03/21/2011 04:19 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Case for Stronger Ties With Kazakhstan

Washington's preoccupation with the Middle East, North Africa and Afghanistan risks events being overlooked in Central Asia, particularly Kazakhstan.

Last month, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev rejected the idea of extending his term until 2020 by a national referendum despite half the electorate calling on him to be re-elected without elections. As a compromise, he proposed an early presidential election that will take on April 3.

Nazarbayev has ruled Kazakhstan since its days as a Soviet republic and he has put his multi-ethnic country on the path to a promising future based on rapid economic development. Kazakhstan is set to play a pivotal role in coming years as a country that connects Europe and Asia and is a force for stability within the Central Asian region.

Was Nazarbayev influenced by recent events in Tunisia and Egypt? Very probably. Hosni Mubarak was re-elected on several occasions though referendums and suddenly found he was no longer a legitimate ruler.

The U.S. rightly welcomed Nazarbayev's move, having earlier suggested a referendum would be a "setback for democracy."

By rejecting the referendum, Nazarbayev has shown resolve to keep his country on a democratic track. He values its western connections and seems keen to consolidate the gains achieved last year when Kazakhstan demonstrated its commitment to upholding democratic values during its chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). This was the first time a former Soviet state had chaired the OSCE.

Contrary to some expectations, it did an impressive job of leading the Organization, in particular, steering it effectively during the crisis in neighboring Kyrgyzstan which hosts the Manas Transit Center that is vitally important to the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan.

The prospects for democratic change in Kazakhstan are favorable over the longer term. Nazarbayev is committed to the gradualist path of developing democratic institutions and history will almost certainly judge him correct in focusing first on economic development. Democracy on an empty stomach is hard to sustain.

Given Kazakhstan's progress, the U.S. can now usefully focus on ensuring that the upcoming election is free and fair. Kazakhstan does not need lectures on democracy. It needs quiet and patient encouragement.

While the U.S. should continue to encourage its Kazakhstani friends to see the long-term benefits of developing a free media, rule of law, and political institutions that are fully publicly accountable, the U.S. needs to recognize Kazakhstan's accomplishments.

Nazarbayev will almost certainly win the snap poll given his very high approval ratings. This is hardly surprising since he has presided over 8 percent average growth rates over the past decade. Kazakhstan now boasts per capita gross domestic product of more than $9,000 -- a twelvefold increase compared with 1994 and four times that of Egypt today. Living standards in Kazakhstan are the envy of some of its neighbors. Any leader who delivers these results is going to be popular.

Nevertheless, the absence of a clear succession plan remains of concern to long-term foreign investors who have poured over $120 billion into the country since 1993. After the latest events in the Middle East, Nazarbayev is probably more aware than before of the need for an orderly succession when he leaves office. The best way to achieve this is to develop Kazakhstan's political institutions and lay the basis for a new leader to achieve legitimacy through the ballot box.

The country's oil and gas reserves, and its pivotal location make it of strategic importance to the U.S. and its western allies. Kazakhstan balances its interests skilfully between the West, Russia and China.

Kazakhstan remains a long-term partner of the West. While access to Caspian oil and gas reserves remains an important factor driving U.S. interests, there is far more at stake for both the people of Kazakhstan and the U.S. than just "pipeline politics". Both countries share views about energy, counter-terrorism, counter-narcotics, food and other forms of economic security.

Kazakhstan is also the world's leading uranium producer. As a country that voluntarily gave up the fourth largest nuclear arsenal in the world after the collapse of the USSR, it is committed to being a responsible player in the development of the global nuclear industry.

Kazakhstan's success will ensure the continuation of economic growth and the raising of living standards. The country has the ability to serve as a stabilizing influence in Afghanistan's neighborhood and spur further economic development across the Eurasia region. Kazakhstan has already played an important role in multilateral efforts to stabilize Afghanistan, by providing humanitarian assistance to its people and by opening up its air and land for the U.S. to dispatch critical supplies through the Northern Distribution Network.

The U.S. needs to engage more deeply with Kazakhstan and build a stronger long-term partnership. Now is the time to stay focused on doing so.

Daniel Witt, President of the International Tax and Investment Center (ITIC), a non-profit organization, has been working in the Republic of Kazakhstan since 1993. Mr. Witt will be an international observer for the upcoming Presidential Election in the Republic of Kazakhstan. He was also an observer for the 2003, 2005 and 2007 Kazakhstan Elections. He serves as Vice Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Eurasia Foundation.