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Ambassador Idrissov’s intriguing geo-conceptual question

Written by on Friday, 10 February 2012
Kazakhstan, Politics and Society
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The Kazakh foreign ministry circled their caravans in Washington, DC early last week to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of Kazakhstan’s independence. The Atlantic Council pounced on the opportunity by hosting the symposium “Twenty Years of Kazakhstan Independence and US-Kazakhstan Relations” in a ritzy ballroom. Keynote speakers included Lt. General Scowcroft, Senator Chuck Hagel, Asst. Secretary of State Robert Blake and a small fleet from Kazakh’s foreign ministry.

Amongst all these familiar faces, the ambiance was warm, with frequent smiles and winks beaming from the red-faced Ambassador Idrissov towards the elevated stage of panelists. On-stage anecdotes were carefully tossed from seat-to-seat coupled with hearty laughter, reminding attendees of the once humble diplomatic beginnings of the precocious Khazak republic. Yet, glowing praise and positive sentiments were not without a rigid and an unmistakable undertone of the United States’ expectations for the newly minted Eurasian state.

Whether intentional or not, the level of optimism among diplomats and academics reached a sometimes paradoxically conspirative tone, equivocating expectations for Kazakhstan’s (perhaps unwittingly sinister) role in current and future geopolitical Eurasian affairs. There were several implications made in the direction of multilateral decisions with the United States. As statesmen, one after the other, lauded Nazarbayev’s wisdom in relinquishing stockpiles of inherited biochemical and nuclear capabilities, sociopolitical manoeuvring toward Western powers amidst Russian soft-power influence, development of refinement technology, and the space program, it was interesting to gauge who was offered the local Kool Aid (or mare’s milk in this case) and who wasn’t.

There was also a tone of paternalism and an anxiety evident as officials began kneading the Kazakhs on talking points that uncannily paralleled the messy situation within the “rough neighborhood” to the South of the country. The topic of weapons disarmament alluded to what the cunningly peaceful Nazarbayev did right, and consequently what Ahmedinejad is doing (wrong) fifteen years later. General Scowcroft advised Nazarbayev (via the Kazakh diplomatic officials in attendance) to push towards multipartisanship and liberalization in the political process. The Kazakhs were warned that the world, and especially the United States would be intently watching. As I listened, I mulled over the possible consequences if Kazakhstan fails to move in a more democratic direction. Of course, the problems emerging from Iranian and now Syrian mass discontent came to mind as possible outcomes.

Kazakhstan’s GDP has tripled within the past decade and a half, and so free and fair elections come with the dangling carrot of WTO membership.  Mr. Ross Wilson, Director of the Atlantic Council, stated on this point:

“And WTO membership is one of those things that’s kind of a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval about your rules, about your regime, about the trading arrangements and providing a certain amount of additional reassurance to a would-be investor that the general rules of the road that are accepted around the world, well, more or less apply here. It doesn’t solve all your problems, but it solves some. And so I think WTO accession can be – and certainly I hope – would be marketed by the government as a way to promote more foreign direct investment outside of those extractive ministries that Kazakhstan needs to diversify… to diversify its economy.”

It’s easy to dismiss the current level of diplomatic optimism towards the Kazakh condition as a magic carpet ride or mild illusion of superiority when compared to the trajectory of its neighbors. Yet, this conference held no particular buy-in for anyone involved. Just in the mere act of allowing press, global business leaders, human rights activists, think tanks, and profiled politicians to rub shoulders, Kazakhstan is forced to ask the “right” questions; this conference is one of many such “nudges”. Incidentally, it has been via such nudges that Kazakhstan has been able to partially emerge onto the world-stage, such as its chairmanship of the OSCE.

Speaking of which, Dr. Martha Alcott poignantly outlined the United States’ patriarchal dynamic with Kazakhstan, particularly of pinning the Kazakh diplomats to pre-set criteria as a buy-in to convey benevolent global transparency, adding:

And it was a lesson in – a sort of lesson in diplomacy. I think the fact that the U.S. government was so strict and made it so difficult and so uncomfortable for Kazakhstan to reach its objective of chairing the OSCE made those extremely talented people in their foreign office more aware of what a great job they needed to do when in fact they were chairman of OSCE. Frankly, I never had any doubt they would chair it well.”

Nevertheless, as the Arab-Spring wears on, now in Syria, all those many unanswered questions about Islamic identity, liberalization, and increased transparency seemed to be looming over the Kazakh officials’ heads.

A really striking moment came when discussing Kazakhstan’s “rough neighborhood”, with emphasis on Afghanistan. In the heat of the moment, Ambassador Idrissov asked the panel:

“Why don’t you expand your geography to the South? I was waiting very attentively for you to go to the South, and you stopped there. You talked about China; you talked about Russia, and you never spoke about the South. The lifeline for Kazakhstan in Central Asia is South.”

“Sorry I’m using my ambassadorial powers. But I think it’s, again, symptomatic. Our interpretation of the South is broader. It’s not only Afghanistan, but some other countries. What would be your answer to that?”

The panel gave a no response, and moved on to another question, but it’s one I would very much like to hear answered.

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