United States Secretary of State John Kerry reaffirmed US interests in Kazakhstan on Monday in talks with Kazakhstan’s veteran leader Nursultan Nazarbayev who has lured huge Western investments to his Central Asian state while keeping it in Moscow’s political orbit.
Kerry is touring ex-Soviet Central Asia to underline Washington’s continued commitment to the energy-rich region amid a drawdown in US forces in Afghanistan, a more assertive Russia and the emergence of the Islamic State militant threat.
Of the five ex-Soviet Central Asian states, only Kazakhstan, a vast steppe nation of 18 million people with big international investments in its oil and gas sectors, has emerged as stable and prosperous, though it brooks no democratic opposition.
Nazarbayev, a former provincial communist boss, has ruled Kazakhstan with an iron grip since 1989, two years before the demise of the Soviet Union.
He has displayed a knack for complex geopolitical manoeuvering and has built good ties both with neighbouring Russia and China and with the United States and European Union.
Kerry was expected to press Nazarbayev in private over his crackdown on political dissent and Kazakhstan’s human rights record to avoid any public criticism.
“President Obama is very appreciative of your leadership on the nuclear non-proliferation issue, for countering violent extremism, cooperation vis-a-vis Afghanistan and counter-Islamic State (IS),” Kerry said.
“We have a very strong set of security interests,” said Nazarbayev, who was the first leader to renounce nuclear weapons that had been part of the Soviet Union’s arsenal.
He has earned further favour with the Obama administration by establishing a nuclear weapons-free zone in Central Asia and advocating further nuclear arms reductions around the world.
Nazarbayev told Kerry that Kazakhstan valued its economic ties with the United States, which he said was the largest foreign investor with about 500 companies operating in the country.
US companies have ploughed some $21 billion of investments into Kazakhstan since it won independence from Moscow in 1991 and bilateral trade stood at $2.4 billion in 2014.
“We’d like to continue this cooperation,” Nazarbayev said.