Kazakstan presents itself as quiet haven in unstable region 'Four winds' move policy to one of moderation

November 16, 1997|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

ALMATY, Kazakstan -- With a landmass nearly seven times the size of California, the former Soviet republic Kazakstan would seem unfairly labeled a small country.

But sandwiched as it is between the eastern giants of Russia and China, courted by Islamic powers and coveted for its natural wealth by big oil money in the West, Kazakstan's strategy in defining relations with its powerful friends and neighbors has been to maintain a humble profile.

And as President Nursultan Nazarbayev travels across the United States this week in search of stronger backing from Washington and deeper investment by U.S. business, he will be presenting his newly independent homeland as a quiet haven in the heart of a region reeling with instability, conflict and political change.

It's not that Kazakstan has emerged unscathed from the collapse of communism and the Soviet Union six years ago, but this country of 17 million has undramatically settled in to a new era of benevolent autocracy that has created a stable atmosphere conducive to good regional ties and attractive for foreign investment.

"Kazakstan is no world superpower and it never will be, so it has to keep its relations in order and in balance with its neighbors," says Lev Tarakov, director of the Institute for Strategic Studies in Almaty. He describes "four winds" moving his country's foreign policy to a middle ground of moderation -- Russia, China, the Islamic world and the West.

Russia has long been the most important regional ally of Kazakstan, where nearly one-third of the population is Russian.

"But we would be foolish to ignore the potential for expanding economic ties with China, Japan, Western Europe and the United States," observes Deputy Foreign Minister Vladimir Alesin, pointing to considerably higher investments being made in Kazakstan by countries other than cash-strapped Russia.

The biggest foreign investor to date is U.S.-based Chevron Corp., and 84 other U.S. companies also are registered to do business in Kazakstan, the U.S. Embassy reports. Opposition political figures have urged President Clinton and other Washington leaders to pressure the Kazak president during his visit to show more commitment to democracy and reform.

"Our views on the obstructions to development of democracy will be aired, and our opinion really matters here," said one U.S. diplomat in Kazakstan. "Those in power in this country care very much what the United States thinks."

Pub Date: 11/16/97

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