by: Steve Horn and Allen Ruff, Truthout

Railroad tanker cars wait on a siding in the Tengiz oil field in western Kazakhstan. (Photo: Viktor Korotayev / The New York Times)

December 16, 2011, should have been, at minimum, a fairly bright day for the people of Kazakhstan marking the country’s Independence Day and 20th birthday.

But rather than being a moment of celebration, it became a day of brutal repression and death, a bloody scene in the regional center of Zhanaozen paralleling those that occurred at the hands of US-supported dictatorial regimes during the uprisings now commonly referred to as the Arab Spring.

The victims of the state’s crackdown were striking oil workers protesting subsistence wages and poor working conditions in the city of 51,000 citizens 75 miles east of the Caspian Sea.

Kazakhstan’s state media reported police shot and killed ten workers, wounding more than 80 strikers. Independent journalist Mark Ames translated an account of a Russian reporter who estimated approximately 70 dead, with 500 to 800 wounded. Scores more were jailed, likely the victims of beatings and torture.

Following the shootings and arrests, Zhanaozen, home to the state-owned oil company, KazMunaiGas (KMG), was placed under a state of emergency. Authorities cut off Internet and communications access nationwide and the city was inundated with additional thousands of police. KMG has ongoing business ownership partnerships with the US-based multinational energy giants Chevron and ExxonMobil, which hold significant concessions in the country.

EurasiaNet’s Joshua Kucera reported the attacks on the strikers were carried out by police armed with US-supplied weaponry. Some of the 114 Humvees given to Kazkahstan since 2002 as part of the US-funded  Kazakhstan Peacekeeping Brigade (KAZBRIG) were filmed on the streets during the height of the repression.

That same cold, dark December day at Aktau, 75 miles to the west, police cracked down on rallies held in solidarity with the Zhanaozen workers. Human Rights Watch documented that, “police detained about 100 protesters and took them to a temporary detention center … Workers in Aktau reported heavy police surveillance at the protest, which was held in front of the regional mayor’s office.”

Human Rights Watch responded to the abuse of civil liberties by calling for an investigation into the use of state violence and called for the restoration of telecommunications services.

The repression was conducted by a police apparatus built up under the dictatorial reign of President Nursultan Nazarbayev, the country’s leader and “winner” of fixed election after election since the Central Asian Republic became independent following the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Later, parliamentary elections took place on January 15, with Nazarbayev initially barring those living in Zhanaozen from participating. He later revoked that decision, but that didn’t matter, since the elections are consistently rigged to begin with under what is essentially a one-party state.

The December repression of oil workers, and the political situation at large in Kazakhstan, call for a deeper examination into the geopolitical situation of a country located at the heart of what has long been referred to as the historic Silk Road trade route and what investigative journalist Pepe Escobar refers to as Pipelineistan.

Four times the size of Texas and larger than western Europe, a massive country of over 16 million at the heart of Central Asia, resource-rich Kazakhstan has increasingly become a vital centerpiece of US strategic interest, “soft power” and “hard power” regional influence.

The country has become case study for US deployment of the so-called “three D’s”: diplomacy, development and defense – as part of the broader ongoing long-war effort delineated in the Pentagon’s April 2011 National Strategic Narrative and elsewhere.

Northern Distribution Network: “A Modern Silk Road”

Kazakhstan sits close to the path formerly known as the Silk Road, an overland caravan trade route traversing the region linking China to the Middle East. A similar route, carrying weapons and key equipment to Western occupation forces in Afghanistan, is now referred to by US strategic planners as the Northern Distribution Network (NDN).

CNN describes the NDN’s path this way: “The main route begins at the port of Riga in Latvia, from where freight trains roll across Russia, and continues along the edge of the Caspian Sea. It crosses the deserts of Kazakhstan and into Uzbekistan…. Other routes begin at the port of Ponti in Georgia on the Black Sea and at Vladivostok in the Russian Far East.”

The Center for Strategic and International Studies, a conservative think-tank, wrote a report published in December 2009 that described the NDN as the “modern silk road.”

