Say goodbye to Uzbekistan, say hello to Kazakhstan.
The new US protege in Central Asia doesn’t have US military bases (yet) but it does have plenty of oil and other resources, as well as the largest economy in Central Asia (more than twice that of other Central Asian countries combined). It is also the nexus of Chinese economic inroads in the region, hence a place where US economic power in the former Soviet Union is likely to be challenged in the near future.
And Kazakhstan wants to be a tool of US power. Kazakh Foreign Affairs minister Kassymzhomart Tokaev told the Heritage Foundation in August,
…[W]e stand ready to legally and politically protect interests of the United States in Kazakhstan and the entire region…
…[W]e speak the same language on almost each and every issue in our bilateral agenda…
…[W]e stand for the continuation of operations by the antiterrorist coalition in Afghanistan…Kazakhstan [was] the only country in Central Asia and one of the very few Muslim countries to deploy a military contingent to Iraq…Kazakhstan believes that this is not the proper time for debate over the legitimacy of the military operation of the U.S. led coalition in Iraq…
So far as the United States presence in Central Asia is concerned, we view it as one of the important factors of regional stability, strengthening the independence and sovereignty of Kazakhstan as well as that of other countries in the region.
That’s more like it. What more could Washington ask for?
After the Uzbekistan fiasco, nothing less than this kind of outright boot-licking will get a country exalted to America’s regional favorite. US officials bent over backwards for the Uzbek tyrant after he massacred demonstrators in Andijan in May. Despite Washington’s damage control, the Uzbek government of Islam Karimov, paranoid and probably coached by Russian officials, was convinced that the United States was actually fomenting the demonstrations towards his eventual overthrow, as it had done in the Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan. So he served notice on July 7 that the US airbase, heretofore the largest US base in Central Asia outside Afghanistan, would be closed. After the July 7 warning, US treatment of Uzbekistan took a much more hardline tack, supporting the UN call for an independent investigation of the Andijan massacres.
Now Uzbekistan is distinguished by being the only Central Asian country not visited by Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice in her recent trip to the region. Daniel Fried, Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs told the press that the mainly military cooperation between the US and Uzbekistan was not enough to sustain the relationship. “It is clear that a one-dimensional relationship was simply unsustainable in Uzbekistan… We simply could not ignore all the problems on the democracy side.” This rewrites the history of ties between the two nations where for about a decade the one-dimensional relationship was enough, and the “problems on the democracy side” were what cemented the relationship. Karimov repressed dissidents, who he called Islamist terrorists, and Washington equipped his soldiers and police to do it. Uzbekistan was a favorite destination for the CIA to render terrorist suspects for “interrogation,” since Uzbek jailers weren’t bound by the same regulations and oversight.
The State Department’s Fried expressed appropriate indignation for the horrible behavior of the Uzbek government in Andijan:
We were very troubled by Andijan, and not simply the events themselves, but the reaction. But not simply Andijan and the reaction but a whole series of steps which frankly are troubling. Pressure on NGO’s, curtailment of exchange programs, a general climate of fear in the country which I did not find in any other country I went to. These are very troubling.
Troubling. What about Kazakhstan, the new protege?
In a letter to Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbaev dated October 12, Human Rights Watch expressed concern about the president’s “commitment to democracy” as the nation prepares for elections in December.
Human Rights Watch has received numerous reports of your governmentâ€™s continuing harassment of the political opposition and violations of the right to freedom of assembly, legal restrictions and other repressive measures against nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and a crackdown on independent media.
None of this appears to be “troubling” to the State Department. To the contrary, Condoleeza Rice told an audience at Eurasia National University in Astana that Kazakhstan “has an unprecedented opportunity to lead Central Asia toward a future of democracy and to elevate U.S.-Kazakhstani relations to a new level.” Showing the same kind of support for Nazarbayev that Washington once gave to Uzbekistan’s Karimov, Rice expressed the faith that he
is someone who can be persuaded to use his leadership, his considerable stature, his considerable popularity among his people, to move Kazakhstan to the next level, to have free and fair elections, elections that will meet international standards, and then will then lead this region, given what’s happened in Kyrgyzstan, lead this region to stronger elections.
A bit of translation from State Departmentese: “democracy” here means “a US-blessed process that includes elections,” and “free and fair elections” means “elections in which the US’ favorite candidate wins.” Come December we’ll see if Kazakhstan’s elections satisfy the Human Rights Watch definitions or those of the State Department.