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Kazakhstan: Nazarbayev Vows New Breakthrough in US Ties

Warm encounter with President Trump leading to talk of imminent progress on closing deal on enhanced strategic partnership.

Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev and US President Donald Trump at a joint press conference at the White House on January 16, 2018. (Kazakhstan Presidential Administration)

The visit of Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev to Washington has generated a flurry of excited pronouncements, foremost among them a prediction of a new breakthrough in relations.

“I am certain that as a result of my visit, there will be a decision to raise Kazakhstan-US relations to the level of an enhanced strategic partnership,” Nazarbayev said in a media briefing along President Donald Trump on January 16.

As is standard for a post-Soviet leader, the language is cloaked in jargon, but the remarks are strongly indicative of Astana’s continued desire to finesse its diplomatic equipoise with its other major allies, Russia and China.

Kazakhstan is a fine friend to Russia, but Nazarbayev’s trips across the border rarely produce as much gushing as his meeting with Trump. Nazarbayev was effusive in his praise for his host. 

“I want to congratulate you on the [first] anniversary of your presidency and the enormous achievements in the economy. For me to be here is a great honor,” he said.

The White House in turn was prolix, if a little cursory on the details, in describing its vision for what it has dubbed as the two countries’ proposed “Enhanced Strategic Partnership for the 21st Century.”

Much of what was laid out was reiterative of already existing cooperation, however. So Trump praised Kazakhstan for its efforts to promote the cause of nuclear non-proliferation, a cause Astana has long used to advance its credentials as a responsible geopolitical actor.

On this point, it is noteworthy to see Nazarbayev joining Trump in condemning North Korea for its nuclear and missile programs programs — a slight variance from the Russian position, which views US foreign policy in the Pacific arena as a potentially equal contributor to insecurity in that region.

The US see Kazakhstan as a lynchpin in its South Asia strategy, as Trump reminded his guest, in typically self-aggrandizing fashion.

“Our strategic partnership with Kazakhstan has advanced my South Asia strategy, which is working, and working far more rapidly than anybody would understand,” Trump said.

The keynote action in Trump’s South Asia strategy to date has been the very recent decision to suspend security aid to Pakistan — assistance that the New York Times has reported may be worth around $1.3 billion per year.

With analysts, not to speak of senior Pakistani officials, alike speaking of an imminent freefall in dialogue between Washington and Islamabad, Trump’s remarks on Kazakhstan’s role in Afghan operations assumes particular topicality.

“I appreciate the president’s personal assurances that Kazakhstan will continue to provide critical support and access for our troops fighting ISIS and the Taliban, where we have made tremendous strides,” Trump said.

Trump also commended Kazakhstan’s financial support for Afghan armed forces, as well as its support in training civilian and security personnel and its participation in transportation infrastructure projects.

In addition to deepening military cooperation, the US and Kazakhstani government also intend to explore ways of joining up forces in combating internet-related crime, partially in the interests of containing terrorism and extremism. Kazakhstan’s notions on countering online extremism, of course, are usually less mindful of basic civil liberties than those prevailing in the United States — where things are often arguably bad enough — but such footling details rarely seem to trouble policymakers in Washington.

Looking ahead to economic and business issues, Nazarbayev assessed that his visit would coincide with the conclusion of 20 commercial deals worth a total of $7.5 billion.

“This speaks for itself about the shared interests of our business communities,” he said.

Trump, meanwhile, approved of such developments but also spoke of the need for Kazakhstan to respect its World Trade Organization obligations, uphold fair labor practices and enforce the sanctity of contracts.

As if it needed pointing out, any discussion of rights issues was quite absent. The “human dimension” of the mooted intensification of relations are hinging on the development of competitiveness and and pledge from Trump to help “increase English language proficiency” in Kazakhstan.

Kazakhstan: Nazarbayev Vows New Breakthrough in US Ties

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