The Day Al Gore Came to Almaty – Monday, December 13, 1993

1993-12-13 Al Gore and Tom Johnson
1993-12-13 Tom Johnson and Vice President Al Gore

Almaty’s airport was closed due to stormy conditions on Sunday, December 12, 1993, thereby disrupting Vice President Al Gore’s travel arrangements, and the schedules of a whole lot of other people in Almaty, Bishkek and probably in Moscow.

I know because my work for practically the entire day on Monday was ignored when the intended breakfast with Gore became a late afternoon chance to join him over stale croissants and fresh tea.

The U.S. Embassy had contacted me the week before, inviting me to have breakfast with Vice President Gore along with other representatives of U. S. businesses with a presence in Almaty.  Chances like this don’t appear every day so it didn’t take long for me to agree to attend.  The meeting venue was the private dining room at the Dostyk Hotel, adjacent to the main dining room.

Early on that Monday morning, in my apartment, I received a follow-up phone call.  The Embassy people had asked for my home telephone number just to ensure they could remain in contact.  The caller announced that there might be a delay in breakfast due to the weather.  Similar calls were being made to about 10 other people hoping to meet the Vice President.  Soon there were more calls concerning more delays. Each one was followed by a phone call from me to my office and/or the driver to let them know that I too was being delayed.  I mistakenly thought the Vice President’s plane was circling over Almaty, waiting for a hole in the clouds and fog.

Then the call came through that potentially gave part of my day back to me.  The Vice President’s plane had tried twice to land in Almaty on Sunday and then diverted to Bishkek.  The intended private lunch with U.S. business people in Kyrgyzstan turned into the breakfast I should have been attending.  So, those lunch guests in Bishkek had also been receiving their phone calls and were suddenly shifting into breakfast mode (probably second breakfast mode).

The night the Vice President landed in Bishkek, the President of the Kyrgyz Republic quickly put on a state dinner for Vice President Gore and his wife Tipper.  It ran until 1:00 a.m.  The Vice President also managed to conduct a town hall-style meeting on television while in Bishkek.

He was coming to Almaty to sign an agreement with Kazakhstan to provide for U. S. assistance in the ultimate destruction of the nuclear weapons arsenal that Kazakhstan inherited from the Soviet Union. Kazakhstan had 100 SS-18 intercontinental ballistic missiles with about 1,400 nuclear warheads, and about 40 nuclear-equipped bombers.

As President Nazarbayev does not tire of telling people, Kazakhstan is the first, and so far only, state to voluntarily relinquish its A-bomb capability.  The agreement provided for the safe, secure transportation, storage and destruction of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction, and to guard against their proliferation.  (Later I learned more about this.  U.S. assistance generally means business for U.S. contractors and, sure enough, the calls soon came in from clients and potential clients in the United States, all claiming to know how to blow buried hardened concrete missile silos to smithereens.)

At the Dostyk’s private dining room, we attendees were seated at the table making polite, maybe nervous conversation, waiting for the Vice President to arrive.  We had no basis for knowing if his continued delay was contrived so as to build up to a grand entrance scenario or if he genuinely was further delayed.  (Do all politicians and elected officials go to great lengths, even contriving, to demonstrate that they are busy?  Rushed?  That thought occurs to me now but it didn’t while sitting at the table in the Dostyk Hotel.)  For all we knew, he was staying at the Dostyk Hotel.  He eventually appeared.

Al Gore is an impressive man.  Physically he is large. Barrel chested may not be the correct term but his physique is such that one could imagine that he was wearing a bullet proof vest under his suit jacket.  I wouldn’t like to sit next to him in economy class on an airplane.  He gave each of us a handshake, a robust handshake.  Memorable.  Of course we were all in awe.  He had a commanding presence, at least to us Americans so far away from home.

During our afternoon meeting over the stale breakfast table, two men with telephone ear plugs hovered near the Vice President, presumably to keep him up to date on the meeting with President Nazarbayev.  President Nazarbayev also must have been obliged to rearrange his schedule to accommodate the U.S. Vice President and the troublesome weather.  I later learned that the Vice President had already spent time with President Nazarbayev.  It took some convincing to persuade the President to sign the agreement, and then the President had to go to the Supreme Soviet (Parliament) to obtain approval.

