Nazarbaev at the White House

by Nathan Hamm on 9/29/2006 · 2 comments


With President Nazarbaev at the White House today meeting with President Bush, there is understandably a large amount of media coverage and editorializing about both the visit and relations between the US and Kazakhstan.

Media Coverage

In a preview of the meeting, Deutsche Presse-Agentur reports that democracy is on the agenda, even if not too much.

The Financial Times preview of the meeting (carried at MSNBC) mentions the possibility that the meeting could result in an arms deal supplying Kazakhstan with US helicopters and boats to patrol the Caspian Sea. They also report that the case of James Giffen is not expected to be mentioned.

The New York Times has a detailed story on the issues involved in US-Kazakhstan relations and the tensions underneath Nazarbaev’s visit. Their story gives a great deal of attention to the charges brought against NDI and IRI for supporting opposition political parties.

Regarding the Giffen case, RFE/RL carries an update on the slow-moving corruption case in which Nazarbaev is said to have received bribes from a US businessman.

[Edward] Schatz [of the University of Toronto] says that Nazarbaev might have taken a small legal risk with his trip to the United States, but that the risk was worthwhile.

“It is certainly a legal victory, whether it’s the ultimate legal victory, whether it’s a permanent green light or a temporary one, I don’t really know,” he said. “My sense is that it could actually become — there’s nothing to prevent the court case in New York from taking any number of directions. I think it indicates a confidence on the part of Nazarbaev that he won’t be in the scenario of any of this. I also think — let’s not underestimate this moment — it indicates on the part of Nazarbaev that this is a PR move — to physically show up is a way to suggest confidence even if he doesn’t naturally have it. It’s a way to project confidence and that’s an important thing vis-a-vis his domestic opponents.”

The bulk of the stories out there are on Kazakhstan’s public relations efforts in connection to the trip. And the overwhelming majority of these stories frame the story as “Kazakhstan vs. Borat.”

Most of these stories repeat the same things, but the CBS story quotes Georgetown professor and Freedom House deputy executive director Thomas Melia as saying the ads only publicize that Kazakhstan is a dictatorship, “because real democracies don’t need to do that [sort of campaign].” In that, he has a point that, in a roundabout way, bolsters Kazakh embassy spokesman Roman Vassilenko’s point that the campaign has nothing to do with Borat. Namely, the types of countries that normally put out multi-page spreads about tolerance, modernity, etc. when their heads of state are in Washington are the Saudi Arabia’s of the world.

The NYT “Kazakhstan vs. Borat” article does include the following interesting/amusing tidbit regarding a Kazakh television station that has covered the Borat story.

TV 31’s executive producer, Yevgeny Grundberg, said he hoped to send a correspondent to interview Mr. Cohen in character, reversing the roles in Borat’s acts, where his mock interviews have duped some subjects. So far, though, Mr. Cohen has not responded to his offer. He said Mr. Cohen’s satire was hyperbolic at best and wildly off the mark at worst but nonetheless served as an antidote to the articles and broadcasts that appear in official state media, where Kazakhstan is forever harmonious and prosperous.

The only other item news-ish item on the Borat front is that Kazakhstan’s leading theater chain has decided not to carry the film.

The AP has a summary of the Bush-Nazarbaev meeting noting that both sides heaped praise on each other. That praise can be found in primary source form at the White House website. Joshua Kucera has a report on the meeting as well. Perhaps it is just me, but reading his interpretations of President Bush’s remarks drew my attention to the possibility of the praise being highly ambiguous.

Much longer than the presidents’ remarks and much more concrete is the joint statement released by the US and Kazakhstan after the meeting.

Confirming our commitment to this shared view to implementing the agreements achieved today, we declare our intention to further strengthen our strategic partnership through enhanced strategic dialogues on energy, military cooperation, trade and investment, and democratization. We express firm confidence that an enhanced strategic partnership between our countries will promote security and prosperity and foster democracy in the 21st Century.

