United States-Kazakhstan conference highlights successes and challenges

The possibility of an extremist regime re-emerging in Afghanistan after NATO forces leave in 2014 was on the minds of many speakers at a conference in Astana marking 20 years of U.S.-Kazakhstan relations.

The event May 18 at the headquarters of the new Nazarbayev Center think tank, whose director is former Foreign Minister Kanat Saudabayev, both celebrated the countries’ joint accomplishments and spotlighted challenges.

It also generated three pieces of news:

  • Vladimir Shkolnik, chairman of the KazAtomProm national nuclear company, announced that the International Atomic Energy Agency had chosen the northern Kazakhstan city of Ust-Kamenogorsk as the site for the world’s first IAEA-sanctioned fuel bank. When a country is unable for political reasons to obtain reactor fuel on open markets, it can seek IAEA approval to obtain it from the Kazakhstan fuel bank. Thus experts consider the bank an important safeguard against nuclear proliferation.
  • The  United States and Kazakhstan have achieved major milestones together in nonproliferation, but they are still working on 25 initiatives within Kazakhstan’s borders, according to John Ordway, a former U.S. ambassador to the country.
  • Foreign Ministry official Askar Tazhiev suggested that President Barack Obama might visit Kazakhstan after the U.S. presidential election in November. President Nursultan Nazarbayev invited Obama to come when the two were at a nuclear summit in Seoul, South Korea, in March, said a diplomatic source who asked not to be identified. Obama replied that he would be unable to make such a visit until after the U.S. election – a response that Kazakh officials interpreted as a possible yes.

So many speakers at the conference talked about the impact that an Afghanistan meltdown could have on Central Asia, it was clear that many consider it a wild card in Kazakhstan’s and the region’s future.

U.S. Ambassador to Kazakhstan Ken Fairfax addresses the conference crowd.

The fear is that a re-radicalized Afghanistan would export terror across its borders, destabilizing first Tajikistan and Uzbekistan and then Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan.

Other challenges that conference speakers mentioned included Kazakhstan’s continuing quest to diversify its economy away from oil, gas and minerals, and some of the population’s desire for broader and faster democratic reforms.

The conference addressed U.S.-Kazakhstan cooperation in four keys areas: nuclear nonproliferation, business, politics and regional security.

Kazakhstan is “one of the greatest arms control and non-proliferation success stories” in the world, declared Ordway, the U.S. ambassador in Astana from 2004 to 2008.

President Nazarbayev wrote the first chapter in the success story by closing the Semipalatinsk nuclear testing site in August 1991, while Kazakhstan was still part of the Soviet Union.  The decision angered the Kremlin.

Semipalatinsk was the Soviet Union’s major test site. Almost 456 tests involving more than 600 bombs were conducted there between 1949 and the late 1980s.

When the Soviet Union disintegrated in late 1991, Ordway said, U.S. officials suddenly found themselves staring at a nightmare: three additional members of the “nuclear club” – the newly independent nations of Kazakhstan, Ukraine and Belarus.

In 1992, Ordway was on a U.S. team that visited the three countries and Russia. The goal was to convince Kazakhstan, Ukraine and Belarus to give up their nukes, and Russia to help with the process.

“I cannot tell you what a pleasure it was for me as a military man and as the chairman of the (U.S.) Joint Chiefs of Staff to see the (non-proliferation) decisions that Kazakhstan made at that time,” retired Gen. Colin Powell said in a videotaped address to the conference. “Under the decisive leadership of President Nazarbayev, you decided you did not want to be a nuclear power. You gave up all your weapons, you worked with us, the United States, and other nations in removing all the residue from the days of the Cold War.”

The “residue” included more than 1,400 nuclear warheads, 125 missile silos and other facilities and equipment.

Kazakstan’s decision to get rid of its nuclear weapons convinced Ukraine and Belarus to do the same. At the time, Ukraine’s nuclear arsenal was the world’s third largest, Kazakhstan’s the fourth and Belarus’ the eighth.

But the United States considered Kazakhstan the most important objective because it had its own testing facility and it was a predominantly Muslim country, according to a knowledgeable source.

The United States and Kazakhstan worked together to send the warheads to Russia, but Kazakhstan still had a lot of nuclear material on its soil, including “what the testing had left,” Ordway said.

So the countries cooperated to eliminate the threat of the material falling into the wrong hands – a danger that became more urgent after 9/11.

Kazakhstan’s deputy foreign minister, Kairat Umarov, noted that the biggest success – in terms of amount of nuclear material secured – came in November of 2010. That was when Kazakhstan and the United States completed transporting enough material to make 800 bombs from a reactor in Aktau, in western Kazakhstan, to a secure storage site in eastern Kazakhstan.

With his newly independent nation’s economy faltering in 1992, Nazarbayev rushed to arrange business deals with other countries.

The first big one was with Chevron Corp. Nazarbayev and Chevron’s then-chairman, Ken Derr, signed an agreement in 1992 to develop the Tengiz oil field in western Kazakhstan.

At the time, Kazakhstan had neither the money nor the technical expertise to begin production there.

