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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

THE GREAT GAME:For All Its Oil, Kazakhstan Is Still Vulnerable




I was in Kazakhstan recently -- my first visit. It is one of the countries busy exploiting the enormous oil reserves of the Caspian basin, but it is completely different from the Caucasus countries on the western shore.


From Kazakhstan, so vast and remote, the world looks different. It fills a huge chunk of the map, stretching from the Urals to the Tianshan Mountains bordering China. It is the only former Soviet republic that can begin to compete with Russia in size and wealth of resources.


For all its size and wealth, however, Kazakhstan looks very vulnerable. Survival is going to be something of a test. It is stranded with one of the largest oil finds in the world and yet has not been able to organize a direct export pipeline to reach the international market.


Although no one in Almaty, or the new capital, Astana, will admit it, Russia has gone so slow on the planning of the Caspian Consortium Pipeline -- which will bear oil from the Tengiz fields through Russia to the Black Sea -- that the only conclusion is that it is being deliberately obstructive.


Yet Kazakhstan's ministers and oil executives can do little to bully Russia into action. They keep stressing that the pipeline is in Russia's interests too and say they think things are finally moving, never mind that they are years behind.


The pipeline would of course be good for Russia, bringing in jobs and lots of money in transit fees. Furthermore, a Russian company, LUKoil, is one of the shareholder companies trying to export.


But in typical fashion, Moscow seems to want to squeeze its erstwhile republic so hard that it buckles. Economic dependence would ensure the desired political compliance.


The difficulties have pushed Kazakhstan to look elsewhere for export routes. An Iranian route is the flavor of the month, as companies sense that the United States is softening its stance on sanctions.


President Nursultan Nazarbayev has also given the United States until October to sort out the possibility of a Trans-Caspian pipeline.


China, meanwhile, is being courted as the partner of the future for Kazakhstan and an obvious counterbalance to Russia. It could develop into a major customer for Kazakhstan's oil and gas in future decades, and a deal to build a pipeline into China has already been signed.


Yet Kazakhstan remains wary. China looms over its young neighbor, a source of promise for trade and cooperation, but also a potential threat.


Mistrust of Chinese intentions is one of the reasons thought to be behind the president's decision to move the capital from Almaty to Astana, which is 1,000 kilometers farther away from the Chinese border.


Nazarbayev is showing great deference toward China, offering to give way on a long-standing border dispute inherited from Soviet times and keeping firm control over the several hundred thousand Uighurs in Kazakhstan, who have been showing sympathy for their restive ethnic brethren across the border.


For Kazakhstan, survival is perhaps more starkly geopolitical than for any other country in the region. You can't help thinking that the Kazakhs would just like to go back to roaming the steppe, pitching their yurts as they liked.