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Just imagine a huge Muslim state, the ninth biggest country in the world, one of the richest with natural resources on the globe. Imagine a place where you can freely stroll the streets wearing a badge with the Israeli flag, where anti-Semitism is a weird, unknown social disease and people respect their Jewish neighbors and the Jewish state.
Imagine a Muslim country in the vicinity of Afghanistan and Pakistan where Islamic extremism does not exist. Imagine a place with one of the highest economic growth rates in the world, an island of stability in a quite heated region.
This place is called Kazakhstan.
The sixth annual Eurasian Media Forum (EAMF), a unique platform for East-West dialogue, recently took place in Almaty, Kazakhstan's former capital. For three days, beginning April 19, more than 600 delegates from 50 countries, including prominent politicians and journalists from leading news media outlets, gathered at the Intercontinental Hotel's conference hall to discuss the most important issues on the world's and region's agenda.
For the first time in the history of the EAMF, a delegation of Israeli experts, sent by the Foreign Ministry, participated. They took part in the sessions on Iraq's future development, Iran's nuclear program, Kazakhstan's bid to chair the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and media glamorization.
As former Iranian president Muhammad Khatami attended the Forum, Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbaev called upon Iran to follow his country's lead.
"Our country was the first in the world to shut down the largest nuclear-weapons test site and voluntarily renounce nuclear weapons, thus strengthening the foundation for the nonproliferation system," he said. "Our renunciation of nuclear weapons in exchange for guarantees from nuclear-weapon states was Kazakhstan's strategic choice based on our understanding of our global responsibility. We call on other countries to follow our example. First of all, we direct this call to countries seeking nuclear weapons."
Nazarbaev said today's crisis in international politics was a "clear manifestation of ineffectiveness of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and the lack of noticeable progress in disarmament."
But no progress was made on the issue at the Forum. Khatami expressed a willingness to conduct a dialog, but skipped the session where he was supposed to meet the Israeli representative.
The Iraqi issue was also a bit of a disappointment, mostly because of British MP George Galloway's astonishingly rude, baseless and tasteless attacks on US President George W. Bush. When Israeli journalist Tzvi Yehezkely asked him about the Sunni and Shi'ite conflict in Iraq, Galloway responded by saying Israel was a main reason for the war. Richard Holbrooke, chairman of the Asia Society and former US ambassador to the UN, became so irritated by such remarks that he left the podium.
The issue of Kazakhstan's OSCE chair was attention-grabbing, and some progress was reached during the session. This topic, despite being seemingly far from Israel's sphere of interest, is quite important. There are several reasons why it would be beneficial for Israel if Kazakhstan receives the chair of this organization.
Kazakhstan is a moderate Sunni state that has good relations with Israel, including more than $800 million in trade annually. It's a great place for doing business, and many Israelis are already active here, investing in several spheres, from energy and mineral-resources extraction to construction. This country is developing and rebuilding itself at a very rapid rate.
In terms of stability and openness, it is a much more trustworthy country than Pakistan, one of the main US allies in Asia. This is simply another world, another Islam, tolerant and respecting other religions. Kazakhstan breaks the stereotype Israel being at odds with the whole Muslim world.
The Kazakh population and society is much more prone to develop in a Western direction than any other population in the region. And if we consider possible religious confrontation in the world, the descendants of Genghis Khan, as they like to see themselves, are the best defense line in Asia, and a possible mediator for reconciliation. In fact, they are trying to make all of this part of their new national ideology, built on the idea of being a bridge between the East and the West.
Secondly, at the tactical level, considering our sometimes-strained relations with the EU, it would be rather advantageous for Jerusalem to have such a friendly state as Kazakhstan chairing one of the biggest European-based organizations.
To survive, the Kazakh leadership has managed to reach compromises on many levels with its aggressive neighbors - superpowers China and Russia. It would be a walk in the park for Astana, Kazakhstan's capital since 1997, to mediate on issues it understands better than Brussels does.