The statement also says, “The United States supports Kazakhstan’s leadership in regional
integration efforts.”


In The Washington Times, Ariel Cohen talks up Kazakhstan as a rising star on the international stage and a much-needed US ally. He devotes much of his column to Kazakhstan’s positives and what he sees as a threat to US-Kazakhstan relations from Russia and China while quickly glossing over Kazakhstan’s slower progress on the political and human rights fronts. He closes by saying the US and Kazakhstan “need each other now more than ever,” though he never quite makes clear why Kazakhstan needs the US so badly.

Fred Starr makes similar points in his editorial in The Washington Post, though he does so far better than Cohen. While Cohen more or less paints the situation as one in which the United States is in a zero-sum competition with Russia and China for Kazakhstan’s favor, Starr acknowledges that Kazakhstan has been balanced in its foreign policy. He also — and this may come as a surprise to many — acknowledges that Kazakhstan has problems. In particular, he mentions problems with corruption and elections. He does, however, place more emphasis on Kazakhstan’s progress and the particular ways in which it has been a valuable partner to the United States. In closing, he says that shunning Kazakhstan for being less than perfect would only benefit China.

In this, he is surely exaggerating. As has been demonstrably true in the case of Uzbekistan, worsening relations with the West has led to better relations with Russia and China. However, Western relations with Uzbekistan were based on security. Europe, in far less need of Uzbekistan, generally felt far less inclined to try to keep the relationship alive. In the case of Kazakhstan, where oil and natural gas play a much larger role in relations with the West, Europe has much stronger incentive to keep the relationship strong, so it is far less likely that a cooling of relations between the US and Kazakhstan would necessarily translate into Kazakhstan running to the embraces of Beijing and Moscow.

The Los Angeles Times argues that the United States should continue to cultivate good relations with Kazakhstan, pointing out that “Kazakhstan is practically a Jeffersonian wonderland” compared to the rest of Central Asia and that the US is far more likely to successfully encourage democratization in Kazakhstan by pursuing a policy of engagement with the Kazakh government than it could hope to by disengaging. Regarding criticism of the visit, given voice in the form of Sen. Carl Levin’s declaration of the invitation of Nazarbaev as “morally wrong,” they say,

…Kazakhstan is too important to ignore or keep at a distance — and the reasons go far beyond its oil wealth. If Bush confines himself to meeting only with leaders who have perfect democratic records, he’ll have to rule out the heads of most countries in the developing world.

This, by the way, is one of the first newspaper editorials not written by someone not part of a paper’s staff that I have seen in three years of running this blog that has argued that engagement with a Central Asian government is more likely to reap positive results, even if less than we would hope for, than is disengagement.

Washington Post takes the opposite approach in its editorial on the Nazarbaev visit titled “Embrace for a Strongman,”

Administration officials defend the Kazakh policy with arguments that are familiar from the Cold War: that it is better to “engage” a strongman than to shun him; that Russia and China, which are competing with the United States for political influence and energy resources in Central Asia, are happy to embrace Mr. Nazarbayev. Such arguments merely condemn the United States to a losing geopolitical strategy, since strongmen will always be more likely to align themselves with Russia and China than with the United States. The arguments also ignore Kazakhstan’s own strategic interest in diversifying its energy customers and partnering with the world’s only superpower.

Granted, I would probably strongly disagree even if the editors at the WaPo made a better argument, but they do not appeared to have bothered to do much homework here. How they have determined that “strongmen” are always more likely to turn to Russia is lost on me. Sure, there are reasons for them to, but there are plenty of them who are comfortable with having closer relations with the West or charting an independent path. Their argument ignores that Kazakhstan’s own strategic interests in having powerful friends not on its borders to counterbalance China and Russia create incentives for it to play ball on the reform front. And further, the authors discount the evidence that, at the very least, powerful elements of the Kazakh government are apparently committed to reforms as the only surefire way of achieving the long-term goal of making Kazakhstan a powerful player on the international stage. Finally, why they think that Kazakhstan’s diversification of customers strategy is lost on those advocating friendliness towards Kazakhstan is beyond me.


