ASTANA, Kazakhstan – His immense and basically empty republic (only 15 million people) sits on at least 100 billion barrels of oil and 85 trillion cubic feet of gas, and the country absorbs more than 70 percent of foreign direct investment in Central Asia. He created his new capital by decree. Almost nine centuries after nomadic Kazakh tribes, under their legendary founder Alasha Khan, migrated from southern Siberia to the vast Kazakh steppes, Nursultan Nazarbayev, a peasant descendant from the Great Horde, former wrestler, former apparatchick, first secretary of the Communist Party in 1989, and Kazakhstan’s first and only president since 1991, dreams of Kazakhstan as the center of Eurasia, and of the capital Astana as the jewel in his crown. The name “Kazak” means “steppes roamer.” And Nursultan Nazarbayev is the undisputed king of the steppes.

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In late 1997, Nazarbayev ordered parliament and all government ministries to relocate to Astana – literally “capital” in Kazakh – from the former cosmopolitan capital Almaty, 1,300 kilometers southeast. The new city center came to life in 1998. But still today, Astana’s new urban design is essentially virtual. Apart from a few towers of steel and glass and some strategically-placed blue-tiled coupolas, a peek behind the new green, yellow and cream facades reveals good old crumbling Soviet cement – remains from Nikita Khruschev’s idea, who in 1954 ordered the conquest of “virgin lands” by the the proletarian masses.

Unlike Brasilia – the new capital built out of thin air in the Brazilian grasslands in the late 1950s by modernist master architects Lucio Costa and Oscar Niemeyer – Akmola, Astana’s first incarnation (the next was a virgin-land-inspired Tselinograd, in the early 1960s) was originally a cossack fortress founded in 1830, a sleepy village close to a Kazakh northern belt populated by Russian settlers.

After waves of settlers and proletarian masses, the bureaucrats arrived, swelling Astana’s population to 900,000. But they don’t like it: they’d rather stay in Almaty, the pleasant, tree-lined oasis with the dramatic backdrop of the Tian Shan mountains, near the Chinese border, and Central Asia’s most cosmopolitan city. Foreign diplomats don’t like it either: only 10 embassies have left Almaty. Astana is considered pure desolation row – with its torrid summers, intolerable winters and at the mercy of fierce winds which inevitably turned the wheat fields of Khruschev’s virgin lands back into steppes.

Nazarbayev is unfazed. The annual budget for beautifying Astana is as big as the Ministry of Defense’s. Soviet-style posters all over town swear that “Astana’s renaissance is Kazakhstan’s renaissance.” The bureaucrats drown their sorrows in beer and keep dreaming of Almaty.

The new administrative center is still a work in progress. At its center, an enormous sphere in golden glass rests over very tall metallic pillars: this is the symbol of the traditional Kazakh yurt, or tent, abandoned a long time ago by urbanized Kazakhs, but still an essential tool for semi-nomadic, collective farmers who tend to melt into nature with their herds and yurts. Inside the sphere there is a sort of marble altar over which is placed a golden and platinum plaque with the imprint of a hand: Nazarbayev’s hand – who else’s? A guide invites us to “put our hands over the hands of the great man.” That’s the cue for the sounds of a patriotic anthem, with words composed by – you’ve guessed it. The possibility that there might be another president – and so another hand to be sculpted and another anthem to be composed – evades the stony, solemn guide: “We only have one president.”

Oil, drugs and ‘Sinification’

The one and only president and his Foreign Ministry in Astana never cease to remind everyone of their unrivalled ballet, or “multi-vectoral policy” in Astanese diplomacy: how to accommodate, simultaneously, the powers of Russia, China and the United States.

Nazarbayev wisely balances military cooperation with traditional ally Russia (via a collective security pact which also includes Armenia, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan) with a five-year military cooperation agreement with the US. Kazakhstan is still establishing its own army, as well as a fleet to patrol the Caspian sea, which in the view of the Ministry of Defense is swarming with “weapons, drugs and illegal immigrants.”

The New Silk Road is, among other things, the preferred drug route from Asia to Russia and Eastern Europe. Although Kazakhstan is basically drug-free, and shares no border with Afghanistan, General Mukhtar Altynbayev, the Minister of Defense in Astana, is extremely worried about opium production in Afghanistan, which shot up from 185 tons in 2001 to 3,400 tons in 2002, and even more in 2003, according to United Nations data. The bulk of drug trafficking runs south of Kazakhstan’s borders – through Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Astana is eager to patrol all of its porous 400 kilometers of desert border with Turkmenistan, with access to the Caspian Sea, as well as the 670 kilometers of mountainous border with Kyrgyzstan. Astana officials admit that little more than 10 percent of the drugs running through Kazakhstan are apprehended.

