Don't Play Politics With Kazakhstan

By S. Frederick Starr
Thursday, September 28, 2006

The president of Kazakhstan will be visiting the United States soon, and the critics are sharpening their pens. The trip by President Nursultan Nazarbayev will mark 15 years of independence for his country as well as a growing strategic partnership with the United States. But whereas the State Department sees Kazakhstan as a successful "corridor of reform," critics claim that it's just another corrupt petro-state and Nazarbayev himself a repressive, authoritarian ruler. The fact that Vice President Cheney recently visited the Kazakh capital of Astana only confirms their darkest suspicions: It's all about oil, and probably about Halliburton as well.

To be sure, Kazakhstan has oil and a lot of it. Russia and China have been buying as much of it as they can get, and Europe and the United States are eager to do the same. American firms, including Halliburton, have made big investments there, but so have the Chinese, Italians, British and Dutch. Shouldn't the United States be pursuing this prospect?

Those who say no point to widespread corruption in Kazakhstan. Critics refer particularly to the case of an American, James H. Giffen, who is on trial in New York for allegedly arranging bribes to senior Kazakh officials. The case is still pending, but under any circumstances the events in question occurred more than a decade ago. In the chaotic days following the Soviet collapse, corruption was endemic in nearly all of the new states. Since then Kazakhstan has made serious efforts to promote transparency. It has signed on with Britain's rigorous Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative. This year alone it has successfully prosecuted several dozen high- and mid-level officials for corrupt practices. In 2000 it set up a national fund that makes the management of oil revenue more transparent. And by 2008 its banking system will meet E.U. standards.

Under both Democrats and Republicans, the U.S. approach toward Kazakhstan has been to work with the government to reform its laws and courts. The American Bar Association, Freedom House, Counterpart Consortium and the U.S. Agency for International Development have made much headway in this regard. We should be exploring how to continue and expand this fruitful collaboration. Accusations from our side will only strengthen the hand of hard-core nationalists and others in Kazakhstan who defend the old practices.

The majority of Kazakh citizens are Muslims. Fundamentalists from the Persian Gulf states and elsewhere are eager to exploit the situation. A few years back members of a group with links to al-Qaeda penetrated the country. But so far Kazakhstan has shown remarkable success in addressing the social conditions that can feed extremism. The Asian Development Bank reports that the poverty rate has been cut by half in five years. A large middle class is rapidly forming, thanks in part to a revised tax code that favors small and mid-size businesses. The government now spends a respectable 4 percent of gross domestic product on modern, Western-style education and pays the full cost of sending its top 3,000 high school graduates for study in the United States, Europe, Japan and other developed countries. Graduates of this program are accustomed to modern freedoms and expect their country to embrace them.

Granting this, critics point to what they politely term Kazakhstan's "democratic deficit." They're right. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has drawn the same negative assessment of Kazakh elections that it has of all elections in the former Soviet Union except for the three Baltic countries: They fail to meet European standards. But the OSCE has acknowledged that recent revisions in Kazakhstan's electoral law represent "significant progress." It also concluded that the Central Election Commission managed the crucial run-up to the 2005 elections in a "generally transparent manner." For all the problems that remain, this argues for continuing a quiet process of engagement on electoral reform.

Kazakhstan merits our support for another reason. For a decade the United States has watched helplessly as India and Pakistan developed nuclear weapons, with Iran now on that path. The trajectory is chilling. Contrast this with Kazakhstan, which inherited a large nuclear arsenal from the Soviet Union and -- with U.S. support -- voluntarily got rid of it.

Moreover, Kazakhstan has managed to do what no other country has: maintain cordial and balanced strategic partnerships with China, Russia and the United States. Its links with Washington go far beyond the ceremonial; Kazakh troops stand with ours in Afghanistan. Its contingent in Iraq has destroyed more than 3 million land mines. And the Kazakhs are working closely with the United States on opening up Afghanistan to continental trade.

All this suggests that U.S. links with Kazakhstan are among this country's most promising relations in the Muslim world. Developed over 15 years under Democratic and Republican administrations, they are the fruit of hard work by U.S. agencies, businesses, educational institutions and scores of nongovernmental organizations. They are creating a successful model of economic and social development for majority-Muslim societies. What a contrast to what we see daily in the Arab world.

U.S. critics of Kazakhstan have every right to remind us that the country still falls short in many respects. But in the eyes of some Kazakhs, the United States may be a less than perfect partner as well. If either of these groups succeeds in damaging the basis of our partnership, further progress in Kazakh social policy and legal and electoral reform will be the first to suffer. And Kazakh oil will then flow mainly to China and other countries that pay their bills and ask no questions.

The writer is chairman of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies.

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