As President Nazarbayev gets ready to make his sixth visit to the U.S. and his first official visit in five years
, the U.S. press is already analyzing the meaning of this trip to the formulation of President Bush's schizophrenic foreign policy. As a piece in today’s Washington Post
boldly states, “the upcoming Nazarbayev visit… offers a case study in the competing priorities of the Bush administration.” Peter Baker, the author of the Post piece, is, of course, referring to the conflict between Bush’s aggressive posturing on what he calls the “Freedom Agenda” of promoting democracy world wide and the administration’s tendencies towards “good old boy” realpolitik
, especially when it involves oil rich states and the Global War on Terrorism (GWOT).
This contradiction in the Bush administration’s foreign policy was particularly pronounced when Vice President Cheney denounced Russian backsliding on democracy one day prior to visiting Astana, where he praised the political reforms (sic) of Kazakhstan. It is a contradiction that plagues U.S. diplomats and other government workers involved in furthering what they must portray as a coherent and unitary “foreign policy.” In the context of Kazakhstan, for example, the mixed messages of the Bush administration’s aggressive statements about “the march of freedom” and “democracy rising” around the world and the administration’s generally conciliatory position in relation to Nazarbayev’s government create a situation that only strengthens the position of those Kazakh elites opposed to reform. The “old guard” anti-reformers are able to point to Bush’s democracy statements as evidence of the ulterior motives and “colored revolutionary” aspirations of the U.S. in Kazakhstan, while these statements are not reinforced with any actions to hold Kazakhstan accountable for its reluctance to reform or its direct actions to forestall U.S. democracy promotion in Central Asia.
While a case can certainly be made in relation to the importance of Nazarbayev’s visit to U.S. foreign policy debates (and only such an argument will secure the visit a front page spot in the Washington Post this early in the game), the trip and its results may be more important to the increasingly divided Kazakh elite. As I have noted elsewhere
, President Nazarbayev is quickly becoming a “lame duck” leader in Kazakhstan as people continue to speculate
on who will become his successor. As one might expect, this situation has increased the competition within the Kazakh elite as was witnessed in the political battles that have emerged around the murder of opposition politician Altynbek Sarsenbayev
and that went public with Dariga Nazarbayeva’s now infamous article Déjà vu
While not the only front in the internal power struggle within Kazakhstan’s elite, questions of democratic reform and relations with the west definitely play a role in the succession battle. Not long ago, for example, a person who self-identifies as one of “Nazarbayev’s people” told me of the necessity for the U.S. to push the Kazakhstan president on democratic reforms when he visits Washington in the fall. He noted that playing soft-ball with Nazarbayev on this question will get the U.S. nowhere, but the President will listen if the U.S. is stern and straightforward. Others in the Kazakhstan elite, of course, hope that the question of democratic reform is buried during this visit and that the status quo can be maintained through any succession to President Nazarbayev. As Nazarbayev readies for his visit, therefore, he will likely be hearing different opinions from his own advisors concerning the importance of democratic reforms to Kazakhstan’s relationship with the U.S. At the same time, President Bush will be hearing conflicting arguments about the same question from different corners of the U.S. foreign policy community. The only thing that is certain is that continued cooperation in the economy of oil will be a critical topic of discussion when meetings finally transpire both with G.W. Bush in the White House and with G.H.W. Bush by the ocean in Kennebunkport, ME. The question is how oil and democracy will mix in this latest reaffirmation of U.S.-Kazakhstani friendship. With the trip still about a month away, it is probably too early to say.