cooperation agreement under which the United States will help Kazakhstan restructure its military training and enhance its defense interoperability with NATO and the U.S. armed forces.
Through cooperation on international security efforts, Kazakhstani leaders recognize that regional stability is vital to preserving Kazakhstan’s economic and political growth. Nuclear proliferation, terrorism, and wars could derail efforts to attract foreign investment, impede regional trade and tourism, and create an unwanted refugee problem. Kazakhstan’s independent initiatives to combat these threats also promote U.S. interests in the region, working to transform Central Asia from an “arc of crisis” into an “arc of opportunity.”
President Nursultan Nazarbayev and his administration have actively championed regional integration efforts among Central Asian countries, promoting direct investment and trade among Eurasian nations and supporting improvements in commercial infrastructure and transportation throughout the region. Through the KazAID Agency, Kazakhstan also grants technical support and financial assistance to developing countries in Central Asia as well as Afghanistan.
Kazakhstan further promotes regional integration and security through participation in the “Istanbul Process,” founded in 2011 and composed of 15 member nations: Afghanistan Azerbaijan, China, India, Iran, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, Turkey, Turkmenistan, UAE, and Uzbekistan.
The Istanbul Process brings these nations together for a series of annual meetings to facilitate cooperation and dialogue on issues of education, counterterrorism, counternarcotics, disaster management, infrastructure, and trade agreements. This integration supports both Kazakhstani and U.S. goals to establish Kazakhstan as a “land bridge” between European and Asian interests.
The shared vision and successful cooperation between Kazakhstan and the U.S. serve as a positive backdrop for Foreign Minister Idrissov’s visit to Washington.
Idrissov’s illustrious diplomatic record qualifies him as an influential and respective ambassador – he previously served as foreign minister from 1999 to 2002 and then as the ambassador to Great Britain and the United States for two consecutive five-year terms. During his stint as ambassador to the United States, he helped establish the Strategic Partnership Commission, which facilitates meetings between Kazakhstani and U.S. officials on defense, economic, energy, and political issues.
However, subtle tensions exist in the Kazakhstani-U.S. relationship that must be addressed if the two nations wish to strengthen their partnership.
The United States wants to accelerate Kazakhstan’s political liberalization. Meanwhile, Kazakhstan wants the United States to purchase more non-lethal military supplies from Kazakhstan.
Kazakhstani officials further complain that, for all the two countries’ shared interest in Eurasian security, U.S. officials rarely attend meetings or provide logistical support for regional stability efforts such as The Conference on Interaction and CBMs in Asia (CICA), which was founded by Kazakhstan and seeks to promote confidence-building and other security measures throughout Asia.
Furthermore, Kazakhstan is technically still subject to trade restrictions under the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, which placed heavy commercial regulations on Communist bloc countries that previously restricted Jewish emigration and violated human rights. Even though Kazakhstan is a respected example of religious harmony and moderation among former Communist countries, Congress has not repealed the amendment, but only waives the requirement annually.
The Kazakhstani government rightly calls on Congress to repeal the amendment, given that the United States and Kazakhstan have a Bilateral Trade Agreement and Kazakhstan openly encourages U.S. investment in its economy.
Foreign Minister Idrissov’s visit to Washington gives U.S. officials a significant opportunity to reiterate the important and strategic partnership between the two countries by promising continued cooperation with Kazakhstan’s efforts to be a leader in promoting a prosperous and stable Central Asia.
It is also an important opportunity in shaping the coalition to support Afghanistan going forward as well.