Blogs are, for the most part, not paying much substantive attention to the visit while most of those that are, like the media, focus on the Borat angle.

Of those blogs discussing the visit, I think the following are worth dropping in on:

  • Rubber Hose, where upyernoz discusses Borat and the balancing act the US engages in with Kazakhstan.
  •, where, unsurprisingly, the focus is on the Kazakh government’s ad campaign.
  • Wonkette, which declares it is moving to Kazakhstan after reading the Kazakh embassy’s website.
  • The American Thinker, where Thomas Lifson calls on Kazakhstan to ignore the whole Borat thing.

UPDATE: I entirely forgot to mention The Roberts Report on the list of blogs. His is actually the best place to go in the blogosphere (that I’m aware of, anyway) for sharp commentary and coverage on Nazarbaev’s US visit. In particular, I recommend this post, where Roberts makes the point that the large amount of Borat coverage in the media is likely a result of this angle being far easier for the media to report. And this, he says, means that Borat achieves a valuable goal for Kazakhstan’s government. He guarantees that sensitive issues in the US-Kazakhstan relationship such as democracy stay in the background.

UPDATE II: It’s “business as usual” with Ken Silverstein who sees a cabal of cheerleaders conspiring to paint too rosy a picture of Kazakhstan.

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This post was written by...

– author of 2991 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Nathan is the founder and Principal Analyst for Registan, which he launched in 2003. He was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Uzbekistan 2000-2001 and received his MA in Central Asian Studies from the University of Washington in 2007. Since 2007, he has worked full-time as an analyst, consulting with private and government clients on Central Asian affairs, specializing in how socio-cultural and political factors shape risks and opportunities and how organizations can adjust their strategic and operational plans to account for these variables. More information on Registan's services can be found here, and Nathan can be contacted via Twitter or email.

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johnnie b. baker October 1, 2006 at 1:08 pm

and aliyev was at the white house a couple months ago. like the world needs better examples of the bush administation’s hypocrisy was needed, the embrace of these two autocrats, who believe the best opposition politician is one with a bullet in the back of the head. so much for no longer embracing dictators. now while admit that many azeris love their president, at least to me, and i’ve pissed off a few kazaks for calling their president a durak, i ahve also talked to quite a few azeris who didn’t much care for bush’s embrace of aliyev. and i’m sure there are those in kazakhstan who feel the same way today. This type of crap by the us government only perpetuates the image america has cultivated for half a centurt all over the world. democracy, freedom, human rights, are good for americans and europeans, but that’s about it. and just as the majority of the world has already learned, the people of Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan will in the not too distant future will learn. the us government dosen’t give a lick about them either. and then the real fun will begin. again.

Kazakh October 9, 2006 at 8:44 pm

Nazarbaev just playing between China, Russia and USA for his personal interests. He sell sour gas to russia for nothing, invest money of ROK(Republic of Kazakhstan) in Russian gas plant. He sign BTC (Baku-Tbilisi-Czheihan) pipiline agreement but he knows – it doesnt give any cent for the our oil. Whats the reason? Why he sellingl these resources?
1. He looking for protection of Russian becouse if something happend in ROK, he should escape somewhere with his family.
2. In USA Chevron and Exxon have court case(Kazakhgate) for the bribe to person N1 and N2 from Kazakstan, you understand who is it. He need close this court case thats why he signed this agreement with BTC.
3. In February of 2006 was killed oposition lider – Sarsenbaev. He promissed published discreditable materials about Nazarbaev and his family.
4. However Nazarbaev was elected with 91%, its impossible becouse me and most of the people which i know vote agains him.

USA as world power shouldn’t show loyalty and tolerance to dictators and corruptioners. People from Kazakhstan also wants to be country with democratic freedoms and rich people with tangible wealth and culture.

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