Oil - or rights - in Central Asia?

Kazakstan held controversial elections Sunday. Critics say USdid not do enough for democracy.

Kazakstan is the world's eighth largest country and could be its richest per capita if its oil and mining potential were fully tapped. The former Soviet republic is thought to harbor fantastic oil deposits in the Caspian Sea. Its location between Russia and China make it a useful ally to any major power. So useful, in fact, that the world's remaining superpower may be willing to overlook a decided lack of democracy. That's exactly what human rights groups accuse the US of doing. They say that despite a sharp protest about elections on Jan. 10, widely considered unfair, Washington has been soft on President Nursultan Nazarbayev so as not to jeopardize oil deals worth billions of dollars. "The US has a lot of diplomatic means to influence Kazakstan," says Yevgeny Zhovtis, director of the Kazakstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law, based in Almaty. "But [Washington] was more interested in the economic sphere than human rights and democracy. They decided to overlook small violations of human rights and this gave President Nazarbayev the impression he could do what he wanted," he says. Official results from the vote gave the president more than 80 percent support, electing him to another seven-year term. An oasis of stability Under Nazarbayev's steerage, this Central Asian state has been an oasis of stability in a region otherwise known for Islamic fundamentalism and totalitarianism. Despite widespread poverty in this nation of 16 million people, he remains popular. The former steelworker turned Communist party boss has led Kazakstan since the Soviet collapse in 1991, winning plaudits from the West for his privatization reforms and friendliness to the likes of Chevron and Mobil. Crackdown on dissent He started out fairly tolerant of dissent. But the opposition says Nazarbayev began to crack down four years ago, and Washington was slow to react to harassment of critics. There have been increasing numbers of beatings of opposition members and independent journalists. Tax police have bullied independent media, while control of broadcasting has moved more into the hands of the government and Nazarbayev's daughter. The US, which has spent $55 million since 1992 on supporting political and legal reforms in Kazakstan, insists that democratization is a priority. State Department officials assert that there is no contradiction between advocating political reform while securing pipelines for Kazakstan that would ensure its economic stability. Indisputable was the State Department's displeasure over the election, which spokesman James Rubin said failed to meet international standards of fairness. US signals displeasure "The conduct of these elections has set back the process of democratization in Kazakstan and has made more difficult the development of the important relationship between our two countries," Mr. Rubin said in a Jan. 11 statement. But for Nazarbayev's critics, deeds, not words, were needed. "I don't think the American government did everything possible," says Amirzhan Kosanov, spokesman of former Prime Minister Akezhan Kazhegeldin. Now the main opposition leader, he was barred as a candidate on a minor legal technicality. Concern by the West came to a head when Nazabayev brought elections forward by two years, giving the opposition scant time to campaign. The disqualifying of Kazhegeldin, intimidation of voters, and unequal media access were slammed by Washington and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. In a sign of protest, the OSCE decided not to send official international observers to the election and has refused to recognize the results. Consternation boiled into outrage when a Kazak employee of the US embassy, who served as a liaison with human rights groups, was badly beaten Dec. 22 by what were widely assumed to have been progovernment attackers. Enlisting the US press The importance of the US was clear to both Kazhegeldin and Nazarbayev, who hired American public relations experts and lobbyists to campaign as actively in Washington as in Kazakstan. While Kazhegeldin's Washington advisers showered faxes on the American press about abuses back home, Nazarbayev took out a full page ad in The New York Times and enlisted the help of a consultancy firm, Western Strategy Group, to press his case. Nazarbayev had already won the hearts and minds of oil companies enthusiastic about the stable business climate he created. When asked about Nazarbayev's non-democratic tendencies, American oil executives murmured that they like to remain above politics. "We try to be neutral," says Phil Meek, president of Chevron Munaigas Inc. The company is helping build a pipeline to Russia and develop the huge Tengiz oil field, whose reserves are estimated at 10 billion barrels. Judy Thompson, coordinator of the OSCE's local assessment mission, said authorities had used the country's lack of freedom of assembly to intimidate opposition groups and had in many cases openly backed Nazarbayev's campaign. Still, she believes there wasn't much more the international community could have done. Next big test Thompson says the next big test will be parliamentary and local elections later this year. Signs are that the president believes the power of oil will continue to insulate him from Western criticism. "There has not been a change so far [in relations with the US]," says his press secretary Lev Tarakov, making more than a passing reference to direct foreign investment worth $2 billion over the past five years. "A lot of American companies like the conditions here," he says. [Speaking this week to reporters in Astana, a remote city on Kazakstan's northern steppes which became the capital a little more than a year ago, Nazarbayev called the vote "historic" and "a step toward democracy," according to the Reuters news service.] [He pledged to "carry out reforms" to overcome effects of the global financial crisis on Kazakstan, "strive toward a democratic society, combat corruption, provide for mass media freedom, and people's social protection."] [Nazarbayev gave a vote of confidence to his prime minister, Nurlan Balgimbayev, ahead of what promises to be a tough year.] [Some investors had been hoping to see Mr. Balgimbayev go in favor of a more reformist figure but others were glad he was staying.] ["Both internal and external investors, including large Western banks and international financial institutions, are now gaining confidence ahead of the next seven years," said Aidar Akhmetov, deputy head of Kazkommertsbank, the country's biggest.]

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