CNN explained what was carried on this new Silk Road: “About 10 days after beginning their odyssey, the containers cross into Afghanistan, carrying everything from computers and socks to toilet paper and bottled water.”

The Pentagon announced the NDN on January 20, 2009, the same day as President Barack Obama’s inauguration. At the end of 2009, in December, Obama announced the “surge” in Afghanistan, to the shock and awe of some. But close observers, aware of the new president’s previously announced intentions, and aware of behind-the-scenes developments like the NDN, found the announced escalation far from surprising.

With the overland Khyber Pass supply route from Pakistan to southern Afghanistan regularly threatened and periodically closed by Taliban attacks, and US-Pakistan relations becoming increasingly sour – due, in large part, to Obama’s drone war being waged in Pakistan – the NDN has only grown in importance over time.

“The Grand Chessboard”

The ninth-largest country in the world, Kazakhstan borders the Caspian Sea and Turkmenistan in the southwest, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan to the south, China to the East and Russia to the north. The country is also fairly close to key centers of current US geopolitical concern: Iran and Afghanistan. The broader region is also of vital geostrategic importance for its great-power neighbors – Russia and China.

In addition to Kazakhstan’s geostrategic importance, the Caspian Sea, which it borders, holds over 4 billion tons of proven recoverable oil reserves and 3 trillion cubic meters of natural gas, according to the CIA World Factbook.

In his 1997 work on US geopolitical strategy, “The Grand Chessboard,” Jimmy Carter’s former national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski explained the importance of the “Eurasian core,” which has Kazakhstan at its center:

For America, the chief geopolitical prize is Eurasia…. America’s global primacy is directly dependent on how long and how effectively its preponderance on the Eurasian continent is sustained…. Eurasia is the globe’s largest continent and … [a] power that dominates Eurasia would control two of the world’s three most advanced and economically productive regions.

Brzezinski explained that the area is far too large to control through direct rule alone and alluded to the projection of what is now referred to as US “soft power” as part of the “great game”:

That mega continent is just too large, too populous, culturally too varied, and composed of too many historically ambitious and politically energetic states to be compliant toward even the most economically successful and politically preeminent global power. This condition places a premium on geostrategic skill, on the careful, selective, and very deliberate deployment of America’s resources on the huge Eurasian chessboard.

US soft power, inspired by the academic work of Brzezinski, would eventually be projected in Kazakhstan in the form of diplomatic efforts and development programs under the auspices of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the Peace Corps, educational endeavors like the Bolashak Program, and American Corners, as well as assistance in the creation of Nazarbayev University at the nation’s new capital, Astana.

US hard power would also soon be projected into Kazakhstan, including the provision of weapons for the Kazakh military and police; unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), more commonly known as drones; construction of strategic military bases in neighboring countries; the contracting out of private mercenary forces placed in the region; and the training of the Kazakh military and policing force.

The Three D’s: The US-Kazakh Chessboard

Heeding Brzezinski’s “Grand Chessboard” advice, US foreign policy efforts toward Kazakhstan have centered less around defense and more on development and diplomacy.

Given that caveat, there has been no shortage of US-provided “defense” for Kazakhstan and the countries surrounding the Caspian when Washington’s grand strategists have called for it.


According to USAID figures, the US doled out $17.8 million in military aid to Kazakhstan between 2006 and 2009. While a seemingly paltry sum when compared to that bestowed upon major recipients such as Israel and Egypt, such assistance has played a significant role in solidifying the relationship with the Nazabayev regime.

An October 2009 State Department diplomatic cable released to the public by WikiLeaks showed that the United States provides UAVs, or drones, to the Kazakh military.

The Department of Defense (DoD), while it does not maintain any military bases in Kazakhstan, does maintain one in neighboring Kyrgyzstan, the Transit Center at Manas, formerly known as Manas Air Base. The DoD formerly maintained one in nearby Uzbekistan called the Karshi-Khanabad Air Base. Both bases were utilized by the US military during its ongoing occupation in Afghanistan.