The Kazakh leadership knows how hard it is to fight Islamic terrorism, so we may acquire an ally, capable of explaining and supporting our position.
Thirdly, the objection to Kazakhstan's bid to chair OSCE seems to be full of double standards, similar those Israel has contended with in the world political arena for years. Breaking them will create a favorable precedent.
There are claims that Kazakhstan is not democratic, not free enough, has a high level of corruption and cannot become a leader of the 56 states of the OSCE. Some of that is true, but to what extent? Are the local realities taken into account, while considering the issues?
Kazakhstan is a democratic state, even though some Western institutions claim its elections have been rigged, with close to 90 percent of the population voting for Nazarbaev and his party. But why wouldn't people prefer Nazarbaev, who has the economy developing at an even quicker rate than China's, to somebody else?
And why wouldn't they prefer Nazarbaev, whose security services managed to eradicate all the Islamic militants in the huge Central Asian country? Neighboring Uzbekistan almost turned into a Taliban-like state, and 10,000 Uzbek mujahideen fighters are "wandering" in the region from Afghanistan to Pakistan, taking part in the local jihad.
Imagine, how many Israelis would support a leader capable of promoting the economy while providing personal security. Besides, we have already seen how non-rigged elections, like in the Palestinian Authority, brought Hamas to power. The US supports nondemocratic actions by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's government against the Muslim Brotherhood to prevent the same thing from happening in his country.
As for corruption, well, let's not rub salt into our own wounds. Lets talk about Romania and Bulgaria. These two states became OSCE chairs in 2001 and 2004, respectively. Romania had the worst score in Transparency International's Corruption Perception Index in 2005. Bulgaria was very close.
The level of corruption in both states still remains one of the highest. Besides, most of their leaders were officers of the secret state police during the Soviet era, serving the KGB and oppressing their own people. But nobody made an issue of that.
Romania and Bulgaria are still far from being able to provide for themselves economically. But Kazakhstan's quantum leap serves not only its own good, but the good of its neighboring Central Asian states.
As Nazarbaev outlined at the opening of the EAMF, Kazakhstan has regional responsibilities. The country "will pursue policies directed at improving regional security" and creating a "belt of economic well-being" as a bulwark against international terrorism, religious extremism, drug trafficking and illegal migration, he said.
"Our country is a leader in terms of investments in our region," Nazarbaev said. "We are ready to begin large economic projects in Central Asia. We have repeatedly provided brotherly economic and humanitarian assistance to the governments of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan."
Kazakhstan is developing a special program on Afghanistan that includes measures to strengthen humanitarian and economic cooperation, investments in the economy and personnel training. It is also playing a growing role in energy security of other regions, including Europe. By stabilizing itself, it brings stability to the others. And if moderate Kazakhstan becomes more influential in the area and cleanses it of various militant Islamic movements, it will certainly help the West and Israel.
As a bid comes from a former Soviet republic, supported by all the countries of the CIS, accepting it will be a good sign for them. A sign that they may follow Kazakhstan's lead and their efforts will be rewarded. And Astana may turn into a rather advantageous bridgehead for Israeli investors.
These are the main reasons why Kazakhstan has the right to become an OSCE chair and why this might be beneficial for Israel.
US Assistant Secretary of State for European and
Eurasian Affairs Daniel Fried said on April 11: "The United States believes in an open world. Not a world of closed spheres of influence or empires. We regard our national strength and our national success as dependent on the national successes of other countries. In other words, a strong, prosperous, successful, democratic country in Eurasia is something good for America in our view. That serves our national interest. And a weak, authoritarian, insecure country is certainly not in our interests. Weak countries produce instability and war. Democracies produce peace - very simple, basic, American philosophic tenets."
Strong, stable Kazakhstan obviously fits this description, as it fits a profile of a good partner for Israel in Asia. We don't have too many allies in this region or in the Muslim world in general. We don't have too much influence on the European stage, but still we must understand that Europeanizing of a country like Kazakhstan is beneficial to Israel.
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