Kairat Umarov, the new Kazakhstani ambassador to the United States, is picking up where Erlan Idrissov, the former envoy and Astana’s current foreign minister, left off.
Idrissov, during his five years as Kazakhstan’s top representative in Washington, gained a reputation as one of the most influential and visible foreign diplomats from a formerly Soviet republic. Since his arrival in the US capital in early January, Umarov has been a similarly energetic and public promoter of Kazakhstani interests, and of expanded US-Kazakhstani ties.
At a March 19 event on religious freedom, Umarov touted bilateral cooperation, saying that Kazakhstanis and Americans “have shared values, a common agenda and are poised to take concerted actions to promote international peace and mutual understanding throughout the world.”
Umarov stressed that “it is very important for the United States to stay engaged with the region” even beyond the planned Afghanistan pull-out date in 2014. The ambassador told EurasiaNet.org that he would prioritize the promotion of stronger bilateral cooperation on trade and investments, agriculture, science and technology, regional security (especially Afghanistan), people-to-people contacts, and, citing Almaty’s role in hosting the Iran nuclear talks, non-proliferation.
The new envoy is also tackling an image issue head-on. Kazakhstan in recent years has faced growing criticism about its democratization track record, including flawed elections, and crackdowns on opposition politicians, media outlets and non-violent religious organizations.
At a speech at the March 13 Turkic American Convention, Umarov acknowledged that Kazakhstan’s political system was “a work in progress.” He added that he and his colleagues “are open for both advice and criticism, but want to encourage … constructive discussion that would upgrade not degrade Kazakhstan’s achievements.”
Umarov is no stranger to Washington. He served in the Kazakhstani Embassy to Washington from 1994-1996, as a first secretary and then a counselor. He later served as minister-counselor in Washington from 1998-2003. Umarov went on to serve as Kazakhstan’s Ambassador to India from 2004-2009 and then rose to the rank of a deputy foreign minister. In that capacity, many of his responsibilities had a US connection. For example, he oversaw Kazakhstan’s relations with the United States and co-chaired the Kazakhstan-United States Strategic Partnership Commission.
Kazakhstani analysts interpreted Idrissov’s appointment as foreign minister last September as an expression of President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s desire to maintain strong ties with the United States, even as Astana deepens its economic and security ties with Russia and China. The success of Kazakhstan’s multi-vector foreign policy requires having Western countries engaged in Central Asia, which otherwise would naturally gravitate toward Russia and/or China, to the potential detriment of Kazakhstan’s sovereignty.
At a February 13 panel discussion at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute in Washington, Umarov denied that Kazakhstan’s joining the Customs Union with Russia or supporting Putin’s Eurasian Union conflicted with its commitment to remain open to Western businesses. He insisted the processes were complementary. He said that his government wants to “become a full-fledged member of the WTO" this year to strengthen its economic ties with all countries.
Umarov has sought to hitch a ride on the Obama administration’s Asian Pivot by emphasizing Kazakhstan’s economic and security ties in Asia. The country has extensive trade and investment with Japan, South Korea and especially China. Excluding Russia, Kazakhstan’s security ties in Asia are primarily multilateral. They flow through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia (CICA), which Kazakhstani launched shortly after gaining independence. Kazakhstani officials would like US officials to pay more attention to CICA.
Richard Weitz is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, DC.