Kazakhstan is a strategic partner of the United States. But official restrictions on Kazakh media, non-governmental organizations and opposition groups reveal a potential conflict between U.S. relations with the Central Asian nation and America's commitment to democracy. VOA's Peter Fedynsky examines this issue ahead of a September 29th meeting between President Bush and Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev.
Before visiting Kazakhstan in early May, Vice President Dick Cheney criticized Russia for backsliding on democracy and using energy to gain political advantage over its neighbors.
Mr. Cheney's remarks contrasted with praise the following day for Kazakhstan, another Eurasian energy giant. "America has tremendous confidence in your future as a successful, independent, sovereign and prosperous nation. Kazakhstan also has a vital role to play in ensuring prosperity, stability and peace across Central Asia.
Critics, however, point to a discrepancy between Mr. Cheney's tribute to Kazakhstan and some of that country's political practices, which are said to be undemocratic.
Martha Brill Olcott analyses Central Asian issues at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, D.C. She says, "They have passed restrictive laws on non-governmental organizations, the new media law is very problematic from the point of view of independent media, so it's quite clear that they could do more. Their elections have improved over time, but they don't meet international standards of free and fair elections."
Olcott says voting in Kazakhstan is relatively clean, but adds that opposition candidates have been denied access to media, their campaign rallies have been disrupted and some were allegedly beaten.
President Nazarbayev implicitly recognizes democratic shortcomings, saying his country will implement reforms. "We are turning a new page in the political development of our country, which means liberalization of society. To do so, we are creating a National Commission that will consist of all political forces in our country."
Asylbeck Kozhakmetov, a member of the Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan Party says the opposition is trying to change the country's political system. "We would like to increase power of parliament and limit power of president, we would like to bring free elections, free media and elections of governors of Kazakhstan regions, and elections of court to Kazakhstan."
Mr. Nazarbayev and members of his government are also accused of corruption. His name is implicated in a current U.S. court case in which an indictment was issued against American businessman James Giffen for allegedly bribing the Kazakh leader to obtain oil concessions on behalf of American clients.
The Bush administration's warm embrace of Mr. Nazarbayev has prompted charges of hypocrisy against President Bush who launched an initiative last month to combat international kleptocracy, or rule by thieves.
Martha Brill Olcott says the hypocrisy charge involves the 1990s when post-Soviet elites accumulated their wealth. "One of the things that the Kazakh elite has learned is how to take their money and make it transparent. And so it's a very difficult question. If you say, 'The president shouldn't see people who made their money in kleptocratic ways,' then yes, it's hypocritical. But virtually all fortunes in post-Soviet space were made in kleptocratic ways."
Last year, President Nazarbayev told an American reporter, "It's up to you if I meet your definition of dictator." The statement came during a news conference with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who noted she was speaking on camera with Mr. Nazarbayev about the need for free elections and free media access for Kazakhstan's political opposition.