Kazakhstan cozies up to Germany

By Mikhail Bushuev, Markian Ostaptschuk

Kazakhstan hopes to win over the European Union as another key trade partner alongside Russia and China. Experts see the Berlin visit of Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev as paving the way.

Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev will hold talks on Wednesday with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and representatives from the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP) as well as the Committee on Eastern European Economic Relations on a range of trade issues.

The leaders plan to sign several agreements, including a partnership in raw materials, manufacturing and technology.

"This is a special agreement in the area of natural resource partnering, in the full spirit of German Ostpolitik," said Alexander Rahr, director of the Bertholt-Beitz Center of the DGAP, adding that a similar agreement already exists with Russia." German companies will gain access to Kazakh resources, while Kazakhstan will receive preferred status for acquiring German technological know-how."
Bridge between Europe and Asia

Alexander von Hahn from the German-Orient magazine Zenith has a positive view of the German-Kazakh partnership. "With this agreement, Germany receives the green light to expand economically in the region, in a move that policymakers in Berlin have sought for some time."

The Kazakh government in Astana, observers believe, hopes to strengthen its relationship to Europe, particularly Germany, with Nazarbayev's visit to Berlin. "From its own position of power, it wants to develop a strategic cooperation with Europe and Germany and retain its own maneuverability," said Central Asia expert Günter Knabe.

For politically strategic reasons, Kazakhstan hopes to win over Europe as a third partner along side Russia and China, according to the expert. "Eurasia is important for Kazakhstan - not the Eurasia sought by Putin but rather the Eurasia sought by Nazarbayev," he said. "The country sees itself as an important bridge between Europe, Asia and the Islamic world."

But the "Kazakhstan bridge" is shaky. "The meeting with Merkel continues the dialog at a very difficult time with rising uncertainties," Hahn said. It remains unclear, he notes, who will take control of the country after Nazarbayev's departure. Other uncertainties, he adds, include the changing geopolitical situation in Kazakhstan, the rising crisis in Russia, the ongoing civil war in Afghanistan and the economic expansion in China.
Human rights plea

Not only politicians and industry representatives but also human rights activists are gearing up for the German visit of the authoritarian leader of Kazakhstan who has been in power for more than two decades.

Hugh Williamson from Human Rights Watch argues that the German government also needs to speak with Nazarbayev about domestic politics, particularly human rights issues. "There are three important topics: the most recent parliament election, the investigation of the tragedy in Zhanaozen and problems with labor laws in Kazakhstan," he said.

Numerous people died in Zhanaozen late last year when oil workers, protesting for better working conditions, were brutally attacked by security police. The ensuing election in January was deemed undemocratic by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).

Shortly thereafter, Kazakh authorities cracked down hard on opponents of the Nazarbayev regime. Many of them were arrested, accused of mustering support to overthrow the government. Instead of punishing those responsible for the escalation of violence, authorities dropped threats of "cleansing" the opposition.