Bush: Kazkhstan “free nation”

We almost wet our pants laughing a few years back when Exxon took out an ad on the New York Times op-ed page praising the despotism of Kazakhstan’s Nursultan Nazarbayev as a “democracy.” But these days Bush is writing much better material. So is Thomas Friedman of the New York Times, who recently got hot under the collar about “petro-authoritarians” taking Uncle Sam for a ride. He singled out Chavez and Ahmadinejad (of course), but Nazarbayev seems to have escaped his ire. Why is that, we wonder? From the New York Times, Sept. 29 (emphasis added):

Bush and Kazakh Leader Play Up Partnership
WASHINGTON — President Bush took another step in his delicate foreign policy waltz with the authoritarian government of Kazakhstan on Friday, praising the oil-rich Central Asian country as “a free nation” while welcoming its president, Nursultan A. Nazarbayev, to the White House for lunch.

During a brief joint appearance in the Oval Office, Mr. Bush said the two presidents pledged to “support the forces of moderation throughout the world,” while Mr. Nazarbayev, speaking through a translator, reiterated his commitment to ridding his country of nuclear weapons and said the two nations had “truly become close partners.”

Neither man mentioned the sore points in that partnership: the absence of free elections in Kazakhstan, which became an independent state in 1991; state restrictions on the news media; and its recent decision to shut down two prominent American democracy organizations — a move that American officials are trying to reverse.

“We talked about our commitment to institutions that will enable liberty to flourish,” Mr. Bush said. “I have watched very carefully the development of this important country from one that was in the Soviet sphere to one that is now a free nation.”

Despite that transition, Kazakhstan also poses a diplomatic challenge for President Bush, who has made promoting democracy a central component of his foreign policy. On Friday morning, in his latest speech on fighting terrorism, Mr. Bush touted his efforts to build a free nation in Afghanistan and to push Pakistan toward free elections.

The White House views Kazakhstan, a state that has abundant oil and gas reserves and whose population is predominately Muslim, as a critical ally in promoting economic stability and security in that region. One-third of all foreign investment in Kazakhstan comes from the United States, and administration officials say the country has also been a strategic partner in Iraq and Afghanistan. It has a small ordnance removal team working in Iraq, and has given the United States fly-over rights so that military planes can take equipment to Afghanistan.

An administration official, granted anonymity to talk about the meeting, said “the issue of democracy was raised” during the visit. The leaders later put out a joint statement in which they agreed to “reaffirm the importance of democratic development” in institutions such as an independent news media and free and fair elections.

“They’re moving in the right direction,” the official said, “and we think that bringing them in close will give us greater prospects of expecting quicker progress.”

Mr. Bush invited Mr. Nazarbayev to a small lunch rather than holding a state dinner — a sign that Kazakhstan’s leader is working his way into the president’s inner foreign policy circle, but is not all the way there.

DPA informs us Sept. 28 that the two organizations shut down in July are the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs and the International Republican Institute. There is probably a split in the administration between the hardcore neocons who would like to see Nazarbayev destabilized and the State Department and petro-oligarch pragmatists who are quite happy with him as long as he remains “our son of a bitch.” Meanwhile, New York’s Trotskyist weekly The Militant informs us Oct. 9 that 8,000 Kazakh coal miners are on strike to demand safer working conditions after a massive explosion killed 41 workers Sept. 20 at the country’s Lenin mine (which amazingly hasn’t been renamed yet). Why didn’t we read about that in the New York Times?

See our last posts on Kazakhstan and the politics of Central Asia.

  1. Praise for Nazabayev
    One trend that fascinates me is the new fashion for post-Soviet authoritarians to host high-level “interfaith” conferences as a way to bolster their reputations (and to take pot-shots at the immorality of Western freedoms). Putin held one in July in Moscow, and his probable successor has just finished chairing one in Rhodes. But the most OTT event was in Astana last month, inside a giant glass pyramid which Nazarbayev had commissioned from Norman Foster. The delegates heaped lavish praise on Nazabayev: one of Israel’s chief rabbis compared him to Abraham, while the former President of the International Islamic University of Pakistan said that he ought to get a Nobel prize.