The Transit Center at Manas, according to a November 2011 New York Times piece, is set to close shop in 2014, when the US lease with the Kyrgyz government expires. Washington currently pays $40 million per year to rent space at the air base, according to the Times.

In Kazakhstan, US-provided “defense” has gone far beyond the mere sale of weaponry and has entered into the sphere of operational support and training of the country’s military.

In 1995, the US Central Command (CENTCOM), through the National Guard State Partnership Program, initiated an exchange program between the Arizona National Guard and the Kazakh Armed Forces. The program aimed at “working towards expanding Kazakhstan’s role in the [North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)] Partnership for Peace program,” explained former Clinton administration Secretary of Defense William Perry at a February 1996 press conference.

Another key collaboration between the US and Kazakh militaries has been the annual joint “Steppe Eagle Exercise.” Under the umbrella of NATO, the program was inaugurated in 1997 as part of NATO’s Partnership for Peace. Kazakhstan, a bit far from the Atlantic, joined NATO in 1995.

CENTCOM troops, as well as reservists from the Arizona and Colorado National Guard, participated in the 2011 exercise at Camp Illisky, Kazakhstan.

Steppe Eagle falls under the US military’s broader Theatre Security Cooperation Program (TSCP), an initiative begun in 1995 which prepares US allied military forces for joint operations, according to an Army press release.

“Theater Security Cooperation (TSC) programs are the centerpiece of our efforts to promote security and stability by building and strengthening relationships with our allies and regional partners and are an indispensable component of our overarching … strategy,” Hamlin B. Tallent, director of the US European Command’s (EUCOM) European Plans and Operations Center explained in a March 2005 statement before the US House International Relations Committee.

One of the most important pieces of the “defense” side of the “3- D’s” equation is the CENTCOM-trained special operations force collaboration between Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, known as the Caspian Guard Initiative, which got off the ground in fall 2003.

A 2005 article appearing in Agence France-Presse explained, “The United States plans to spend a total of 135 million dollars within the framework of the US-funded Caspian Guard Initiative, which envisions improving the capabilities of the maritime forces of Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan.”

Investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill, in his book, “Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army,” wrote that Blackwater USA, now known as Academi and, previously, as Xe Services, plays a key role in the Caspian Guard Initiative.

“Beginning in July 2004, Blackwater forces were contracted to work in the heart of the oil- and gas-rich Caspian Sea region, where they would quietly train a force modeled after the Navy SEALs and establish a base just north of the Iranian border,” Scahill wrote.

“Blackwater would be tasked with establishing and training an elite … force modeled after the U.S. Navy SEALs that would ultimately protect the interests of the United States and its allies in a hostile region … [serving] a dual purpose: protecting the West’s new profitable oil and gas exploitation in a region historically dominated by Russia and Iran, and possibly laying the groundwork for an important forward operating base in an attack against Iran,” he continued.

Also falling under the umbrella of the Caspian Guard Initiative was a key provision of the 2006 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), Section 1206, which, according to a February 2011 report by the Congressional Research Service (CRS), “provides the Secretary of Defense with authority to train and equip foreign military forces for two specified purposes – counter-terrorism and stability operations – and foreign maritime security forces for counterterrorism operations.”

Under Section 1206, Kazakhstan has, thus far, received $31.8 million for “Caspian Security” and “Counter-Terrorism and Stability Operations Capacity Aid,” according to the CRS.

Kazakhstan, as a participant in the Global Peace Operations Initiative, a joint effort by the State Department and the DoD, also received “$14 million in funds … [for] body armor, water purification units, vehicles, and uniform equipment” in 2006 and 2007, according to the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

“Development and Diplomacy”

What Brzezinski described as placing “a premium on geostrategic skill, on the careful, selective, and very deliberate deployment of America’s resources on the huge Eurasian chessboard” has many important facets, but all center around creating a stable, market-based economy friendly to US corporate interests.

The most overt example of this includes oil giant Chevron’s entry into Kazkahstan in the early 1990s. The energy giant secured a major stake in Kazakhstan’s huge Tengiz oil field with the creation of a partnership, called Tengizchevroil, between Chevron, ExxonMobil, the Russian government-owned LukArco and the Kazakh government.

