Kerry is touring ex-Soviet Central Asia to underline Washington's continued commitment to the energy-rich region. Rough Cut (no reporter narration)
ROUGH CUT (NO REPORTER NARRATION) Secretary of State John Kerry reaffirmed U.S. interests in Kazakhstan on Monday in talks with veteran leader Nursultan Nazarbayev who has lured huge Western investments to his Central Asian state while keeping it in Moscow's political orbit. Kerry is touring ex-Soviet Central Asia to underline Washington's continued commitment to the energy-rich region amid a drawdown in U.S. forces in Afghanistan, a more assertive Russia and the emergence of the Islamic State militant threat. Of the five ex-Soviet Central Asian states, only Kazakhstan, a vast steppe nation of 18 million people with big international investments in its oil and gas sectors, has emerged as stable and prosperous, though it brooks no democratic opposition. Nazarbayev has ruled Kazakhstan with an iron grip since 1989, two years before the demise of the Soviet Union. He has displayed a knack for complex geopolitical manoeuvering and has built good ties both with neighbouring Russia and China and with the United States and European Union. "President (Barack) Obama is very appreciative of your leadership on the (nuclear) non-proliferation issue, for countering violent extremism, cooperation vis-a-vis Afghanistan and counter-Daesh (Islamic State)," Kerry told Nazarbayev. "We have a very strong set of security interests." Kerry also urged Central Asian governments not to use fears of extremism as an excuse to crack down on all forms of dissent. "We have to understand that the terrorist presence doesn't give authorities a license to use violence indiscriminately," Kerry said. "And terrorism is not a legitimate excuse to lock up political opponents, diminish the rights of civil society or pin a false label on activists who are engaged in peaceful dissent." Nazarbayev justifies his tight hold on power by saying it provides stability in an ethnically diverse country whose population includes Kazakhs, Russians, Ukrainians, Tatars and ethnic Germans and has averted the shocks that have led to turmoil in some other former Soviet nations. The Kazakh leader told Kerry he valued strong economic ties with the United States, which he said was the largest foreign investor with about 500 companies operating in the country. U.S. companies have ploughed some $21 billion of investments into Kazakhstan since it won independence from Moscow in 1991 and bilateral trade stood at $2.4 billion in 2014. "We'd like to continue this cooperation," Nazarbayev said. Some U.S. officials have expressed concern that Nazarbayev is too close to Russia's President Vladimir Putin, but say they also understand the pressures Nazarbayev faces in dealing with his giant northern neighbour. A senior official travelling with Kerry said Kazakhstan, like other Central Asian countries, "does not want to have an adversarial or confrontational relationship with Russia, nor would we want them to".