So we had been warehoused at the Dostyk Hotel until the interval when the Vice President was free while President Nazarbayev bargained with the legislators.

I don’t remember if Ambassador Bill Courtney was in the room but Susan Weidner, the Commercial Attaché, was.  Knowing that a photographer took my photo with the Vice President reminds me that a cameraman must have been part of the entourage.

The Vice President carried on with the meeting as if his caretakers did not exist.  There was no organized speech for us.  Instead, the Vice President put his guests on the firing line.

For his convenience, and ours, all of us had prominent name signs where we were sitting.

The top man from tobacco company Philip Morris Kazakhstan was asked if his company complied in Kazakhstan with U.S. laws on advertising of tobacco products.  I gave the man credit for replying as favorably as he could to a probing question.  Fairly clearly his company was advertizing in accordance with the laws of Kazakhstan without also taking U.S. laws into account. But his reply skirted the issue.

The Vice President moved on.  To the local head of an international telecommunications firm, he asked when the internet was coming to Kazakhstan, and what was his company doing to make it happen.  I didn’t know then that Al Gore was up on technology but it certainly was the case at that time that our idea of fast international communication was to send a fax.  As I recall, the reply was affirmative and definite. Indeed, it wasn’t too long before we enjoyed our first taste of the internet with email messages.  The fax machines were quickly made secondary and then virtually obsolete except for communications with Kazakhstan’s officialdom.

Next was the representative of M-I Drilling.  The Vice President called on him, referring to his company as M-1 Drilling, that is “EM-ONE” Drilling, not “EM-EYE” Drilling.  As in M1 Rifle.  No one corrected him as he said it several time during his question nor during his response to what the representative said.  I knew it was M-I and so did my client’s representative, but, like the others, it didn’t seem to us to be the time nor the place to correct the VEEP.  And to what purpose other than to show him up?

My turn soon came.  I was wondering what piercing question was going to be thrown at me.  I didn’t want to field such questions as “when are you going to straighten out the laws of this country?” Or, “what are you doing about corruption?”  However, I had been coughing during the meeting – as inconspicuously as possible – and was holding back a spasm just when the Vice President might have called on me.

He skipped past me and didn’t return.  Whew.  Or maybe he prefers not to grill lawyers.

When he had completed the circuit of the room, one of his minders whispered something to him and he was swiftly ushered out on his way to see President Nazarbayev. We had been told at the outset that he might be called away at short notice, and now it happened.

Details on the signing of the agreement can be found in a New York Times report, which mentions President Nazarbayev’s need to take a break from the meeting with Vice President Gore in order to obtain Parliament’s approval of the agreement.

I could only admire the Vice President (I lean strongly toward the Democrats so didn’t need a lot of persuading).  Here was a man who had flown over the Atlantic and Europe, ended up in the wrong city, had a late night dinner with the President of the Kyrgyz Republic, conducted a town hall-type meeting, held an early morning meeting with strangers, flew to Almaty, met with more strangers, yet he seemed to know our names without scanning the place names, knew our occupations, and had probing and very apt questions for each of us.  And all the while those guys with bugs in their ears were periodically whispering to him.  Truly an impressive performance, making a memorable occasion for all of us who, if truth be told, probably had better things to do with our time for our businesses that day.  But power and celebrityhood have their own justifications for disrupting life.

The Vice President, accompanied by his wife Tipper, left Almaty on Tuesday, December 14, bound for Moscow where the Vice President was due to attend a meeting of the U.S.-Russian Joint Commission on Cooperation in Energy and Space of which he was co-chairman along with the Russian Prime Minister.

It’s painful to ponder the “what if?” question about Al Gore.  What if he had been elected President of the United States of America instead of George W. Bush?  It’s hard to imagine that Gore would have surrounded himself with people like Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and Paul Wolfowitz, or that he on his own would have thought it appropriate to start a second war in Iraq after the 9/11 attack in New York City, depose Iraq’s strongman, disband the Iraqi army and the Baathist Party, and then abandon the broken state to its own chaotic future while kindling the extremism we see today in the Middle East and beyond.  I take no consolation from the old saying that “we get the government we deserve.”


Book Sales:  Find more stories about Kazakhstan from the 1990s and later in my book, West Meets East in Kazakhstan.  It’s available online in softcover or e-book format from AuthorHouse (the publisher), or Amazon or Barnes & Noble.

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