The Countdown Begins: Presidents Nazarbayev and Bush to meet in Washington’s White House on September 29, 2006 (16 days and counting)
On Tuesday, the White House Press Secretary announced officially that President Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan will meet with President Bush in Washington on September 29, 2006. While it seems that the synergy between the hype of the new “Borat” film and the preparations for President Nazarbayev’s visit is stealing all of the media attention in the west, this trip is much more important to the future of Kazakhstan than the humorous diversion of the “Borat” satire would suggest.
In many ways, Kazakhstan is at a crossroads in its development. The country has made some important strides in instituting a market economy with a modicum of liberalism in everyday life. While the quality of life in most of the former Soviet states surrounding Kazakhstan has likely declined since the fall of the U.S.S.R., in Kazakhstan most citizens would agree that the standard of living in their country has been gradually improving, at least in the last five years. Much of Kazakhstan’s development has depended upon the political prowess of its leader President Nursultan Nazarbayev and his relatively wise use of the country’s vast natural resources. As an observer who has watched Nazarbayev’s post-Soviet career, it appears to me that President Nazarbayev now badly wants significant recognition for the strides that he and his country have made in the last fifteen years. In order to receive the praise that Nazarbayev feels that Kazakhstan deserves, he continues to seek ways to visibly demonstrate the country’s successes. He is passionate about his country’s bid to head up the multi-national Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), and he has a grand plan to make his country one of the “50 most developed countries in the world” by 2010. As Nazarbayev is developing these plans, however, it is also apparent that he is getting closer everyday to eventually giving over the reigns of his country to a successor. Having been ruled for some 15 years through a closely managed form of “enlightened autocracy,” the country awaits a period of uncertainty as everybody hopes for a leader who can demonstrate the political prowess of Nazarbayev. It is another question whether such a successor exists who can follow Nazarbayev’s lead and effectively run the country virtually single handed. It is in this context of transition that Nazarbayev is visiting Washington. The aging leader has high hopes for the recognition that Kazakhstan will gain through his visit to the White House, and some of these lofty expectations were outlined in a recent rare press conference that the President gave in Astana. It is not all that unlikely that this could be Nazarbayev’s last high-profile official visit to the United States and his last chance to showcase to the "leader of the free world" the country he "made." President Nazarbayev’s pride in his achievements and his desire for recognition also explains why the “Borat” controversy is such a sensitive issue for the Kazakhstan government during this visit.
The United States is also eager to court Nazarbayev and Kazakhstan as a partner. Having seen its post-September 11 “strategic partnership” with Uzbekistan virtually self-destruct over the last two years, the U.S. would like to work more closely with Kazakhstan on a myriad of issues from anti-terrorism and the reconstruction of Afghanistan’s economy to energy security and a diversification of oil and gas pipelines coming out of Central Asia. Furthermore, one would hope that the U.S. understands that Kazakhstan is not only critical to providing a balance to Russia’s economic and political dominance in the region, but it may be critical to preventing a renewal of economic and political dependency on Russia throughout the former Soviet states outside the Baltics. It is significant, for example, that Kazakhstan has become the largest investor in Georgia following the Rose revolution and that Kazakh investment has also been on the rise in the Ukraine since the Orange revolution. In those countries that are snubbed by Russia for political reasons, Kazakhstan is the only local economic power that has the capacity to “take up the slack.” The U.S., therefore, wants to be friends with Kazakhstan in the same way that Kazakhstan wants recognition from the United States. The problem is that beyond the mutual desire of establishing a long and lasting partnership of respect, there are fundamental divergences in the two countries’ attitudes towards human rights and democracy.
As a veteran of the Soviet nomenklatura, Nazarbayev does not believe in democracy, at least as it is understood in the U.S. He sees democracy, like socialism before it, as a formal construct to explain the ways in which a state enforces stability and provides for its people. It is a model of democracy that President Putin of Russia has termed “managed democracy,” but it is the former politburo member Nazarbayev who is its most adept living practitioner. President Bush, on the other hand, believes that democracy entails a system of governance where leadership regularly changes and where elections appear even to outside observers to be free and fair within a certain pool of candidates. Bush has made democracy the centerpiece of his crusade to defeat terrorism and reignite a sense of American manifest destiny. While Vice President Cheney made it clear when he visited Nazarbayev last year in Kazakhstan’s own White House (or Ak Orda) in Astana that Kazakhstan is not a central focus (or target) of America’s global democracy campaign, Nazarbayev desires more than a “pass” on democracy. He wants recognition. This is a tall order given that Nazarbayev is haunted by numerous scandals that betray the actual character of the operations of the state in Kazakhstan. Among the most prominent of these are the recent suspicious murder of opposition politician Altynbek Sarsenbayev and the infamous “Kazakhgate” oil bribery case involving President Nazarbayev and the American James Giffen, who is presently under indictment and awaiting trial in the State of New York.
It is against this backdrop that neither side is likely to get what it really wants out of Nazarbayev’s visit to Washington. This is unfortunate since many among the younger generation in the Kazakhstani elite who want to see real political reforms in the country could benefit from the establishment of strong partnership between Washington and Astana. But, they would only benefit from such a partnership if it was also clear to Nazarbayev that the relationship depends upon serious steps towards political reforms that could ensure a democratic succession in the country and a transition to a system of governance founded on checks and balances rather than on a single strong leader. As Kazakhstan faces the uncertainty connected to the succession of its first president, only such a system will likely ensure stability and continued economic prosperity. Otherwise, the last years of the Nazarbayev regime might gradually look more like the last years of Suharto’s regime in Indonesia. Such a scenario would not prevent short-term U.S. engagement of Kazakhstan (especially in the oil sector), but it would make the development of a real long-term partnership between the two countries unlikely.