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Baker Urges Kazakh Leader to Push Unity : Diplomacy: The visit is seen as an effort to boost the prestige of a man who has fought the breakup of the Soviet republics.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Secretary of State James A. Baker III journeyed to the heart of Central Asia on Sunday to urge a key leader of the Soviet Union’s increasingly independent republics to keep working to hold the crumbling federation together.

Baker flew to this remote city on the Steppes, only 200 miles from China’s western border, to meet with the powerful president of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev.

It was an unusual but calculated political act by the secretary of state, a highly visible visit to try to boost the prestige of a Soviet provincial leader--precisely because he is helping to keep the Soviet Union from coming apart.

“Nazarbayev is clearly someone committed to maintaining some kind of coherence . . . to prevent the disintegration of the country,” a senior U.S. official traveling with Baker said approvingly. “The guy is important, and this is a way of giving him additional status,” he said. “It is in the interests of Nazarbayev to be seen working with us.”

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His forecast was borne out by Baker’s reception in this ancient Mongol outpost in the shadow of the snow-topped Tien Shan Mountains. After eight young women in brightly beaded tunics and fur hats thrust large bouquets of flowers at a slightly startled Baker, he rode in a Soviet limousine to Nazarbayev’s dacha .

“I am delighted to be in Alma-Ata,” he said.

“You have been a leader in the efforts to reform the Soviet Union,” he told Nazarbayev, “and I know you will continue to be such a leader.”

Baker’s sudden burst of enthusiasm for Nazarbayev, a man whose name he scarcely knew a year ago, reflects the Administration’s strenuous efforts to keep the Soviet Union in one piece.

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During his five-day journey across the country, Baker has urged reformers to tone down their demands for the independence of the 12 remaining Soviet republics and has asked them to seek a new form of federation instead.

Baker and his aides have argued that a fragmented Soviet Union would be a recipe for instability and would prevent the country from devising a workable economic reform plan that could attract foreign investment.

Instead, he has urged them to agree to a new reformed union with a central government that would retain power over at least two issues, economic coordination and the Soviet arsenal of more than 30,000 nuclear weapons.

So far, U.S. officials said, they have been pleased to find what one called “a new realism” taking hold among Soviet reformers in the weeks since the collapse of the hard-line coup attempt against President Mikhail S. Gorbachev.

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Asked if there is any irony in the United States laboring to reglue the Soviet Union, its mortal adversary during more than 40 years of Cold War, one official said merely: “Things have changed.”

Nazarbayev is important to that effort, U.S. officials accompanying Baker said, because he has already played a key role in bringing most of the Soviet Union’s smaller republics into talks over a treaty with Moscow.

“He is . . . a pivotal player,” said one senior official accompanying Baker on the first visit by any secretary of state to Soviet Central Asia.

Kazakhstan itself--the country’s second-largest republic and six times the size of California--is also considered critical to keeping the union together.

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“If we end up with Russia and the Ukraine and Kazakhstan, the other republics are going to follow suit,” a Baker aide said--with an unconscious but perhaps telling use of the word we .

So Baker made the 2,700-mile flight from Leningrad to Alma-Ata complete with a navigator and extra bodyguard supplied by the KGB.

U.S. officials said they hope to discuss several issues with Nazarbayev during meetings that continue today, including the question of Nazarbayev’s announcement that he plans to move all nuclear weapons out of Kazakhstan and into the Russian Federation.

However, in an interview with ABC News, Nazarbayev said he has changed his mind on that question and has decided to keep some nuclear weapons on his own territory.

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“Kazakhstan is a republic which obtained nuclear weapons, and it will remain the same in the future,” he said in the interview.

U.S. officials also planned to urge Nazarbayev to move quickly to enable Chevron Corp. to develop the Tengiz oil field on the Caspian Sea, a huge proposed energy project that could produce major profits for both Chevron and the republic.

Chevron and Nazarbayev signed an agreement on the project earlier this year, but conservative authorities in Moscow held it up.

“He’s got to get hold of this thing and shake it and make it work,” one U.S. official said.

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However, Baker himself will not raise the point, an official said. He has pledged to stay away from oil issues because of his family’s extensive oil holdings.

Nazarbayev, 51, rose through the ranks of the Communist Party to become Kazakhstan’s prime minister in 1984 in the authoritarian days before Gorbachev took charge in Moscow.

In the intervening years, he has become increasingly powerful by implementing measured economic reforms, by speaking on behalf of the Muslim republics of Central Asia and most recently by mediating among all the republics and the central government.

Speaking to Baker on Sunday night, he pledged to continue “the democratization of our society and radical economic reforms.”

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Asked whether Nazarbayev qualifies as a democrat in the Western sense, a U.S. official shrugged and said: “Anybody who knows anything about Soviet Central Asia knows that this has not been a hotbed of reformist thinking. . . . I’m not saying that he is a bona fide democrat. I’m saying he was way ahead of everyone else in that part of the world.”

This afternoon, Baker plans to fly on to a traditional U.S. ally, Israel. But his reception there is likely to be chillier than it was in Kazakhstan because the Bush Administration and the government of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir are at loggerheads over a proposed $10 billion in U.S. guarantees for Israeli housing loans.

Kazakhstan: A Pivotal Republic

* Capital: Alma-Ata

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* Size: 1,049,155 square miles. Second in size to Russian Federation.

* Population: 16.5 million. Kazakhs 36%, Russians 40.8% and Ukrainians 6.1%.

* Leader: Nursultan Nazarbayev

* Economy: Major grain and livestock grower with abundance of orchards and vineyards. Rich in mineral resources such as coal, oil, copper, lead and zinc. In third place industrially among Soviet republics.

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