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DIPLOMACY : U.S. Envoys on the Frontier in Kazakhstan : Oil-rich former Soviet republic is short of just about everything--including phones to Washington.


ALMA-ATA, Kazakhstan — When the U.S. Embassy in this remote Central Asian capital holds a reception, two of its top officials sacrifice their desks to use as snack tables.

If the diplomats want to call Washington, they must drive halfway across town to their "communications center"--a room in the Hotel Kazakhstan.

And to pick up mail or glance at a Western newspaper requires a longer trip--2,000 miles across the steppes of Kazakhstan and Russia to Moscow.

Such are the inconveniences for a handful of people assigned to this new American outpost in a land that--while as ancient as the Silk Route that wended its way through this dusty city centuries ago--is just beginning to find its place in the "new world order."

The U.S. Embassy in Alma-Ata is a small, baby-blue house on a potholed, tree-lined street. It's one of 14 embassies Washington has opened in the new nations that have emerged from what used to be the Soviet Union and one of 10 that have opened their doors since the new year.

"I guess I had a week's notice" before being sent to Alma-Ata, said one embassy official, who, like the other Americans interviewed, asked that his name not be used. The need for American representation in these post-Soviet nations arose so suddenly that the government was unable to post anyone to the embassy who can speak Kazakh, the official language of Kazakhstan.

Since Russians make up about 40% of the ethnically diverse population of Kazakhstan, and the majority of the country's inhabitants speak Russian, this is not considered a crippling handicap. Nonetheless, by next summer all the American embassies in this corner of the globe are to have fluent speakers of the local languages, fresh from 10-month "hard language" training sessions beginning in July at the Foreign Service Institute.

Most of the embassy staff arrived here Jan. 30 determined to set up shop in a land that few of their compatriots had ever heard of, let alone lived in. "We really pushed hard" to get the building in shape for the flag-raising ceremony Feb. 3, one official said. "We literally had the painters in here putting on the finishing touches and the caterers setting up for the reception at the same time."

William Courtney, the charge d'affaires who is expected to be named ambassador to Kazakhstan soon, and Jackson McDonald, chief of political and economic affairs, are the only officials now assigned to Alma-Ata for the long term. Six other Americans are here on six-week to three-month assignments, pending the expected arrival of the rest of the permanent staff.

In an admittedly unusual arrangement, Courtney and McDonald share an office; it is their desks that must do double duty as an hors d'oeuvres buffet during official receptions.

It's also not as well-equipped as most American embassies. While it bears a brass plaque proclaiming it a monument of 19th-Century architecture, the building lacks international phone lines. So all communication with Washington is carried out from a suite in the hotel.

Finding more office space is not the Americans' biggest problem in Alma-Ata. Finding living space is. In a city of 1.2 million people, none of the officials who work at the embassy have been able to find even a studio apartment. They all live in the Hotel Kazakhstan.

Hotel living has its drawbacks. Prostitutes have been known to knock on diplomats' doors offering their services, and according to one embassy official, there's only one word to describe the hotel restaurant: "Terrible."

Courtney, who has experience in arms control dealings, traveled with Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev to Washington in May. There, Nazarbayev agreed to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty as well as a protocol to the strategic arms pact, which promises that all nuclear weapons left over in Kazakhstan from the Soviet era will be removed from Kazakhstan by the decade's end.

In the same visit, Nazarbayev signed a long-awaited deal with Chevron, under which the American oil giant will invest $20 billion over several decades to develop and expand two western Kazakhstan oil fields. The partners hope the venture will yield as much as 9 billion barrels over the next 40 years.

"Kazakhstan has potential to become quite important in economic terms," one diplomat said.

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