Kazakhstan’s foreign minister, Kanat Saudabayev, is in Washington from February 1-4. He is expected to seek US backing for two prestige events: a summit of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to be held in Kazakhstan; and a one-on-one meeting between US President Barack Obama and Kazakhstani President Nursultan Nazarbayev.
The United States, of course, will be looking for something in return. The problem is that different constituencies within the US government disagree on what Washington’s top priority should be: while some argue that the United States should push for Astana to adopt a faster democratization pace, others are seeking greater cooperation on security issues, in particular Kazakhstani assistance in shipping military equipment to Afghanistan.
In January, Kazakhstan took over the chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe [OSCE]. Some human rights advocates in Washington argue that Kazakhstani officials have not fulfilled reform commitments made in connection with their country’s selection as OSCE chair, and add that now is a good opportunity to press for stronger movement for those reforms. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Three US senators sent a letter to Saudabayev on January 19, calling on Kazakhstan authorities to carry out a procedural review of the case involving Yevgeny Zhovtis, a human rights activist in Kazakhstan who was convicted last year of vehicular manslaughter and sentenced to four years in prison. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
"We remain concerned... that Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and Freedom House, as well as Kazakh rights organizations, have raised questions about the investigation and trial that led to this verdict and allege that Mr. Zhovtis did not have the opportunity to exercise fully his right to defend himself," wrote Senators John Kerry (Democrat from Massachusetts), Robert Casey (Democrat from Pennsylvania) and Benjamin Cardin (Democrat from Maryland). A group of democratization-oriented groups (including the Open Society Institute) has sent a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, urging her to focus on human rights issues in her meeting with Saudabayev. [Editor’s note: EurasiaNet operates under the auspices of the Open Society Institute].
Some elements within the State Department, too, have been pushing for the United States to press Kazakhstan harder on democratization during Saudabayev’s visit. "When they come in talking about an OSCE summit, we, and a lot of the OSCE members, are telling them the same thing: we want to see [democratization] progress," said one State Department official, speaking to EurasiaNet on condition of anonymity.
While an announcement about an OSCE summit is possible during Saudabayev’s visit, the United States and Kazakhstan are not likely to reach agreement on the question of an Obama-Nazarbayev meeting, which might take place on the sidelines of a nuclear security summit in the United States in April. US diplomats have indicated that they expect to talk generally about how Kazakhstan could best make its case for such a meeting, the official said.
Washington’s policy toward Central Asia is increasingly oriented toward the region’s role in the Afghanistan war, in particular the transit of military equipment via the Northern Distribution Network (NDN). [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Kazakhstan in late January granted NATO member states overland transit rights for non-lethal equipment and supplies. Meanwhile, Astana has only allowed the United States limited rights to fly over the country with lethal equipment. While Russia and Uzbekistan have granted such rights, without greater cooperation from Kazakhstan, an air resupply route is not efficient. Thus, securing broader over-light rights from Astana is a key aim for the United States.
The White House’s National Security Council has convened a series of meetings to develop a unified US policy stance for Saudabayev’s visit. A spokesman for the NSC declined to comment to EurasiaNet on the substance of those discussions, saying "we are not going to comment on internal deliberations or meetings."
Military cooperation issues are likely to outweigh democratization desires when it comes to relations with Kazakhstan, said a second State Department official, also speaking on condition of anonymity. "The NDN trumps everything," the official said.
The Department of Defense did not return calls and emails from EurasiaNet seeking comment.
Because Saudabayev’s visit is taking place within the context of Kazakhstan’s chairmanship of the OSCE, human rights questions should be the focus of talks, the first State Department official said. Another visit later this month, by deputy foreign minister Kairat Umarov, will likely focus more on military issues.
Human rights advocates have been disappointed by recent public statements made by US government officials concerning Kazakhstan’s OSCE chairmanship. Democratization activists say many such statements have glossed over shortcomings in Kazakhstan’s rights record. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
"Kazakhstan has successfully navigated the early stages of statehood," said Robert Blake, assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asia, at a Kazakhstan Embassy reception in Washington to mark the beginning of the OSCE chairmanship. "It has achieved a position of leadership on international security and economic development. And now, Kazakhstan, as the OSCE Chairman-in-Office, has an unprecedented opportunity to lead Central Asia towards a future of democracy and to advance its own reform agenda to unleash the creative energy of its people."
Saudabayev is scheduled to testify on February 2 before the US Helsinki Commission, where he is sure to face questions about Kazakhstan’s rights record. "Regional security and energy issues are important and we expect that to be part of the agenda. But we want to make sure, particularly because of Kazakhstan’s role in the OSCE, that human rights are included on the agenda," said Cardin, the co-chairman of the commission, in an interview with EurasiaNet. "Kazakhstan has gone through reforms, but there are other reforms that are needed. They still need to have a more open democratic society and build on democratic principles."
While Cardin said he expects Kazakhstan to implement more political reforms, he praised the country for how it has prepared for its OSCE chairmanship. "There’s been more preparation done by this chair-in-office coming into office than I’ve ever seen before. They’ve spent a lot of time meeting with the US Helsinki Commission, reaching out to us," he said.
Editor's Note: Joshua Kucera is a Washington, DC,-based freelance writer who specializes in security issues in Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Middle East.
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Chairman Chris Smith and the OSCE ODIHR Director Michael Georg Link shake hands at the Winter Meeting of the OSCE PA in Vienna, Austria. (Feb. 2015)