Other examples of key business alliances include the American Chamber of Commerce in Kazakhstan, the US-Kazakhstan Business Association, the Chamber of Commerce and Industry of the Republic of Kazakhstan in the USA, and the US-Kazakhstan Public-Private Economic Partnership Initiative, to name several.

Corporations, though, need legitimation among the population in the various nation-states in which they are operating – in other words, various avenues of soft power projection. A WikiLeaks cable from November 2008, for example, stated that the United States was involved in a soft power “war of ideas” in Kazakhstan.

One significant US influence peddler has been the Peace Corps, which entered Kazakhstan in 1993, two years after the country gained independence from the USSR. As of July 2010, according to a Peace Corps document, over 1,000 volunteers had spent a 27-month sojourn in the country.

Peace Corps volunteers taught classes at American Corners centers located throughout Kazakhstan, described by the US Embassy in Kazakhstan as “small, American-style libraries located within a local partner organization, usually a library … [which] support local English instruction with an extensive collection of English teaching materials which are frequently used by local students, teachers and US Peace Corps volunteers.”

An abrupt and controversial end to the Peace Corps presence in Kazakhstan in November 2011 shed light on some of the darker aspects of Kazakh society. “This organization assists mainly in the least developed countries,” the Peace Corps said in a statement. “Many programs of the Peace Corps in Kazakhstan, in general, have come to their conclusion,” said the Kazkah Ministry of Education and Science in an article appearing in The Christian Science Monitor.

Several former Kazakhstan-based Peace Corps volunteers offered starkly different explanations for the pullout.

In her November 18, 2011 “Eulogy to Peace Corps Kazakhstan,” Rebecca Gong, now a graduate student at Harvard, offered what she referred to as “a long-suppressed insider exposé of all the issues.” Gong honed in on the beyond-horrific experiences of women in Kazakhstan, explaining, “I don’t think anyone expected, upon signing up for Peace Corps in Kazakhstan, that it of all places was going to have the highest rate of volunteer rape and sexual assault worldwide (if you were a girl who signed up for PC KZ last year, you had a roughly 8.3% chance of being raped).”

Another volunteer, Casey Michel, wrote about what he thought were the real reasons behind the departure:

It was the multi-level strains – from the [KGB successor] KNB’s growing surveillance, to the impunity with which the drunks attacked us – that drove us from Kazakhstan. It was averaging one rape or serious sexual assault per month since June. It was school administrators allowing KNB agents to sift through both belongings and apartments. It was appointed government officials refusing to meet with Peace Corps administrators, out of either pride or contempt or grand-standing.

A WikiLeaks cable written in June 2009 confirmed one of these claims. It described a situation in which one volunteer, Anthony Sharp was, “arrested in what appeared to be a classic Soviet-style set-up, likely orchestrated by the pro-Russian old-guard at the Committee for National Security (KNB) and aimed at discrediting the Peace Corps and damaging bilateral relations.”

The Bolashak Generation

Another crucial program for US soft-power projection in Kazakhstan is the State Department-funded Bolashak Program. (“Bolashak” translates into English as “the future.”)

Journalist Joshua Kucera explained, “Since 1993, the Bolashak program has sent about 6,000 Kazakh students abroad for university study, mostly to the United States, all expenses paid – as long as they return and work in Kazakhstan for at least five years.”

The generation that has arisen as a result of the program has been referred to by State Department diplomatic cable as the “Bolashak Revolution.” A cable unveiled by WikiLeaks reads: “Soon after independence, President Nazarbayev created the Bolashak program that provides full university education to over one thousand Kazakhstani students a year … The so-called Bolashak Generation is apparent now througout [sic] the public and private sectors – bright, globalized, young people, almost all speaking English, who are in positions just a level or two away from decision-making authority.”

Another diplomatic cable noted that the
“Bolashak program provides scholarships for several thousand Kazakhstanis … where they absorb Western ideas and values. Additionally, Nazarbayev has brought into government service a new generation of young, ambitious bureaucrats, many of whom studied in the West through Bolashak or U.S. Government-sponsored programs.”

