US President Barack Obama has agreed to meet with his Kazakhstani counterpart, Nursultan Nazarbayev, on the sidelines of a nuclear summit in mid-April. The meeting could have its tense moments, as Obama is expected to press Nazarbayev on the treatment of a Kazakhstani human rights activist.
A State Department official confirmed that a meeting in Washington will take place during the April 12-13 nuclear summit. Another government official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told EurasiaNet.org that the White House decided to agree to the meeting as an expression of gratitude for Kazakhstan's work on nuclear security, in particular for giving up the nuclear weapons that it inherited after the fall of the Soviet Union.
Previously, State Department officials had indicated that Washington was reluctant to agree to a presidential meeting until Kazakhstan made progress on democratization commitments. Those commitments included loosening restrictions on the media, as well as reconsidering the conviction of Yevgeny Zhovtis, a human rights activist who was sentenced to four years in prison for vehicular manslaughter after a controversial trial. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Although Astana has not addressed either area yet, the US official said that Obama would use the meeting to personally press Nazarbayev on the Zhovtis case.
Despite the potential embarrassment over the Zhovtis case, the meeting, and the resulting photo opportunity, can be considered a big diplomatic victory for Nazarbayev, said Eric McGlinchey, a Central Asia expert at George Mason University.
"The photo op is huge," McGlinchey said. "The photograph of the US president, in the Oval Office, the statement that conveys to the people of Kazakhstan is that Nazarbayev is a world leader, meeting with the leader of the most powerful country in the world. For Nazarbayev, for political capital, this is as big as it gets."
Nazarbayev during the meeting is widely expected to seek an endorsement from Obama for an Astana-sponsored summit later this year of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
Kazakhstan is serving as OSCE chair this year, and Nazarbayev has made the convening of a summit a diplomatic priority. US officials say that no decision has been made yet on whether Washington will back Nazarbayev's summit plans. Even so, McGlinchey said an OSCE summit seemed inevitable. "The summit is going to go on regardless," he said.
The United States is also hoping Kazakhstan will expand its cooperation in the Northern Distribution Network, a web of road, raid and air links that ferries military supplies to US and NATO troops in Afghanistan. While Astana has agreed to one overflight route for non-lethal supplies, the Pentagon is seeking permission for another, more efficient, route over the country. Gen. David Petraeus, commander of US Central Command, was in Astana on April 5 and met with Foreign Minister Kanat Saudabayev. It is not yet clear whether Astana has agreed to the other route, but US officials do not believe that Kazakhstan is opposed in principle to its use.
Joshua Kucera is a Washington, DC,-based freelance writer who specializes in security issues in Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Middle East.