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At a 14 July 2010 Kennan Institute seminar, Erlan Idrissov, Ambassador of the Republic of Kazakhstan, opened a panel discussion on Kazakhstan's role in the modern world. Hailing the country as politically young but culturally ancient, Idrissov remarked that great strides have been made since independence in 1991, but that Kazakhstan was still a work in progress. Moderator William Veale, Executive Director, U.S.-Kazakhstan Business Association, asked panelists to focus on some general themes of Kazakhstan's nation-building, including management of energy resources, anti-corruption reform, rule of law, political reform, foreign direct investment, and indigenous human capital.

James F. Collins, Director, Russia and Eurasia Program and Diplomat in Residence, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and former U.S. Ambassador to the Russian Federation (1997-2001), discussed the U.S.-Kazakhstan relationship. Following the fall of the Soviet Union, American links with Kazakhstan were "brand new," said Collins, and it was U.S. policy to help the country develop in areas that it prioritized whilst keeping in mind emerging U.S. priorities in the region as well. There was a shared interest in Kazakhstan becoming a fully functioning sovereign state, and doing so through peaceful means without producing internal or external conflict.

The first major milestone in the U.S.-Kazakhstan relationship was an agreement to remove all nuclear weapons from Kazakhstan. Besides establishing trust between the two countries, this policy also worked to deepen cooperation in a broader range of activities, particularly economic ones. U.S. energy companies were integral in bringing Kazakh oil to the global market, and the U.S. also supported Kazakhstan's membership in key international and European institutions. In short, Collins said the U.S.-Kazakhstan relationship has seen "an impressive record over a short two decades."

William Courtney, Director, Strategy and Development, CSC Corporation, and former U.S. Ambassador to Kazakhstan (1992-1995) described the goals Kazakhstan faced following its declaration of independence on 16 December 1991. The first objective was to establish the independence and integrity of the country. The second goal was to avert the Slav-dominated oblasts in the north from seceding to Russia. Courtney described three ways Kazakhstan sought to achieve these ends: promote tolerance among the various ethnic groups; institute economic reforms to overcome poverty; and integrate with the outside world while avoiding any confrontations with Moscow. While Kazakhstan made good strides in their economic development, political development was tougher. "There was too little civil society, and the government had too much power," said Courtney, who nonetheless remarked that compared to its neighbors in the south, Kazakhstan has overall been rather successful.

Elizabeth Jones, Executive Vice President, APCO Worldwide, discussed the areas she focused on during her post as Ambassador to Kazakhstan from 1995-1998. Jones explained that in the realm of economic reform and development, training programs were very short-term because the vast majority of Kazakhs were highly educated; the country has a 99 percent literacy rate. Furthermore, she explained how Western energy companies, especially American ones, played an important role in halting corruption by insisting on adherence to the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. Attention was also needed in reforming health and social services, especially since they were affected by the transition from a command economy to a market economy. On political and political party reform, Jones stated that although President Nazarbayev put a great deal of money into education, jobs, and international organizations, he did not trust the people to make good political choices. Thus, echoing Ambassador Courtney's remarks, political reform was distinctly more difficult to achieve.

Larry Napper, Director, Scowcroft Institute of International Affairs, George Bush School of Government and Public Service, Texas A&M University, and former U.S. Ambassador to Kazakhstan (2001-2004) spoke about the relationship between the U.S. and Kazakhstan after the events of September 11, when counterterrorism efforts were executed in Afghanistan and surrounding regions. President Nazarbayev promised and delivered complete solidarity with and support of U.S. operations, an act of enlightened statecraft since he also wanted to prevent a resurgent Taliban from ruling Afghanistan. In addition, Napper stated that there needs to be a bigger sense of urgency for Kazakhstan to join the WTO. "Kazakhstan needs to consider the implications of lagging behind Russia's accession," he said "and must bring its domestic legislation in line with WTO standards." One positive step, however, has been its chairmanship of the OSCE – the first post-Soviet state to hold this position.

Martha Brill Olcott, Senior Associate, Russia and Eurasia Program, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and author of The Kazakhs, remarked that there is an enormous opportunity for the U.S.-Kazakhstan relationship to deepen, especially as a new generation that is used to independence comes to the forefront of Kazakh political affairs. Olcott discussed the difficulty in defining Kazakh nationhood, which is one on hand multinational, based on respect for cultural diversity, and on the other based on the idea of the country as a homeland for Kazakhs. Besides reconciling the two, another challenge for Kazakhstan has been introducing a market economy into a country where private property had not existed for decades. Thus, there is still an evolving understanding of how Kazakhstan should realize its national wealth and distinguish between private and state riches. Like other panelists, Olcott concurred that political evolution is happening slower than economic reform, but noted that Kazakhstan pays more attention to human development than any other country in Central Asia. She concluded that the country's relationship with the U.S. will deepen, but not without frustrations along the way. "Kazakhstan is evolving its identity in ways the U.S. does not always understand," she said.

Blair Ruble, Director, Kennan Institute


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Larissa Eltsefon

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Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier US center for advanced research on Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the South Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange.  Read more