VISITING Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev comes for talks in Washington today with a full plate of items, everything from cooperation in science and nuclear security to promoting privatization of the Kazakh economy.
But only one thing is really on the agenda - to get United States help in reducing Kazakhstan's dependence on its neighbor and former overlord, Russia. To this end, the Kazakhs seek US involvement in their oil industry, space program, and nuclear disarmament.
President Nazarbayev, who was the last Soviet-era head of the Kazakhstan Communist Party, has earned a reputation as one of the most savvy leaders to emerge from the former Soviet Union. He has trod a path toward greater independence while being careful to encourage close ties to Russia.
Kazakhstan is the largest state, next to Russia, of the 15 former Soviet republics. It is rich in natural resources - including oil, coal, iron ore, and many minerals - as well as being the only surplus grain producer in the former Soviet Union.
Yet Kazakhstan is also highly vulnerable to Russian pressure. Almost 40 percent of the population is ethnically Russian or Slavic, most of it concentrated in a belt in the north where mines and factories are tied into the industrial structure of the Russian Urals and western Siberia. The Central Asian nation suffers from high inflation, industrial production collapse, and a slow pace of reform into a market economy.
Russia has two key assets at stake in Kazakhstan: the Baikonur space launch facility (the Soviet Union's equivalent of the Kennedy Space Center), and major military bases, including 104 SS-18 missiles and a nuclear bomber base, along with more than 1,400 nuclear warheads.
Kazakhstan is committed to destroying all nuclear arms on its territory, primarily because it was the Soviet Union's main site for atmospheric and underground nuclear tests. It has ratified the START I disarmament treaty and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
But the Kazakh leader is seeking compensation for the value of the warheads. The Kazakhs halted the transfer of warheads to push this demand, prompting a report on Saturday in the Moscow daily, Izvestia, claiming Kazakh actions had imperiled warhead safety conditions. Kazakh officials angrily rejected the charge, saying it was an attempt to sour Nazarbayev's US visit.
The two countries are also at odds over the fate of Baikonur, with the Kazakhs favoring turning it into an international facility while the Russian military wants to retain control, paying Kazakhstan rent for its use.
Oil is Kazakhstan's ticket to independence. The US multinational Chevron is now developing the Tengiz field on the Caspian Sea's northeastern shore, said to be among the world's 10 largest fields. A consortium of Western multinationals is also exploring the Kazakh part of the Caspian Sea bed.
But Russia is seeking control over a large piece of these fields, using its control of the only current pipeline exit for the Tengiz oil to demand equity shares and higher transit fees.