Good-bye Turkey; hello Kazakhstan. Well, not exactly. Turkey is an Islamic country of some 72 million people, just one country away when looking at the map, with huge influence and a very long history in the region. Kazakhstan is an Islamic country of 15 million people, much more remote from the center of our action, a newly independent country that while extremely rich in natural resources, is just starting to find its footing on the world stage.
Kazakhstan is not Turkey, not by a long shot. But still.
With the strategic relationship with Ankara in a downward spiral, again evident this week by Turkey’s fingerprints all over the flotilla dispatched to Gaza meant to embarrass Israel, Jerusalem cannot just sit on its hands and pine for the golden days of Turkish-Israel ties, a golden age that lasted for a bit more than a decade. Jerusalem has to look elsewhere for allies, and – interestingly enough – its eyes have landed on fertile ground in Kazakhstan, and a few of the other Central Asian countries that touch Iran and/or Afghanistan.
As one diplomatic official quipped, these “stans” – Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan – are Islam “lite,” quite fearful of the “heavy” Islam looming large to their south and west (Afghanistan and Iran). Thus the growing interest in that region toward ties with Israel. And the trick of diplomacy is that when an opening the size of the eye of a needle presents itself, somehow ram a truck through.
The opening presented by Kazakhstan is much, much larger than the size of a needle hole. Presently there is some $2.5 billion annual trade between the two countries, not including defense trade; one of every four liters of gas used to fuel this country’s cars originates in Kazakhstan.
Israeli diplomats said there was close, almost daily cooperation and exchanges of information between the two countries, one of the nations Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman visited last year as part of his effort to expand relations with countries Jerusalem did not focus on that much in the past.
And Kazakhstan, as Deputy Ambassador Erik Yakubayev said in an interview, is very interested in close relations.
The reason, he said, was simple: Kazakhstan sees Israel as a gateway to the Western world. A number of countries that emerged out of the Soviet Union in the 1990s felt the road to Washington led through Jerusalem, which explained a blossoming of diplomatic ties with countries like Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, as well as with the newly independent countries in Central and Eastern Europe.
FOR MANY of those countries the equation was simple, since Israel and the US were so close, cozying up to Israel meant also cozying up to the US. This was, by the way, one of the calculations that played a part in Turkey’s interest in close ties before the emergence of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in 2002.
The way this Washington-through-Jerusalem-channel worked, one source explained, was that these countries would typically have numerous ministers coming in and out of Washington all the time, all seeking meetings with top US officials or key congressional leaders. Not every minister from Turkmenistan, for example, can get a meeting with a key senator or congressman. A good relationship with Israel, however, often helps make such meetings possible.
Beyond that Israel also has an image among the Central Asian countries as a hi-tech powerhouse, with expertise in medicine, technology, agriculture and water management they want to tap into.
And if Israel is a gateway to the West for Kazakhstan, Kazakhstan is a side door for Israel into the moderate Islamic world, a side door once – but no longer – served by Ankara.
Kazakhstan, said Yakubayev, “represents Israel’s interest in some Islamic countries.” Though not at liberty to elaborate in detail, Yakubayev said by way of example that Kazakhstan invited Israel to take part in a large arms bazaar in Astana this week, an arms bazaar well attended by Russia and the Central Asian countries, exposing the companies invited to participate – Elbit, Israel Aerospace Industries, Israel Military Industries and Aeronautics – to markets that might otherwise be difficult to penetrate.
But beyond the arms bazaar, Yakubayev said, again understandably sparse with details, Israeli companies were working unofficially under the Kazakh flag in various countries in the region not generally open and hospitable to doing business with it. These companies, he said, were doing everything from paving roads to indirectly providing security-related equipment.
On a more formal level, Kazakhstan will next year take over the rotating presidency of the Organization of the Islamic Conference. As president it will have influence on the agenda of meetings and the language of final resolutions, perhaps able to moderate them somewhat.
In addition, Kazakhstan is already chairman of the 56-nation Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the world’s largest security-oriented organization, which, if nothing else, is an important forum for political dialogue at the highest level, focusing on arms control, security issues, human rights and environmental issues.
To the layman the OSCE might not seem too important, just another international grouping with little clout. But for Kazakhstan, interested in increasing its profile on the world stage, it is quite significant, and gaining the chairmanship was a high foreign policy priority for years. As such, the diplomatic assistance Israel provided – through lobbying on its behalf with certain countries inside the organization – has not been lot on Astana.
Kazakhstan is the first Central Asian country, and former Soviet republic, to take over the chairmanship of this body, and also the first country with a predominantly Muslim population. And for Israel there may be some benefits.
For instance, Yakubayev said, Kazakhstan was planning a meeting of
leaders of the organization in the fall to discuss Afghanistan, and
will invite either President Shimon Peres, known to have good relations
with Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev, or Prime Minister Binyamin
The Kazakh diplomat said the idea behind the conference was that the
reconstruction and rebuilding of Afghanistan needed to be a global
effort, with the US, Europe and “hopefully Israel.” Yakubayev said it
was unlikely Afghanistan would boycott this meeting were Israel to
attend, simply because it “cannot behave like Iran because it depends
on Europe. It can’t just boycott the meeting or walk out.
“The right to extend invitations rest with the chairman,” Yakubayev
said, adding that Israel was a Mediterranean partner of the OSCE.
“Without Israel, you can’t solve the conflict of Iran and Central Asia.
It will be important to have its participation.”
And that attitude, enormously different from the tone currently coming
out of Turkey, is the reason Israel now views Kazakhstan – in the words
of one Foreign Ministry official – as a “super important diplomatic