ASTANA – Israel, it turns out, is not the only country in the world interested in rebranding. So is Kazakhstan. There has been intensive discussion in Israel’s Foreign Ministry for much of the last decade about the need to change the country’s brand – so that when the mechanic in Topeka, Kansas, thinks about Israel, he doesn’t think about bombs on buses, roadblocks on the way to Bethlehem, or wars. Rather, he thinks about sun and smiles and fun – the Coca Cola of countries.
And we are not unique among the world’s nations keen on rebranding (though we are probably unique in how much we talk about it). Other countries do the same.
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But while Israel’s interest in rebranding is born of an over-exposure in the headlines over the years, mostly negative, Kazakhstan’s rebranding is the result of an under-exposure.
Few people know about it, at least on the other side of the Volga. And if they do, it is likely because of Sacha Baron Cohen’s boorish and unsympathetic portrayal of a Kazakh national in Borat.
While Israel tries to rebrand itself by trumpeting endlessly that it is
rebranding itself, the Kazakhs have set out to become involved with, and
eventually chair and host conferences for, every international
organization they can get their hands on.
Just last year, Kazakhstan took over, and held a high-profile conference
for, the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). It
just ended its tenure as chair of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization
(SCO) – a central Asian security organization founded in 2001 that
includes China, Kazakhstan, Russia, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and
Tajikistan and presents itself in the region as an alternative to NATO –
and hosted a summit of that group’s heads of state this week. Also this
month, Kazakhstan took over the reins as president of the Organization
of Islamic Conference (OIC).
And if that isn’t enough, it also initiated a conference of Leaders of
World and Traditional Religions that meets about every three years in
the country’s spanking-new capital, Astana. It even set up its own
international organization with an alphabet soup name, the Conference on
Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA).
Kazakhstan’s president Nursultan Nazarbayev is keen on promoting his
country, and himself, as the bridge between East and West (a door that
has opened wider over the last five years as Turkish Prime Minister
Recep Tayyip Erdogan has steered his country – which used to relish that
role – more east than west), and as a facilitator of harmony through
From Israel’s perspective, all of this is well and good. Israel wishes
Kazakhstan success in its efforts to carve out a larger niche for itself
on the world stage, especially the world Islamic stage, because
Kazakhstan and Israel count each other as friends; and for Jerusalem,
friends like Kazakhstan – a state with a very moderate brand of Sunni
Islam – are both rare and a net positive.
“Relations with Kazakhstan are very important,” says Yisrael Mey Ami,
Israel’s Kazakhborn envoy to Astana, sitting in the conference room in
the embassy’s offices overlooking part of the city’s ultramodern
skyline: bright orange, yellow and blue buildings in various geometric
First of all, he points out, Kazakhstan is a natural resource
superpower, sitting on a quarter of the earth’s uranium, possessing the
third-largest copper, lead and zinc reserves in the world, ranking as
the seventh- largest wheat producer and – especially important to Israel
– the 18th-largest oil producer on the planet. Every fourth liter of
gas in Israel originates deep beneath the Kazakh steppes.
Second, the ambassador says, Kazakhstan is important to Israel for
historic reasons. The Kazakhs took in tens of thousands of eastern
European Jews – like his parents – who fled east during the Holocaust
when the Nazis invaded the Ukraine and Poland. “We owe them a moral
debt,” he says.
Third, Mey Ami continues, is the politicaldiplomatic aspect of the
relationship. “It is a friendly Muslim country that supports us, and
wants to promote dialogue,” he says.
“That is significant."
And that is the component of the relationship likely to become more
significant now that Kazakhstan has taken over as president of the OIC, a
body not especially known for its moderate or tolerant views toward
Israel. In perhaps an indication of where things might go under Kazakh
leadership, Kazakhstan hosted an economic meeting of the OIC member
states earlier this month and invited Israel’s representative in the
country to attend as an observer – something that wouldn’t happen, for
instance, were the OIC headed by Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Malaysia or
Is this going to change the Islamic world’s perception of Israel?
Obviously not. But it does put a more moderate Islamic voice (Nazarbayev
has been characterized as a twice-a-year mosque-goer) at the center of
Islamic dialogue. Also, in meetings with Arab leaders, Nazarbayev may
well articulate a counterbalance to strident anti-Israel sentiments, as
well as divert the conversation from Israel-bashing to more important
issues for the Islamic world.
Which leads to the next question: It is clear what Israel wants from
Kazakhstan, but what does Kazakhstan want from Israel? Or, in blunter
words reflecting traditional Jewish insecurity, why do they want to be
friends with us? The question is even more interesting considering that
while 20 years ago, when Kazakhstan first stepped out of the former
Soviet Union and declared independence, it viewed ties with Israel as a
gateway to the West, that is no longer a key consideration.
The US has since become well aware of Kazakhstan’s military and economic
importance, and Astana no longer needs Israel or American Jewish
organizations to open doors and set appointments in Washington.
The Kazakhs can get those meetings on their own.
But over the past two decades, Kazakhstan has grown to appreciate what it gets from the bilateral relationship.
First of all, according to diplomatic officials, there is an
appreciation in Kazakhstan for Israel’s achievements and for Jewish
Remember, Kazakhstan is close to China, and in China – speaking of
branding – when you say the word Jew, two things usually come to mind:
“Albert Einstein” and “wealth” – and not generally in an ani-Semitic
In Kazakhstan, both elements – Jewish ingenuity and money – are appreciated and sought after.
Regarding the first, Kazakhstan is brimming with Israeli developments:
from the stop lights controlling the traffic in Astana, to camel-milk
ice cream in the former capital of Almaty, to a more productive strain
of wheat in the rural areas.
And of course, the ingenuity is evident in the security relationship –
which is close, but which no one will speak about, other than admitting
it exists – in both intelligence- sharing and arms sales. If Israel and
Kazakhstan do $1.5 billion worth of business a year, which was the 2010
figure, it is widely assumed that the number balloons when the military
aspect of the relationship is factored in.
Kazakhstan is concerned about terrorism and the situation in nearby
Afghanistan. Its leaders are worried about what will happen there when
the US forces eventually leave, and it is planning for all
When engaged in that type of planning and thinking, it is beneficial to have a good relationship with Jerusalem.
As for money, Nazarbayev has, as one source put it, an “appreciation”
for Jewish investors, and is interested in attracting them to his
country. A good relationship with Israel often helps. One of
Nazarbayev’s friends – Alexander Mashkevitch – is an Israeli/Kazakh
billionaire who has invested enormously in Astana, pretty much
transforming it since 1997 from a minor remote town in the country’s
hinterlands to a capital with eye-popping architecture ranging from
classical monuments, to pyramids with pretentious names like the Palace
of Peace and Accord, to yellow buildings with distinctly Ottoman vaults
Walk through the futuristic-looking city, with its improbably wide
avenues, overly grandiose monuments and huge plazas, and very little
looks familiar. It’s so new that it doesn’t feel like anywhere else.
Except for the street markings. Those broken white lines dividing the
avenue into lanes, the spacing between the lines, the width of the
lines, the arrows painted in the turn lanes, the zebra crosswalks –
those all look familiar. As they should: They’re Israeli – a mundane
influence, but one that demonstrates the degree to which Israel has
penetrated a strategically situated country with serious yearnings to
play in the big leagues.