Kazakhstan: Image vs. Reality

Quick now, when's the last time you read or heard anything about Kazakhstan?

I thought so. It was the June 19 New York Times article about the Russians abandoning their space center in western Kazakhstan, where the Space Age began in 1957 when Sputnik, and later the first man in space, Yuri Gagarin were launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome ("Russian Space Center in Kazakhstan Counts Down Its Days of Glory").

No? Then surely it was the July 6-7 Financial Times article about human rights group criticizing the Italian government for "kidnapping" the wife and six-year-old daughter of a fugitive Kazakh opposition leader and deporting them to Kazakhstan, where the wife is under criminal investigation ("Deportation of mother and child haunts Italy")

Not that either? Then it must have been the Economist on July 13, which reported that Kazakhstan's capital, Astana, celebrated its 19th anniversary on July 6 "with a petrodollar-fueled party," as well as the 73rd birthday of the country's strongman president, Nursultan Nazarbayev ("Kazakhstan's capital: Laying the golden egg").

No matter. The point is that Kazakhstan, a country the size of Western Europe with abundant oil and natural resources that was created when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and has been ruled ever since by the iron-fisted Nazarbayev, is rarely read or heard about in the West unless it's a negative story.

This, despite the fact that while violent uprisings and public protests erupt throughout Central Asia and the Middle East -- Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Turkey and Greece are examples -- while Kazakhstan's 17 million people generally enjoy political stability and rising living standards.

At the same time, Kazakhstan has taken the lead in nuclear disarmament and nuclear waste disposal, improving economic and political ties with its giant neighbors Russia and China, in persuading Iran to improve relations with the West, and in general, forging close ties with the rest of the world and building an image as a developing nation with a bright future.

That's why I welcomed the opportunity to interview Erlan Idrissov, Kazakhstan's foreign minister when he was in Washington last week to meet with people ranging from the secretaries of State and Defense, the national security adviser and members of Congress. I've known the veteran diplomat, who speaks perfect English -- he was also ambassador to Great Britain -- since he served as ambassador here from 2007-2012 (he also served as foreign minister from 1999-2002).

Idrissov said he's puzzled too why his country is often ignored or portrayed in an unfavorable light by the media. He noted that when British Prime Minister David Cameron met with Nazarbayev in Astana this month to drum up business, he said Kazakhstan is not just an emerging market but an economic power, adding, "The question is why it took so long."

Now, he wonders why it is taking so long for the rest of the world to give Kazakhstan what he thinks is its due.

He defended Kazakhstan for working with Italy to bring the wife of Muktar Ablyazov, former chairman of a Kazakhstan bank who's been charged with misappropriating at least $6 billion from the bank and is still at large, back to Kazakhstan.

"It's not all black and white," he said. "(Ablyazo) was entrusted to run the bank by the president, and he siphoned off billions of dollars through phony companies and then ran away and went into hiding. The wife is living in Almaty with her parents and the complaint that she's being held hostage is not true."

As for Baikonur, he noted that, the Cosmodrome itself is not closing but will continue to be used for launching Russian, American and Chinese astronauts and space flights.

He also emphasized that Kazakhstan continues to take the lead in making Central Asia a nuclear-free zone and pushing for an international nuclear weapons agreement, which he concedes is "a very long distance dream," while continuing talks with Iran as its new president takes office next month. "The model of Kazakhstan is a good model for Iran to follow," he said.

Idrissov described his country's relations with next door neighbors Russia and China as "very good." noting that trade with China has "sky-rocketed to almost $4 billion." He also pointed out that Kazakhstan is working with the European Union and Common Market to increase trade with the West.

As for the U.S., Idrissov said it "remains a major global power and we have and continue to have a good relationship." He praised President Obama as a "straightforward, honest and outspoken" leader who remains popular with the Kazakh people.

He added, "Those who think Kazakhstan is an anti-democratic country are very wrong. We are not a democracy today but building a new political culture is a very complex task and can't be done overnight."