From Washington, Astana gets only a fistful of dollars (US$5 million in 2002), assistance to train military officials in the US and a promise to be able to buy planes, helicopters and ships. But the Pentagon couldn’t miss the opportunity of helping Kazakhstan to finally build its first military base on the Caspian, at the booming port of Atyrau. Atyrau is practically in the middle of nowhwere: no less than 2,700 kilometers west of Almaty, and 350 kilometers southeast of Astrakhan in Russia, the nearest decent city. But its strategic position is unmatched: by the Ural river, on the northern shore of the Caspian, literally on the border between Asia and Europe. Atyrau, linked to Almaty by daily flights crammed with oil executives, is Oil City by definition: the base camp for the monster Tenghizchevroil joint venture, 350 kilometers south, as well as a cluster of other oil and gas fields, not to mention the offshore Caspian reserves. The official position of the US embassy in Almaty regarding the military base is as crystal clear as Caspian waters: “The oil riches of the Caspian should be under reliable protection.”

In terms of economic development, Astana’s line is very pragmatic – and totally apolitical. Kazakh ministers and diplomats insist theirs is a landlocked country, which wants as many markets as possible to export its natural wealth, but also wants to diversify beyond oil and gas. The doors are open to foreign investment: Kazakhstan is bound to join the World Trade Organization in 2004 (more in Part 3).

Nazarbayev was in favor of the invasion of Iraq. But now Kazakhstan is in favor of a stronger UN presence. Washington most of all wants Astana to deliver lots of oil to the controversial Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline. But Nazarbayev seems to have other ideas in mind: alternative oil transit itineraries towards Russia, China and the Mediterranean. The BTC project is a $2.9 billion investment to exploit a vast store of energy from the Caspian Sea by providing a new crude oil pipeline from Azerbaijan, through Georgia, to Turkey for onward delivery to world markets.

Officially, it’s all smiles between Kazakhstan and both China and Russia. But privately Kazakhs worry about some crucial facts. They know many ultra-nationalists in Russia will never accept Kazakhstan’s independence, and they know Ural cossacks – who were assigned to Kazakhstan by the Soviets – still demand that northern and eastern Kazakhstan be given back to Russia (these cossacks have the support of a fifth column, the 40 percent of Slavs who live in Kazakhstan).

Simultaneously, Kazakh are suspicious of China’s motives – not to mention the frightening possibility of the immense and empty steppes being swamped by frenetic, immigrating Han Chinese multitudes. A great deal of Central Asia in fact was part of imperial China in the 19th century: according to the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, “The region to the west of Xinjiang” (eastern Kazakhstan), “Lake Balkhash” (in central Kazakhstan) and why not, the fertile Fergana Valley as well. Astana has classified statistics on the influx of Han Chinese – a kind of “peaceful Sinification” which in the popular mind acquires truly apocalyptic dimensions. Nazarbayev had to re-introduce Kazakh visas for Chinese because of popular pressure.

Kazakhstan maintains strong ties with Russia. Most Kazakhs speak Russian, watch Russian TV and read the Russian press. Kazakhstan’s major trading partner is, inevitably, Russia. The Slavs, predominant in northern and eastern Kazakhstan, assure a strong business connection between Kazakhstan and Siberia. Apart from being the most “Russified” of all the peoples of Central Asia, the Kazakhs don’t have a strong sense of ethnic identity. They converted to Islam only in the 17th century, via mullahs from Tartary. Until Soviet times, they have been essentially nomadic horseback roamers. These are reasons to explain the absence of radical Islam: support for radical Islam is basically confined to a few Uzbeks living in the south. Nazarbayev and the Kazakhs definitely do not share the American and Chinese obsession, some would say paranoia, about Islamic terrorism.

In 1996 in Istanbul, the World Uighur Kurultai sanctioned the need for armed struggle for the creation of an Eastern Turkestan. The most active group in the Uighur armed struggle is the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), nowadays estimated to have roughly 600 members. A dozen supposed ETIM members were arrested in Almaty in July. This led to wide speculation in Central Asia regarding a possible strategic alliance of ETIM, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan – intimately connected with the Taliban – and the Hizb Ut-Tahrir, the ultra-secretive, pan-Islamic underground movement founded in Saudi Arabia in 1953 and extremely popular in the Fergana Valley shared by Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.

ETIM, based in Xinjiang, gained notoriety because it was the first Uighur liberation group added to Washington’s long list of terrorist organizations, basically on the suspicion they had planned to attack the American embassy in Kyrgyzstan in 2001. Uighurs as a whole were startled, angry and saddened, because they knew this decision was a de facto green light from Washington for Beijing to be even fiercer in its concerted crackdown.

Most Uighur groups – inside Xinjiang, in Central Asia and in Turkey – stress their independence struggle in contrast to Beijing’s interpretation of terrorism and a threat to international security. Enver Can, the president of the East Turkestan National Congress, based in Munich, has always stressed Uighurs have never been religious extremists. But as far as Kazakhstan is concerned, the Uighurs once more are the victims: Beijing is essentially offering financial and logistic assistance for Astana to track and capture Uighurs.

Shanghai rules

The Shanghai Five, founded in 1996 basically to solve Central Asian border problems, became the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in 2001, in Shanghai. That’s when the presidents of China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and new member Uzbekistan pledged to fight against “terrorism, separatism and extremism.” The SCO’s raison detre is now to fight against radical Islam and the drug trade, very much in line with Astana’s official position, via Minister of Defense Altynbayev, according to whom “terrorism and drug-trafficking are necessarily linked.”

