President Obama to Visit Kazakhstan

The speaker of the Senate (upper house) of the Parliament of the Republic of Kazakhstan, Qasymzhomart Toqayev, is quoted as saying that President Barack Obama is expected to visit Kazakhstan soon as part of a wider tour of Central Asia. According to RFE-RL, President Obama met with Toqayev in Istanbul this week and told him he planned to become the first US president to visit the oil-producing country. United States oil companies have major investments in Kazakhstan, and most recently Kazakhstan has agreed to allow transit of non-military supplies to support NATO trips in Afghanistan across Tajikistan and Uzbekistan via the territory of Kazakhstan. For additional details on this matter see “Kazakhstan Says Expects U.S President To Visit” on Radio Free Europe.

The five countries of Central Asia (Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan) were formerly a part of the USSR, but following the collapse of the USSR in 1991, they suddenly became independent. One of the major issues in these states is what the role of Islam in society is or should be. There is the notion that the traditional Islam practiced in these countries was a Sufi-influenced “moderate Islam,” though since 1991 there has been significant support for a more conservative form of Islam from countries such as Saudi Arabia. There has also been significant support for educational and religious institutions from countries such as Turkey, where there is also a “moderate Islam” similar to the Islam observed traditionally in Central Asia.

The United States has gained military bases in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan to support its operations in Afghanistan following the events of September 11, 2001. (Uzbekistan has since closed the Khanabad airbase to the US, and Kyrgyzstan has decided to do the same with the Manas airbase.) This has been a major source of concern for Russia, which sees Central Asia as its natural sphere of influence.

Russia is now seeking to reassert itself in Central Asia. One of the reasons for this is its concern over the US presence in the region, but both the Russian government and the governments of the states of Central Asia have expressed concern (rightly or wrongly) over Islamist movements in their countries. This goes back in part to the Imperial Russian period and, later, the time of the USSR. In both cases, Islam was seen as a threat to Imperial Russian authority or to the Soviet Union. In modern times this notion of Islam as a threat has been “internalized” by some Central Asian leaders, especially in countries such as Uzbekistan.

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