ASTANA, Kazakhstan (JTA) — In a world where Israel can claim few Muslim friends, no one is more passionate about Kazakhstan than the Israeli envoy to this oil-rich nation.
While the nation jockeys to be a major energy producer, joining Caspian Sea neighbors Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan as a vital alternative to Middle East instability and Russian heavy-handedness, observers often cite the Central Asian nation as a moderate Muslim bridge to the Islamic world.
That helps explain why Western allies typically downplay the unseemly side of Kazakh rule — repression of independent critics, persecution of political opposition, harassment of marginal religions. They instead accentuate the positives about this ex-Soviet republic.
Israel’s ambassador here, Ran Ichay, also tends to focus on the upside, listing several Kazakh achievements of recent years that he terms "world-class contributions.”
Kazakhs, for example, voluntarily dismantled their nuclear program, even as folks in the northeastern region of Semipalatinsk still suffer from having served as human guinea pigs for Soviet-era nuclear testing.
And twice they have hosted the Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions, an interreligious forum they created that Ichay says is the rare gathering where Jews, Israelis and Iranians are spotted around the same table.
"Kazakhstan is very different from what we know in the Middle East," he says from his modest office in central Astana, the capital city. "They use their religion as a bridge between cultures."
Still, the elephant in the room remains oil and the worldwide worry over "energy security" that was underscored by Russia’s assault on Georgia in August.
Beyond the headlines, that clash in the Caucasus also caused ripples for Kazakh-Israeli relations.
Though the Caspian basin is estimated to hold just 4 percent of the world’s reserves, experts say it still provides enough leverage to curb extortionary or monopolistic maneuvering, especially when Europe’s dependence on Mideast oil is predicted to rise to 75 percent by 2015.
Georgia represents the bottleneck through which Caspian crude is now pumped westward, from Azerbaijan to Turkey, and on to Europe, Israel and elsewhere.
Israel, meanwhile, is fully dependent on foreign oil, but for decades has been denied access to Middle Eastern crude, while natural-gas imports from Egypt are unstable. So, Jerusalem has nurtured an “axis” with moderate-Muslim Turkey and Azerbaijan, supporting the massive Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan, or BTC, pipeline that opened its taps across the south Caucasus in 2006.
The Jewish state also embraced ambitious plans to one day build underwater pipelines beneath the Caspian that would tap into the oil reserves of Kazakhstan and natural-gas fields of Turkmenistan — purportedly the world’s second largest — and deliver them westward along those same BTC pipelines.
Russia’s trampling upon Georgian soil, though, may have sabotaged that grand vision, with one leading analyst writing that trans-Caspian pipeline plans "now belong in the trash basket."
Ichay, however, says that while the Georgian crisis made the region "a little more cautious," the pipeline project "has gone too far to be canceled now," regardless of Russian obstruction.
Moreover, the U.S.-led NATO military alliance considers it a top priority, with many of its members frantic about “energy security.”
“The quest to secure guaranteed supplies could increasingly shape the foreign policies and priorities of NATO member states and others worldwide," Jamie Shea, the NATO director of policy planning, wrote in 2006. This, he said, may include "protection of critical infrastructure or crisis response options."
In recent years the U.S. military has also proposed a "Caspian Guard" to patrol the waters, which are claimed also by Russia to the north and Iran to the south.
With energy-hungry China, Kazakhstan’s neighbor to the east, also eyeing the events closely, analysts say the stage is set for future conflict in Central Asia.
All of which also sheds light on one of Europe’s most controversial decisions vis-a-vis Kazakhstan.
Last year, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe — the continent’s top democracy and human-rights watchdog — elected Kazakhstan to chair the organization in 2010, even though President Nursultan Nazarbayev has led his country through independence from the Soviet Union, in 1991, without a single election judged "free and fair" by OSCE monitors.
Astana had lobbied for the 2009 chair, but was rebuffed until it agreed to democratic reforms.
Just this month the Washington-based Freedom House, which ranks Kazakhstan as "Not Free" in its annual worldwide survey, chastised Astana for proposing reforms that "fall short" of promises to loosen its grip on media, elections and other institutions.
Other observers contend it is better to integrate flawed ex-Soviet states such as Kazakhstan and Georgia into the West as much as possible, even if they are far away from attaining E.U. or NATO membership.
Indeed, Kazakhstan’s unique standing goes beyond its oil wealth — for Jews as well.
"You start with the energy, the geographical location, and the relationship they’re trying to carve out with the U.S. specifically and the West in general, trying to steer an independent course from Russia," says Mark Levin, the executive director of the Washington-based NCSJ: Advocates on behalf of Jews in Russia, Ukraine, the Baltic Staes & Eurasia. "Then you get to our specific concerns as Americans and as Jews: It’s a country with no government-sponsored anti-Semitism, where Jews and Muslims live friendly side by side, and with full diplomatic relations with Israel."
In fact, given the tendency of some of its neighbors, and that its own populace is almost evenly split between Kazakh Muslims and Russian Orthodox, the Central Asian heavyweight strives for friendly relations with all.
In 2002, for example, JTA reported that Nazarbayev told visiting European rabbis of his "very good" relations with Iran’s then-President Mohammad Khatami, that he had broached the case of Israeli pilot Ron Arad, missing in Lebanon since 1986 and allegedly held in Iran, and would do the same regarding Israeli soldiers reportedly held in Lebanon by the Tehran-backed Hezbollah.
With show trials of Iranian Jews then going on, one rabbi proposed Kazakhstan serve as mediator.
In 2006, Israel’s Ashkenazi chief rabbi, Yona Metzger, also asked Nazarbayev to press Syrian President Bashar Assad about Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who was kidnapped by Hamas.
As the future chair of the OSCE, which has been prominent in European efforts to combat anti-Semitism, Kazakhstan may play a pivotal role when that issue emerges, says Rabbi Andrew Baker, the director of international Jewish affairs for the American Jewish Committee.
Kazakh officials, Baker says, already have demonstrated sensitivity about anti-Semitism.
"The extent to which Kazakhstan understands this issue and is supportive, this will go well beyond its borders," he says.
With Iran’s suspected pursuit of nuclear weapons also on Europe’s agenda, Baker says Kazakhstan again could be asked to play mediator.
"We’ve come to recognize that we live in a world where critical issues are not going to be solved by one or two countries," he says. "Finding other allies will increasingly matter as well."
Kazakhstan’s "bridge" potential also extends to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Over the past decade, Ichay says some have floated the idea that Astana might become involved with the Middle East conflict as a heavily Muslim country trusted by both sides. The Israeli envoy rejects that possibility.
"If I have no problem with Kazakhstan, why put it in a position where it has to express an opinion on such sensitive issues?" he says. "Why put a healthy man in a sick bed?"
Kazakhstan is more valuable in its neutrality, Ichay says, contributing to interfaith dialogue. Besides, he laments, "We have enough intermediaries. One more can do no more."