America's soft power in Kazakhstan

Something smells when a president pulls off reelection with 91 percent of the vote. That happened Sunday in Central Asia's largest country, Kazakhstan. Election monitors dubbed the poll flawed. Yet the US reacted with surprising softness. Why?

If any nation in this dangerous and strategically vital neighborhood ought to be rigorously held to international election standards, it's Kazakhstan.

The most prosperous and stable nation in Central Asia, a Muslim -majority country that practices religious tolerance and free-market principles, this oil gusher is a potential democratic model in the region.

But it's precisely for these attributes that Washington is choosing to see a glass half full in this election, instead of emptying it out with a barrage of criticism. US diplomats acknowledge the vote's shortcomings, but point to this multiethnic giant bordering Russia and China as a democratic work in progress. That long-view emphasis is a wise one.

Sixteen years ago, when Kazakhstan gained independence from the Soviet Union, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev inherited a dirt-poor dumping ground for Soviet populations, gulag camps, and harmful nuclear tests.

Now, it's producing 1.3 million barrels of oil a day (the Kashagan field is bigger than Alaska's North Slope), and is expected to become a top-10 oil exporter within a decade. It's reduced its poverty rate to 12 percent (the regional rate is 44 percent). By sending young people to study in the West, Russia, and China, it's cultivated a talented civil service. And it's one of the best performers in nuclear nonproliferation.

Mr. Nazarbayev is popular. Reliable surveys showed 60-70 percent support for him before the election, and the same range in exit polling. The vote may be inflated, but it reflects popular will. True, the elections were flawed (ballot stuffing, harassment of campaign staff, intimidation of voters). But they were also the most progressive to date, allowing accurate voter registration lists and free media time for the opposition.

Looking ahead, Central Asia is becoming an ever more tense geopolitical battleground over energy and ideology. Islamic jihadists see it as a target to radicalize Muslims; the US, Russia, and China want the oil. The first Kazakh-China pipeline is set to open soon.

Meanwhile, Russia, acting more and more like the old Soviet Union, is circling its regional wagons against popular demand for democracy. The latest country to hitch itself to Moscow's circle: Uzbekistan (which massacred protesters in Andijan in May).

Russia has deep economic and cultural roots in Kazakhstan. It's spreading chilling, anti-US disinformation there amid growing anti-American sentiment.

Nazarbayev promises political, democratic reform. Indeed, that's the only way he can maintain stability and wealth in the long run. But his diplomats also warn the US not to act as the world's "democracy police." Encouragement, not a lecture, please.

In protecting its own strategic and energy interests, and in recognizing Kazakhstan as the main hope for Central Asia, Washington must push for democratic change, explaining why it's in Kazakhstan's interest. But a big stick probably won't work here, and the US seems to recognize that.

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