You might imagine that Astana would want to keep off the world stage amid the international outcry over an ongoing bid to extend the rule of Kazakhstan's Leader of the Nation.
But fresh from steering his country through the chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) – during which he fondly reiterated Astana's commitment to the OSCE's democratic values – Foreign Minister Kanat Saudabayev is heading to the United States, which has been a vociferous critic of the bid to prolong the rule of President Nursultan Nazarbayev to 2020 (by which time he'll have been in power for three decades) by referendum.
During his three-day trip, which gets under way January 24, he'll be meeting Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, with whom he shared a podium at a press conference at the OSCE summit in Astana in December. The two described to journalists how they'd discussed Kazakhstan's commitment to democratization, which now looks somewhat ironic as the bid to keep Nazarbayev in office until the age of 80 steamrolls ahead.
The president sent the bill to the Constitutional Council on January 17; the body has a month to rule on the legality of the initiative. Nazarbayev has let it be known officially that he'd prefer to stand in the scheduled 2012 election, but last week he dropped a most unsubtle hint that he'll eventually allow a referendum to go ahead. "Naturally, not a single state politician can ignore the will of the people," he told a meeting with officials, deputies and members of political parties.
The foreign minister will also be meeting White House officials and congressmen. It'll be interesting to see how public any of those who'll be glad-handing Saudabayev – a close confidant of Nazarbayev's – are in pressing Astana not to go ahead with the referendum. Pleas are likely to fall on deaf ears anyway, as all the signs are there that the plebiscite will be held and a compliant public will vote yes.
Dejected defenders of democracy in Kazakhstan believe that Astana will continue paying what they see as lip service to democratic values even as they flout them with impunity. There is little the West can do about that – particularly after it afforded Kazakhstan the international legitimacy it craves by awarding it last year's chairmanship of the OSCE.