By Jill Dougherty
No matter what the international community may think, Iran and North Korea are adamant about their right to a nuclear program. But one country that used to have the fourth-largest inventory of nuclear weapons in the world decided to give them up, and says it has no regrets.
Kazakhstan was a republic in the old Soviet Union. After the USSR fell apart in 1991 its president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, transferred all nuclear weapons to Russia and closed the country's nuclear testing sites.
Last September at the United Nations, he urged all countries to sign a declaration for a nuclear-free world.
It was a "courageous decision" to give up nuclear weapons, Kazakhstani Foreign Minister Yerzhan Kazykhanov told CNN Wednesday, but it paid off. Last year, in the midst of the world economic crisis, Kazakhstan's GDP growth was 7.5%.
In an interview in Washington, just before a meeting with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Kazykhanov said Kazakhstan should be an example to other countries.
"Over the period of 20 years," he said, "we managed to attract foreign direct investment in the amount of $150 billion, so I think this speaks for itself. We chose the right way to develop. We chose to get rid of nuclear weapons and we managed to build a vibrant economy and we are sending these messages to all our neighbors."
He added, "We showed our example and we are benefiting from that, and I think the Kazakhstan example should be followed."
But John Parker, an expert on Russia and Iran at the Center for Strategic Research, said Iran might point to another model when pressed to give up their nuclear ambitions.
"The Iranians would probably say, 'How about Libya? Gadhafi gave up his and look where he is today,'" noted Parker.
There was some rapprochement after Gadhafi agreed, in 2003, to give up his nuclear weapons program, Parker says, but Iran looks at its nuclear program as a guarantee of its security.
Kazakhstan's economy has surged since its early days of independence, its GDP growing from $11 billion in 1991 to $145 billion in 2010. Major supplies of oil and gas account for much of that, but the State Department says the country also has undertaken significant market economy reforms and has opened up to foreign investment.
Kazakhstan also provides logistics support to the Northern Distribution Network, a crucial route for U.S. military supplies into Afghanistan. That, along with trade and energy partnerships, was one of the issues the foreign minister discussed with Clinton.
Last December, the oil town of Zhanaozen exploded in labor riots. Sixteen people died and more than 100 were injured. After an investigation, some corrupt local officials, as well as some of the rioters, were brought to justice, the minister says.
"We learned a lesson," he says, "and I would like to underline that this situation has already been calmed and stabilized. We believe that it didn't have any effect on the oil production or any industrial activity in the region. We believe that we handled this problem and we will try to avoid similar problems in the future."
U.S. troops could begin pulling out of Afghanistan as early as the middle of 2013, and Kazakhstan's leadership has had extensive discussions over the past few months on the implications of that pullout, the minister told CNN.
To help anchor Afghanistan in a stable Central Asia, Kazakhstan's president supports the Obama administration's "New Silk Road" strategy, he said.
Details still are to be worked out, but Clinton, in September of last year, described the vision: "An Afghanistan firmly embedded in the economic life of a thriving South and Central Asia would be better able to attract new sources of foreign investment, connect to markets abroad and provide people with credible alternatives to insurgency. Increasing regional trade could open up new sources of raw material, energy, and agricultural products for every nation in the region."
Kazakhstan's foreign minister said that "we see this as a possibility to start new economic projects that can link countries of the region." Stability and peace in the region, he said, would come through economic relations and trade, and Kazakhstan would benefit from that.
"We are the biggest landlocked country in region," he said. "We need access to the high seas and world markets. We rely on neighbors. We want multiple exits from our country to move goods."
Kazakhstan already is spending billions of dollars to build a 3,000-kilometer road, a "land bridge," that would help transport commodities from China to Europe, he said. It is constructing a railroad link with Turkmenistan that also would provide an alternative route to Afghanistan.
More projects are in the works, he said, all benefits that have come from focusing on trade and investment, not nuclear weapons.