Everyone seems to be happy with the arrangement. Russia not only is able to fight its radical Islam nightmare, but also to sort of formalize its newly-regained influence in Central Asia. China is able to institutionalize its widespread repression of Uighurs. And for the Central Asian states, a strategic alliance with both Russia and China couldn’t be more seductive. None of the players – not exactly paragons of democracy – are bothered by accusations that this supposed anti-terrorist organization is just a cover up for more repression of civil liberties and political opposition.

China wants no turbulence in its economic campaign to profit from Xinjiang’s huge oil and mineral wealth, as well as from the myriad transport routes to Pakistan (via the Karakoram highway), Afghanistan and Central Asia (via its borders with Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan). China needs plenty of and oil and gas from Kazakhstan. The collective leadership in Beijing attaches immense strategic importance to political stability and economic cooperation in Central Asia. China, in its west and northwest, is face-to-face with the Muslim world, via its borders with Pakistan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. So China will never allow a Chechnya situation in its backyard in the shape of a fierce, effective, Uighur independence movement.

For Russia and China, the SCO is a de facto response to American military bases in Central Asia. Beijing’s solid investment in the SCO wants to prove the point that American strategic presence in Central Asia – through military bases in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan – is pointless. Russia for its part wants to use the SCO to dissuade Uzbekistan from deepening its cosy strategic arrangement with Washington. There were SCO joint military exercises in August, first in eastern Kazakhstan and then in western China: tellingly, this one was above all an operation to track and capture “separatist” fighters. Later, in September, foreign ministers of SCO member countries met in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. They decided that the SCO secretariat will be based in Beijing, and the anti-terrorism center will start operating in Tashkent next January. The center was initially supposed to be based in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.

Altynbayev, the Kazakh Minister of Defense, would like the joint military exercises to take place twice a year. The exercise in August solidified the key relationship to watch, between Altynbayev and General Li Qianyuan, the commander of the Xinjiang military district. The leadership in Beijing is concerned of the possibility of being subjected to geopolitical encirclement by Washington. Chinese political scientist Zhao Huashen has been one among many to stress that American interference in Central Asia can be extremely dangerous. Nazarbayev, with his “multi-vectoral policy,” certainly agrees.

The relocation of the anti-terrorism center from Bishkek to Tashkent may be a concerted SCO move to mollify Uzbek President Islam Karimov, who is not very enthusiastic with the idea of a military bloc in Central Asia. Nazarbayev has had a tumultuous relationship with Karimov, who envies Kazakhstan’s oil wealth, but dreams of being Central Asia’s dominant power. As much as Nazarbayev juggles with Russia, China and the US, Karimov is being courted by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to keep its close ties with the West even while being a member of SCO.

The SCO is bound to secure Russia’s southern flank and China’s western flank. But proclamations of “eternal friendship” aside, the billion-dollar question is how Russia and China will share power in Central Asia. This is the ultimate game of chess. China more or less recognizes a predominant Russian role for the moment, while the tectonic plates are slowly shifting towards Beijing, according to one of its key strategies: “silent expansion.” And of course in this Russo-Chinese interplay, the US – with its military bases and avid oil interests – is much more than a curious spectator.

Russian President Vladimir Putin will not be a junior partner of the US nor a vassal to China. Russia won’t surrender its predominant role in its former backyard. In terms of foreign policy, China never makes any alliances. It only encouraged the Shanghai Five, later the SCO joint venture, because it is the de facto predominant power. Its ambitious objectives are also very clear: to isolate Xinjiang from the rest of the Muslim world; to undermine the new American influence in Central Asia; and to replace Russia as the predominant player in Central Asia. China needs Kazakhstan to contain radical Islam in Central Asia – and to counterbalance American encroachment. Nazarbayev for his part knows that Kazakhstan is slowly being attracted – economically and politically – to the Chinese orbit. But he wants the process to develop under his own terms.

After the implosion of the USSR in 1991, Nazarbayev was a big hit in Washington because he became the sole proprietor of 104 SS-19 ballistic missiles with more than 1,000 nuclear warheads – as well as the famous Baikonur cosmodrome – the oldest space launch facility in the world for which the Russians still pay the rent. Wily Nazarbayev used American interest to build solid bilateral relations, and also a relationship with NATO. Kazakhstan became a non-nuclear state: the missiles were dismantled in 1995.

As the largest unexplored source of oil wealth in the world, Kazakhstan basically means two things to Washington: freedom for American corporations to exploit Kazakh oil, and lots of oil supplying the BTC pipeline (and consequently skirting both Russia and Iran). Nazarbayev steered Kazakhstan through a Washington-approved tight monetary policy, adhered to strict International Monetary Fund prescriptions, but then relations cooled down, essentially because there are no realistic prospects for Kazakh democracy on the horizon – not a problem at all for either Russia or China. Both Russia and China are willing to pull out all stops to establish a protectorate over Central Asia. What about the US? As the king of the steppes, whichever way Nazarbayev sways will be crucial to decide the outcome of this New Great Game.