A Chevron-led consortium called Tengizchevroil developed the field. It was a “marvel of engineering and technology,” according to George Kirkland, Chevron’s current vice chairman.

Nazarbayev Center director and former Foreign Minister Kanat Saudabayev gives a welcoming speech to conference participants. (All photos courtesy of the Nazarbayev Center.)

Chevron later became a partner in developing the huge Karachaganak gas-condensate field.

“We came as investors to Kazakhstan because we trusted the vision of President Nazarbayev,” Kirkland said. “We’re here today because that trust was kept.”

Production has increased 26-fold since Tengizchevroil opened, generating $63 billion in revenue for Kazakhstan’s government, Kirkland said. The consortium has also purchased goods and services valued at $12 billion from Kazakhstan companies, he added.

Asset Issekeshev, the minister of Industries and New Technologies, said a joint venture between General Electric and an Astana company is an example of U.S.-Kazakhstan cooperation in diversifying the economy. The venture assembles GE Evolution-series locomotives, some of which have been exported.

Daniel Witt, president of the International Tax and Investment Center, said tax reform in 1995 has helped Kazakhstan attract tens of billions of dollars in foreign investment.

He noted that Kazakhstan’s gross domestic product has jumped from $700 per capita shortly after independence to more than $11,000 today, and is projected to hit $15,000 in three years.

But “Kazakhstan’s policies are being challenged by domestic opponents and the media,” he said.

For Kazakhstan to stay competitive with other countries, it must continue to reform, Witt asserted.  “It’s important to stay the course.”

At the panel session dealing with politics, differences of opinion surfaced on the question of whether Kazakhstan is moving fast enough on democratization.

Vladimir Socor of the Jamestown Foundation maintained that a strong-presidency system of government was a major factor in generating the political stability that has been important to Kazakhstan’s development.

He said the democratization of much of Western Europe and of Turkey was evolutionary, not revolutionary. There is risk of failure in revolutionary democratization, he said – and he pointed to the Arab Spring uprisings in Libya, Egypt and elsewhere as examples.

While praising Kazakhstan’s progress toward democracy, other panelists said democratization should be accelerated.

Although elections this year led to a multiparty Parliament in Kazakhstan for the first time in many years, the makeup of the legislative body “is still not representing all of the population,” said Martha Olcutt, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Another former U.S. ambassador to Kazakhstan, Larry Napper, said in a videotaped address that in the early days of Kazakhstan’s independence, its leaders decided it was more important to focus on development than on achieving rapid democratization.

“We differ today in the pace of progress toward democracy,” he said.

The very first U.S. ambassador to Kazakhstan,  William Courtney, said one implication of the scheduled NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan is that “not since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 has Central Asia faced” such an uncertain security situation.

That’s particularly true because Central Asians have fought alongside Al Qaeda and the Taliban, he said.

Intelligence sources said battle-hardened ethnic Uzbeks and Tajiks would pose a threat to their homelands and the other countries in Central Asia.

Ariel Cohen, a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation, said that if an extremist government re-emerged in Afghanistan, “drugs and thugs” would pour across the country’s 800-mile-long border with Tajikistan.

Heroin from Afghanistan is already a huge problem in Russia, he said.

Yerlan Karin, a prominent Kazakh political analyst, said the NATO withdrawal would make U.S.-Kazakhstan co-operation on Central Asia even more crucial.

Afghanistan wasn’t the only topic in the conference’s security session.

Col. Gen. Saken Zhasuzakov, chairman of Kazakhstan’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, discussed the main threads of U.S.-Kazakhstan military co-operation.

The United States has provided Kazakhstan with $60 million in equipment and training, he said. Much of the training has been in the United States – and it has not been restricted to officers. Kazakhstan is the only country in the former Soviet Union to send many of its NCOs abroad for training, Zhasuzakov said.

“We now have both officers and NCOs with broad views (of military strategy and tactics) and broad training,” he said.

What they said

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton:

President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s “historic meeting with George H.W. Bush in May 1992 set the foundation for our strategic (Kazakhstan-U.S.) partnership.” . . . “Kazakhstan’s leadership on nonproliferation continues to grow . . .” . . . “Your country’s early market reforms led to the rapid development of Central Asia’s largest economy . . .”

Former U.S. President George H. W. Bush:

“Despite the uncertainty that still hung over newly independent Kazakhstan during the tumultuous period immediately following the dissolution of the former Soviet Union, your visit to Washington (in May 1992) helped lay the groundwork for a unique, strategic partnership that continues to yield benefits not only for both our nations, but the world as well.”

Former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker

“Kazakhstan has been an important American ally in helping establish a nonproliferation regime.” . . . “In 1994, Kazakhstan’s gross domestic product per capita was approximately $700. By the end of last year, it was $11,300. That is a spectacular increase.”

(Hal Foster appears in the Baltimore Post-Examiner under a partnership with Tengrinews of Kazakhstan. )

(Feature photo:  U.S. Ambassador to Kazakhstan Ken Fairfax and Deputy Chief of Mission Elisabeth Millard look at photos of milestones in U.S.-Kazakhstan relations.)