By Robin Paxton
ALMATY (Reuters) - Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev has appointed his long-serving ambassador to the United States as foreign minister to help the oil-rich country to forge stronger economic ties with the West.
Yerlan Idrisov, 53, was reappointed to the post he held between 1999 and 2002 before embarking on consecutive five-year stints as ambassador to Britain and the United States.
Nazarbayev is an ardent supporter of plans by Russian President Vladimir Putin to establish closer economic and political ties between former Soviet states; a "Eurasian Union" to recoup the potential lost when the Soviet empire collapsed.
But Friday's appointment of Idrisov to run foreign policy, utilizing the contacts and experience gained from a decade working in Western capitals, helps Nazarbayev to allay possible concerns in Washington and the European Union that Kazakhstan might be turning its back on the West, analysts said.
"We need to be pragmatic. This includes reinforcing our embassies in those countries with which we have serious economic contacts and interests," Nazarbayev said while introducing Idrisov to ministry staff.
The president is also keen to look at making business investments in the West. "We have reached the point where we have the opportunity to invest abroad. If the need is there, we can become shareholders in high-tech companies," he said in comments on the presidential website.
Idrisov's switch comes as 72-year-old Nazarbayev, who was a member of the last Soviet Politburo, guides his country towards a Eurasian Union based on an existing three-way customs union with Russia and Belarus
"With Kazakhstan participating in the Eurasian Union, this appointment was required to balance foreign policy in a Western direction," political analyst Andrei Chebotaryov said.
Nazarbayev has ruled Kazakhstan throughout its two decades of independence from the Soviet Union. During that time the nation, a majority Muslim country of 17 million people stretching from the Caspian Sea to China, has carefully balanced its foreign policy between the West and surrounding powers.
Western oil majors and, more recently, Chinese state-owned companies have contributed a large part of the more than $150 billion of foreign investment Kazakhstan has received over the period. Kazakhstan is the biggest former Soviet oil producer after Russia.
A former colleague of Idrisov's, who asked not to be identified, described the new minister as a "hands-on" diplomat who had developed many contacts in London and Washington.
"He wouldn't be shy to take off his jacket and roll up his sleeves during negotiations," he said. Idrisov, a fluent English speaker, also worked as a Soviet diplomat in Pakistan in the 1980s and speaks Urdu.
Previous Kazakh foreign ministers have been appointed with specific policy goals in mind. Idrisov's predecessor, Yerzhan Kazykhanov, was an Arabic specialist appointed in part to oversee Kazakhstan's chairmanship of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, which ends this year.
Kazykhanov was appointed presidential adviser on Friday.
(Editing by David Goodman)