Rice Denies Trying to Undermine Moscow

ReutersA Kazakh officer showing a big map with a plan of a Kazakh-Russian military exercise at the Otar military range on Friday, two days before a visit by Rice.
ASTANA, Kazakhstan — U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Sunday rejected any suggestion that U.S. efforts to build closer ties to Kazakhstan are meant to undermine Russian influence in Central Asia.

"This is not a zero-sum game," she told reporters flying with her to the Kazakh capital. U.S. gains need not mean Russian losses, she said.

"First of all, Kazakhstan is an independent country. It can have friendships with whomever it wishes," she said. "That's perfectly acceptable in the 21st century, so we don't see and don't accept any notion of a special sphere of influence" for Russia in the region.

Later at a joint news conference with Kazakh Foreign Minister Marat Tazhin, Rice said no one should question Kazakhstan's desire to have good relations with all countries.

"This is not some kind of contest for the affection of Kazakhstan," Rice said.

Tazhin described his country's relations with the United States as "stable" and Kazakh relations with Russia as "excellent" and "politically correct." Asked by a reporter whether he considered his country to be in a Russian "sphere of influence," Tazhin said no, adding that he believed such a question was of interest mainly to academics and journalists.

Rice also met President Nursultan Nazarbayev during her five-hour stopover.

During the talks, Rice was expected to seek closer energy ties with Kazakhstan, where U.S. companies have invested billions of dollars in oil money. But no concrete deals were expected to be reached.

Another issue was human rights. Kazakhstan's democracy credentials are being closely watched in the West ahead of the country's chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in 2010.

Nursultan Nazarbayev meeting with Condoleezza Rice in Astana on Sunday.
"They are set commitments, and I expect Kazakhstan to live up to them. And they are commitments that they've taken and they say they want to live up to," Rice said en route to Kazakhstan.

She added that the United States had raised some individual cases of human rights with the Kazakhs but gave no details.

With some of the world's biggest oil reserves, Kazakhstan has played a careful balancing act by keeping smooth ties with Russia while looking to the West to diversify oil exports. To highlight his neutrality, Nazarbayev held large-scale military exercises with both NATO and Russia in the two weeks preceding Rice's visit.

Rice also met with Kazakh Prime Minister Karim Masimov, who assured her that his country planned to follow a policy of different transit routes for its energy exports, Interfax reported Sunday evening.

"The prime minister confirmed that Kazakhstan still supports a multidirectional policy for transporting energy, including through Azerbaijan and Georgia," the Kazakh governmental press service said in a statement released after the meeting, the news agency reported.

Astana "understands the role and place of Kazakhstan in the region and its responsibility for ensuring stability in the whole of Central Asia in the areas of both food and energy security," Masimov said.

But the balancing act has been in doubt since Russia's invasion of Georgia in August, which threatened to close off the corridor for pipelines around Russia.

Since Russian forces pushed close to Georgia's capital before pulling back, the U.S. government has tried to signal its commitment to countries in the Caucasus and Central Asia. Last month, Vice President Dick Cheney traveled to Georgia, Ukraine and Azerbaijan, another important energy exporter in the region.

The administration does not want to be seen as the one "that lost Eurasia and the Caspian region," said Ariel Cohen, an analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington.

(AP, Reuters, MT)