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Slow Progress on Reforms in Kazakhstan

President Bush and Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev met at the White House late this week. While there were no major announcements, the meeting underscored Kazakhstan's strategic relationship with the United States. But official restrictions on Kazakh media, non-governmental organizations and opposition political groups reveal what come see as a conflict between U.S. relations with the Central Asian nation and America's commitment to democracy.

It was only Nursultan Nazarbayev's second visit to the White House since 2001. But Kazakhstan's geo-political importance in Central Asia has not been downplayed by the Bush administration.

Before visiting Kazakhstan earlier this year, Vice President Dick Cheney strongly criticized Russia for backsliding on democracy and using energy to gain political advantage over its neighbors.

The following day, Mr. Cheney's remarks about Kazakhstan, another oil-rich nation, were a sharp contrast.

"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," said Vice President Cheney.

Rule by Elites

Critics, however, point to a discrepancy between Mr. Cheney's remarks and many of Kazakhstan's political practices, which human rights monitoring groups frequently cite as undemocratic.

Martha Brill Olcott, an expert on Kazakhstan at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace here in Washington 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 is 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."

Robert Cutler with the Institute of European and Russian Studies at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, "The thing to understand about Kazakhstan is that there is political pluralism. But it is extremely restricted to a relatively not very numerous political elite. There have been opposition movements within this political elite, trying to liberalize things for the simple purpose of economic rationality. And the political conflict is really amongst this political elite. The mere fact that someone you know [as a fellow political elite] can be found murdered creates a little uncertainty and it makes people uneasy. [Opposition leader and former Information Minister Altynbek Sarsenbaev was murdered in February 2006.] There's a sense that something has got to change. But as is often the case, things are not going to change much so long as the autocrat [,Nursultan Nazarbayev,] is still in place."

While most analysts say voting in recent Kazakh elections was relatively free and fair -- compared to other Central Asian nations -- they are quick to point out that opposition candidates have been denied access to media, their campaign rallies have been disrupted and some were allegedly beaten.

President Nazarbayev says he recognizes his country's democratic shortcomings and pledges to 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 courts to Kazakhstan."

Oil and Corruption

Nursultan Nazarbayev and members of his government are also accused of corruption. He is named in a U.S. court case in which an American businessman is charged with bribing the Kazakh leader to obtain oil concessions on behalf of U.S. companies.

America's warm embrace of Kazakhstan's president has prompted charges of hypocrisy against the Bush administration, which last month launched an initiative to combat international kleptocracy, or rule by thieves.

The Carnegie Endowment's Martha Brill Olcott says the controversy shouldn't be surprising, but that corruption in the region is not limited to Kazakhstan.

"One of the things that the Kazakh elite has learned is how to take their money and make it transparent [i.e., hide their money]. And so it is 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 the post-Soviet space were made in kleptocratic ways," says Olcott.

Situated between Russia and China, and with huge oil reserves, Kazakhstan has the potential to become a strategic trading partner with the United States. But according to political scientist Gregory Gleason at the University of New Mexico, there are also other factors to consider.

"It's a country that's primarily a Muslim country and it's a very moderate Muslim country. The success of Kazakhstan could stand as a kind of model for other Muslim countries around the world of the kinds of benefits, the kinds of prosperity, that are possible if a country does eschew and avoid the kinds of extremist movements that are characteristic of other countries throughout the Muslim world," says Gleason.

And that, many experts say, is an important reason for the United States and the West to pursue a course of constructive engagement with Nursultan Nazarbayev's Kazakhstan.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.

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    Victor Morales

    Victor Morales is Senior Analyst for the Voice of America, where he has reported on U.S. and international affairs for more than two decades.  He is the former head of VOA’s Focus New Analysis Unit and VOA Learning English.  He also hosted the agency’s premier public affairs talk shows, Encounter and Press Conference, USA, and anchored the leading English news program, VOA News Now.