Middle East Looks to Kazakhstan: After a Decade of Independence Kazakhsta's Geographical Position and Considerable Oil Reserves Have Assured It of a Place in the Global Economy Pamela Ann Smith Reports from Almaty and Astana. (Business & Finance)

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Relations between Kazakhstan and the Arab States of the Middle East, Turkey, Iran and Israel have been warming in the past months as their diplomatic relations expand and as companies from the region seek to gain a share of what promises to be one of the world's most important oil exporting economies in the coming decade. But the 11 September events in the US now look like turning that growing co-operation into a vital strategic relationship that can be expected to play an enhanced role in global geopolitics as well.

As the ninth largest country in the world in terms of land mass, Kazakhstan forms a vital link between Russia in the north and the Central Asia Republics and Indian Sub-continent to the south, as well as between the Far East and Europe. Blessed with political and macro-economic stability after 10 years of independence from the Soviet Union, the Republic has carefully forged relations with its powerful neighbours to the north and east, as well as with the USA and Europe. That balancing act, plus the foresight of President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who has led the push for regional integration and co-operation, may now be about to pay dividends.

Nazarbayev was one of the world's first leaders to send both his condolences to the American people and an immediate promise of assistance. "Kazakhstan is ready to support measures undertaken by the United States to fight terrorism with all means available," he said in his message to the Bush Administration. "The Republic," he added "is ready to participate in the creation of an international coalition to fight international terrorism."

In subsequent days, the President is reported to have played a key role in convincing Russia that the opening of Kazakhstan's airspace and its military facilities to NATO troops would not endanger its neighbour to the north and in helping to gather Russian support for co-ordinated international action. However, Nazarbayev was also careful to stress that "the response to the delivered terror acts should not only be effective but also fair". Such sensitivity has helped to raise his standing not only among his own people, the majority of whom are Muslim, but also among neighbouring states such as Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Pakistan and Iran who are concerned about both an influx of Afghan refugees and a rise of Islamic militancy at home.

All of which may explain why the Republic's Foreign Minister, Erlan Idrisov, was received with open arms both in Washington and in New York just two weeks after the atrocities. After meeting with US Secretary of State Colin Powell, the Minister was quoted as saying that both sides were "fully in accord that the anti-terrorist operation should contribute to a long-term and comprehensive settlement of the situation in Afghanistan. Lasting peace in that country," he added, "should be one of the main prerequisites for doing away with terrorist tendencies." President Nazarbayev's state visit is also now expected to move forward in President Bush's agenda, with a date expected in late November or December, Deputy Foreign Minister Doulat Kuanychev told The Middle East in mid-September.

In New York, Idrisov met with UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan who praised Nazarbayev's latest statements and reminded newsmen in New York that the President had called a year ago for an "all-around consideration of the Afghan problem" under the auspices of the UN Security Council. Both Powell and Annan are now expected to attend the top-level Summit on "Mutual Understanding and Trust-Building Measures in Asia" due to be held in Almaty in early November. It is due to bring together the heads of states of countries such as Russia, China, India, Pakistan, Turkey, Iran, Israel and Egypt.

Although the conference was planned many months ago, it is now expected to play a key role in deciding how the international campaign against terrorists is waged and to what end. It follows two other high-level meetings held in the Kazakh city in mid-September: one attended by the Prime Ministers of Russia, China, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan under the auspices of the newly-formed Shanghai Co-operation and a gathering of the heads of states of the newly formed Eurasian Economic Community. …