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Wooing or Being Wooed in Central Asia

Chancellor Schröder wrapped up his Asian tour with a visit to Kazakhstan. The ink is now drying on half a billion euros worth of business deals in Astana, a city dubbed the capital by an authoritarian president.


All smiles: Chancellor Schröder and President Nazarbayev in Astana

Nursultan Nazarbayev has a particularly good vantage point. Not only does the Kazakh president run a country rich in oil, natural gas and coal, but since 9/11 the former Soviet republic has risen to strategic importance as a partner in the worldwide fight against terror. And Nazarbayev is now wooing Western countries to spend money in his state.

German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, accompanied by a large delegation of high-ranking business executives, responded to the call and went courting this week. "Kazakhstan is very important for German enterprises," Schröder told reporters after his meeting with Nazarbayev on Friday. Germany is Kazakhstan's third largest trading partner, and Schröder said his goal was to double trade levels with the Central Asian country within three years.

The upshot of the first state visit from a German leader since Kazakh gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 was a stack full of signed contracts worth €550 million ($663.6 million). Siemens closed three of the deals, involving participation in modernizing a coal-run power plant for €100 million, a telecommunications project worth slightly less and outfitting the state trains with a control system for €50 million. Commerzbank and the Man engineering group also left Astana with fresh contracts in hand.

Stable at what cost?

"Kazakhstan plays a stabilizing role in this unquiet region, and economic cooperation contributes to stabilizing and calming the region," Schröder explained to reporters. Indeed, Kazakhstan has had the same leader throughout it's short period of statehood.

Nazarbayev, previously head of the Kazakh communist party, is an authoritarian ruler with a penchant for appointing family members to positions of power. His oldest daughter controls state television and most of the country's newspapers and has an effective monopoly over the news Kazakhs have access to. Independent journalists have been attacked, beaten and even killed by police according to human rights organizations. One of Nazarbayev's son-in-laws is in charge of the country's oil and gas business. With an iron hand, Nazarbayev quashes all opposition to his rule.

Presidential decree

Regierungsgebäude in Kasachstan

Astana's central square

Six years ago, Nazarbayev decreed that the country's capital would move 1,300 kilometers from Almaty, the country's biggest city to Astana. And now he's busy furnishing his seat of government, spending hundreds of millions of euros from the country's growing oil revenues on impressive city building projects.

Meanwhile, experts estimate that more than 60 percent of Kazakhstan's 16.8 million inhabitants live in poverty. Of those 16.8 million, around 300,000 are of German origin. The German government offers them incentives to stay in the country, financing 77 meeting facilities that cultivate German culture. It also sends money to family members left behind, offers language courses, helps needy Germans and provides free medical care. In the last 15 years 800,000 ethnic Germans have immigrated to Germany from Kazakhstan.

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