In sum, according to the State Department, its Bolashak Program has, at least in part, achieved its original aim of inculcating loyal subordinate elites through its imperial “civilizing mission.”

However, according to Kucera, Bolashak is in its waning days. “With little fanfare, the government is phasing out the program as it launches another, possibly more ambitious educational endeavor: Nazarbayev University, a brand-new Astana-based institution that aims to bring world-class education to Kazakhs, rather than forcing them (or allowing them, depending on your perspective) to go abroad to get it.”

Nazarbayev University: “A Number-One Priority”

The phasing out of the Bolashak Program meant, as Kucera stated, Nazarbayev University (NU) would become increasingly vital. A November 2009 cable revealed by WikiLeaks described NU as, “the government’s number one priority” for Kazakhstan, after the development of the city of Astana.

Located in the country’s new capital, the university, originally known as the New University of Astana, opened its doors in the fall of 2010. A February 2010 State Department diplomatic cable unearthed by WikiLeaks referred to NU as an “entirely new educational system in Kazakhstan and Central Asia based on the U.S. model, to prepare students for Kazakhstan’s social and economic challenges.”

Numerous acclaimed research universities, including the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the University of Pittsburgh, Duke University, Carnegie Mellon University, University of Pennsylvania, University College of London and University of Pittsburgh have partnered with NU to create programs in various academic disciplines. 

An August 2010 article by Kucera stated that all of the professors teaching and researching at NU would come from abroad during NU’s early years. Furthermore, all classes would be taught in English, and, down the road, the school’s maximum population would be 20,000 students at most.

These figures suggest that the university has one main purpose: the training of a handful of subordinate managerial elites allied with the US imperial project. A peak enrollment of 20,000 students is a high-reaching prospect considering the school’s population was only 130 for year one, and is small beans in a country with a population of over 16 million citizens.

A Foreign Policy of “Killing Hope”

Going through the proper diplomatic public relations motions, upper-level US diplomatic and military officials expressed their sorrow about the December massacre in Zhanaozen and called on the autocratic regime to conduct an internal investigation.

“We are deeply concerned by this week’s violence in western Kazakhstan and wish to express our heartfelt condolences to the families and friends of those killed or injured in Zhanaozen … The violence left at least 15 people dead, scores of others injured and millions of dollars in property damage. We condemn any use of violence to address grievances and urge all parties to exercise restraint … [T]he United States strongly urges the Government of Kazakhstan to follow through on its pledge to conduct a full and transparent investigation of the events in Zhanaozen and elsewhere,” said the US Ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Ian Kelly on December 22, 2011.

One fact was lost on most media covering the massacre, but not on the International Energy Agency (IEA): the protesting workers were actually participating in Occupy Zhanaozen, inspired by and in solidarity with US-based Occupy activists. The militaristic hard-power tools that have made their way home to the US Occupy movement, it appears, mirror the ones that were used in Zhanaozen with US-supplied weapons, but with repression far more violent – and, ultimately, lethal – in form in Kazakhstan.

The takeaway: While there may be a US geopolitical long-term vision about the possibilities of reform toward an “open society,” or liberal democracy, in Kazakhstan – a society aided by the presence of soft-power institutions and initiatives promoting a market-based economy – the reality remains that for now, US-supplied hard power will be used when US geopolitical aims are deterred in the slightest. Zhanaozen, unfortunately, is but a single example.

At the end of the day, US geopolitical interests and a corporate-friendly open-door foreign policy will always trump workers’ rights and overall civil liberties in other countries. After all, if history has taught us anything, it’s that the U.S. has an accomplished record of killing hope for empire in every crevice of the globe.

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Allen Ruff is a U.S. historian and investigative researcher. His primary work centers on opposition to U.S. "grand strategy" and interventions in the Middle East, Central Asia and elsewhere. He hosts a weekly a public affairs program on WORT, 89.9 FM in Madison, Wisconsin and blogs at