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Last Updated: Wednesday, 4 June, 2003, 11:42 GMT 12:42 UK
Kazakhstan's balancing act
By Malcolm Haslett
BBC Eurasia analyst

New Chinese president Hu Jintao stopped off in the vast but thinly-populated republic of Kazakhstan on his way home from summit meetings in Moscow, Petersburg and Evian.

The two countries have a long common border, but relations in the past have not always been good.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (C), his Chinese counterpart Hu Jintao (R) and Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbayev (L)
The Russian, Chinese and Kazakh leaders met in Moscow
So why should Mr Hu visit such a thinly-populated country so early in his presidency?

Kazakhstan has large reserves of oil and gas, and other mineral riches.

But that is not the only reason for foreign interest in the country.

Though its population is less than 17 million, little more than 1% of that of China, it covers a huge and strategically important area right at the heart of Asia.

It has a close working relationship with Russia, with which China is once again building a strategic partnership.

And last but not least, China hopes that a good relationship with Kazakhstan, ethnically Turkic and nominally Islamic, will help Beijing keep the lid on its own Turkic and Islamic population in its vast western province of Xinjiang.

So how do the Kazakh authorities view the relationship with China?

Their country is already the centre of some rivalry between Russian and western, mainly US, interests.

Will China's strategic links with Russia mean it could tip the balance in Russia's favour, as one Kazakh commentator suggested this week?

Possibly, though Chinese and Russian interests do not necessarily coincide in all regards.

And it is probably fair to say that all three of these world powers - China, Russia and the US - have something to offer Kazakhstan. Equally, there are reasons why an element of distrust will also remain in relations with all three.

Traditionally Kazakhstan's closest links are with Russia, and President Nursultan Nazarbayev this week had talks on a "common economic space" linking his republic to Russia, Ukraine and Belarus.

Yet the relationship with Russia is not all roses.

Saturday was marked in Kazakhstan as the Day of Victims of Political Repression, a reference to the huge suffering caused in Kazakhstan under Stalin's Soviet regime.

In the 1940s an estimated 1.5 million Kazakhs, most of them nomads, died as a result of brutal attempts to settle them in permanent homes.

Over a million fled to neighbouring countries, and the country was forced to accept another 1.5 million people from other nationalities - Germans, Chechens, Poles and others - deported there by decrees from Moscow.

As for the US, it offers itself as the country with the most money and best technologies to help Kazakhstan exploit and export its oil and gas.

But the West annoys Kazakhstan's current leaders by tying its aid to demands for action to cut out corruption and improve human and political rights.

Compared to the other two, China seems to have less to offer to Kazakhstan, and traditionally relations have been cool.

But China also makes fewer demands, the main one being that Kazakhstan should curb any activity of exiled Uighur separatists from Xinjiang.

And in the long-term, China may be able to offer Kazakhstan some technological help and an accessible market for its mineral exports.

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