ASTANA, October 5 – US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice arrived here Sunday to pursue a drive to stabilise Afghanistan by linking its shattered economy more closely to that of Kazakhstan and other Central Asian neighbors.
Rice, who spoke to reporters on the plane from New Delhi to the Kazakh capital Astana, also rejected any notion that Kazakhstan, a former Soviet republic rich in oil and gas, remained part of Russia’s sphere of influence.
"This is really also a trip that is emblematic of our engagement with Central Asia as a whole. We have been very active in thinking of Central Asia as a place that has important links to Afghanistan," Rice said.
"I think much of that is being realised," she added.
Rice also stressed the importance of reforms by the leadership of President Nursultan Nazarbayev as Kazakhstan prepares to take on the chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, a key democracy promoting body.
"We are looking forward to discussing with Kazakhstan the issues concerning its OSCE chairmanship in 2010 and the importance of meeting its commitments on political reform and human rights," Rice said.
During her visit to New Delhi on Saturday, Rice met with India’s external affairs minister Mukherjee and discussed Afghanistan’s eventual integration with Central Asia, among other issues.
"We did talk about the important regional links between India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia," Rice said. "For Afghanistan in particular to succeed it’s going to have to be regionally integrated."
At the UN General Assembly in New York last month, Rice met with Kazakh Foreign Minister Marat Tazhin to discuss ways to stabilise Afghanistan, where tens of thousands of US and NATO troops are fighting a resurgent Taliban.
"We talked some about some of Kazakhstan’s interests in infrastructure and energy projects in Afghanistan," Rice said.
"Obviously Afghanistan is still just emerging in terms of its reconstruction programmes, but I do think Afghanistan and Kazakhstan could have quite an important set of ties along infrastructure and energy lines," Rice said.
During a brief visit here Sunday, Rice was due to hold more talks with Tazhin as well as with Prime Minister Karim Masimov and President Nursultan Nazarbayev.
Analysts have noted Russia’s post-Soviet loss of influence in Central Asia and the steady advance of both Western and Chinese influence.
On being awarded the OSCE presidency for 2010, Kazakhstan promised to liberalise laws on media and political parties and to improve its electoral system by the end of 2008.
In response to a reporter’s question, Rice dismissed any notion the United States was poaching an ally from Moscow.
"We don’t see and don’t accept any notion of a special sphere of influence and so we look forward to continue to building our relationship with Kazakhstan," Rice said.
Washington has also rejected the idea that Russia has a sphere of influence in the former Soviet republics of Georgia and Ukraine and former Communist-ruled allies in eastern Europe like the Czech Republic and Poland.
In the wake of a brief August war between Russia and Georgia, Kazakh state energy company Kazmunaigaz abandoned plans to build a refinery in the Georgian port of Batumi, while its subsidiary Kaztransgaz started pulling out of other projects in the country.
Observers in the Russian media said the cancellations could be due to pressure from Russia.
Kazakhstan has voiced some support for Russia’s military incursion into Georgia in August but stopped short of joining Moscow in recognising the independence of the two Georgian separatist regions at the heart of the conflict.