ALMA-ATA, KAZAKHSTAN — OF the six Muslim nations to emerge from the wreckage of the Soviet Union, none is more important to the United States than Kazakhstan.
This vast Central Asian land, roughly the size of India and stretching from China to the Caspian Sea, contains a wealth of minerals, coal, and oil. For decades the Soviet Union tested its atomic bombs in Kazakh deserts and today more than 100 intercontinental ballistic missiles aimed at the US stand ready in silos here.
At the head of this new nation is President Nursultan Nazarbayev, one of the most dynamic leaders of the republics of the former Soviet Union. (Profile, Page 3.) The longtime Kazakh Communist leader offers stability, moderate economic reform, and staunch opposition to the combination of nationalism and Islamic fundamentalism that could become the new guiding ideology of Central Asia.
So when President Nazarbayev arrives May 18 in Washington for his first official visit as head of state, his words will carry considerable weight.
Nazarbayev, in a Monitor interview here last week, said he will ask the US to accept his country as a "temporary nuclear power." In exchange, he said, he will invite the US to form a strategic alliance with Kazakhstan. During the visit, he will seek from the US security guarantees against nuclear attack by countries such as China and Russia.
"I wrote a letter to President Bush that we are trying to become a nonnuclear state," Nazarbayev explained. "But during the period when the missiles will be destroyed, I ask him to consider Kazakhstan a temporary nuclear state."
Kazakhstan and the other three former Soviet states where nuclear weapons are based - Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus - have agreed to keep those weapons under a single command of the Commonwealth of Independent States, though with a veto over their use. Nazarbayev is also ready to ratify the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty this month. Under the terms of the treaty, a large portion (though not a majority) of the missiles based here will be destroyed.
But to go beyond that, Nazarbayev argued that Kazakhstan needs a broad agreement with the US, including direct negotiations to destroy the remaining missiles.
"We don't know today what will happen to the Commonwealth of Independent States," Nazarbayev said. "We don't have a normal state-to-state treaty with Russia. Nobody knows what will happen to the leadership of Russia in the future. Seventy kilometers from this place, China is testing her nuclear weapons.... We are prepared to proceed with the [total] reduction of nuclear weapons, but we want to be a participant in the negotiating process."
Nazarbayev offers in return a virtual alliance with the US. "I want America, with all its economic and technological might, to establish a presence in Kazakhstan. We are prepared for a far-reaching and mutually beneficial relationship, not only for the destruction of the missiles, but also to create economic, political, and possibly military relations."
Washington has urged all former Soviet republics where nuclear weapons are based to sign the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). But the US also backs Russia's argument that only it should inherit the role of the Soviet Union as a nuclear state, allowing it a different status and privileges under the treaty.
Nazarbayev explicitly rejects this view, arguing that Kazakhstan meets the criteria of a nuclear state under the NPT's Article 2, which defines a country where weapons were tested and manufactured before 1968 as a nuclear state. He accuses the US of discrimination, a charge made as well by countries such as India, which has long refused to sign the NPT on grounds it preserves a club of nuclear-weapons states.
"I just don't understand why there is such pressure on Kazakhstan," Nazarbayev said. "Why doesn't the US demand that China join this treaty or force India to join it?"
But the Central Asian leader hinted a willingness to shift his stance in exchange for an American security guarantee.
"Kazakhstan would feel better about this question," Nazarbayev said, "if it ... had a guarantee of the inviolability of its territorial integrity, that it won't come under nuclear attack from the US, Russia, or China. [US Secretary of State James] Baker told me that according to the 1968 treaty, the US could take upon itself responsibility for this."
Among the Muslim-led former Soviet republics - the five Central Asian states and Azerbaijan - Kazakhstan and its neighbor Kyrgyzstan are considered the most open to such links. "Kazakhs are more pro-Western than anybody except the Poles," comments a Western diplomat here.
And Western nations clearly see Nazarbayev and Kazakhstan as a counterbalance to the growing influence of Iran upon Central Asia. Kazakhstan's Russian minority constitutes about 35 percent of the population. Nazarbayev has pursued a policy of opposition to extreme Kazakh nationalism, creating an island of inter-ethnic stability among the former Soviet republics.
"As for Islamic fundamentalism, Kazakhs as a people are Turks and Muslims," Nazarbayev said. "But according to our laws, no religion can be the state religion. There is separation of state and religion, and no religion can create a political party."
Last week Nazarbayev participated in a meeting of Central Asian leaders in Kyrgyzstan to discuss mutual cooperation. While he joined in expressing doubts about the future of the Commonwealth, he continued to favor the Commonwealth's existence, particularly for the sake of economic cooperation.
"I just don't know what they are thinking about when they try to destroy [the Commonwealth]," he said, referring to leaders in Ukraine. "The world is proceeding in the opposite direction. The Commonwealth should compose those states who want to be in it and those who don't should just withdraw."