Next week, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev will meet with U.S. President Donald Trump at the White House. On January 16, a White House statement said, the two leaders, “will discuss ways to strengthen and enhance our strategic partnership on regional security issues and economic cooperation.”
Afghanistan is also on the agenda, as is non-proliferation; both issues are perennial when it comes to Central Asian leaders’ visits to the United States. This pair of issues is also newly relevant, with the ongoing war in Afghanistan entering a new phase and the crisis of North Korea’s nuclear ambitions building throughout 2017.
Non-proliferation is a cause near and dear to the Kazakh heart, given that the country relinquished the large Soviet arsenal of nuclear weapons it had inherited in 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed. In the more than a quarter century since, Astana has made a concerted effort to spread the gospel of non-proliferation and peaceful use of nuclear energy. In 2015, Kazakhstan signed an agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to set up a low-enriched uranium (LEU) bank. Countries can acquire LEU for power generation from the bank, thus decreasing the need for countries to enrich uranium themselves and therefore decreasing proliferation risks. In August 2017, the bank’s storage facility was inaugurated, a “key milestone” toward operation. Kazakhstan, incidentally, is also the world’s largest uranium producer, responsible for 39 percent of global production in 2016.
On Afghanistan, the Trump administration’s South Asia strategy and the administration’s repeated calling out of Pakistan as a terrorist safe haven have the potential to resurrect Central Asia’s policy importance in Washington. For better or worse, Central Asia, in the last two decades, has always been linked to the issue of Afghanistan in the American mind. Kazakhstan, as the region’s largest economy, is also the region’s most internationally active state.
The visit comes at an important time for Kazakhstan as an international player. On January 1, the Kazakh ambassador to the United Nations, Kairat Umarov, took over the presidency of the UN Security Council which rotates monthly. Correspondingly, Astana has fit a briefing on non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and attendant confidence building measures as well as a debate on Central Asia’s regional linkage with Afghanistan both in terms of security but also development into the UNSC’s schedule. Kazakhstan’s will pass the presidency on to Kuwait next month.
In September 2017, Trump and Nazarbayev spoke via phone. While the U.S. readout of the call was compact, Kazakh media provided a little more detail, particularly on what Nazarbayev highlighted (namely, Expo 2017, Kazakhstan’s upcoming UNSC presidency, and the country’s IAEA Low Enriched Uranium Bank).
According to the Kazakhs, the call was initiated by the Americans and Trump invited Nazarbayev to visit the United States.
Missing from the U.S. readout was mention of Russia, though Kazinform reported that “The leaders of the two countries gave particular attention to the status of the Russia-United States relations. Nursultan Nazarbayev expressed hope for the normalization of the dialogue between Washington and Moscow.” (As an aside, the U.S. investigation in the Trump campaign’s contacts with the Russian government has revealed some strange connections to Kazakhstan as well).
Trump and Nazarbayev first met in Riyadh on the sidelines of the Arab Islamic American Summit in May 2017. The upcoming visit will be Nazarbayev’s first under the presidency of Donald Trump. He was last in Washington in 2016 to attend the Nuclear Security Summit.
Both presidents have their vocal critics and are notably uncomfortable with direct criticism. It’s doubtful that human rights issues, like freedom of the press, will be openly discussed.
Nazarbayev, who has led Kazakhstan for longer than it’s been an independent country, is a classic authoritarian. His domination of the country’s political sphere is total. In the 2015 election, Nazarvayev reportedly captured 97.75 percent of the vote.
Trump won the U.S. presidency with a much smaller margin, taking 46.1 percent of the popular vote (behind his main opponent Hillary Clinton’s 48.2 percent), but Trump did secure 304 votes in the Electoral College, propelling him into office.
Trump, who frequently takes to Twitter to roast American media outlets and complain about “Fake News,” may appreciate Astana’s new media law which, among other measures, requires that journalists receive permission from persons mentioned in their articles before publishing “personal, family, medical, banking, commercial [information] and other legally protected secrets.”