Cheney Switches From Scowls to Smiles

By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 6, 2006

A day after scolding Russia for retreating on democracy, Vice President Cheney flew to oil-rich Kazakhstan yesterday and lavished praise on the autocratic leader of a former Soviet republic where opposition parties have been banned, newspapers shut down and advocacy groups intimidated.

Cheney stood next to Kazakhstan's longtime president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, in a marble hall of the presidential palace in Astana and congratulated him on his country's vibrant economy. His tone was markedly different from the tenor of his remarks about Russia a day earlier during a stop in Lithuania, when he accused Moscow of violating its citizens' rights and using "intimidation or blackmail" against neighbors.

In the course of a 395-word opening statement, according to a White House transcript, Cheney pronounced himself "delighted" to be a guest of Nazarbayev, saying "I consider him my friend" and adding that "the United States is proud to count Kazakhstan as a friend." Cheney professed "great respect" for Nazarbayev and said that "we are proud to be your strategic partner" and look forward "to continued friendship between us."

Asked about Kazakhstan's human rights record, he expressed "admiration for all that's been accomplished here in Kazakhstan" and confidence that it will continue.

Kazakhstan, however, remains a repressive nation, ruled by a former Communist apparatchik who has maintained a tight grip over its 15 million people since Soviet days and parlayed its massive energy reserves into a place on the international stage. Those reserves, human rights advocates say, have earned the country a pass from the Bush administration on human rights.

Nazarbayev, 65, a onetime blast-furnace operator in a steel mill, was a member of the Soviet Politburo who took over as head of the republic of Kazakhstan in 1990, became president after independence in 1991, and has stayed in office through elections that have been judged neither free nor fair by international monitors -- the most recent in December, when he claimed 91 percent of the vote.

The opposition party Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan was liquidated last year, and authorities refused to register two other opposition parties. Two opposition leaders died from gunshot wounds -- the circumstances are contested -- in recent months. The government has closed newspapers and seized print runs while using tax, immigration and other investigations to harass nongovernmental organizations. It is illegal to insult Nazarbayev or to report on his health, finances or private life.

"During the year almost all media outlets willing to criticize the president directly were subjected to intimidation, often in the form of law enforcement actions or civil suits," the State Department's annual human rights report stated in March.

Nazarbayev has been accused of massive corruption. His own prime minister revealed in 2002 that Nazarbayev had stashed $1 billion in oil money in a secret Swiss bank account. Aides called it a legitimate "special reserve account." U.S. prosecutors have also charged American businessman James H. Giffen with laundering tens of millions of dollars in oil company bribes to Nazarbayev and his family, allegations the Kazakh president denies.

Oil has dominated U.S. relations with Kazakhstan for years. With the largest crude oil reserves in the Caspian Sea region, Kazakhstan pumps 1.2 million barrels a day and exports 1 million of that, making it an increasingly important international supplier. With foreign investment flooding into the country, the Kazakh government hopes to boost production to 3.5 million barrels a day by 2015, rivaling Iran.

But human rights groups that hailed Cheney's comments on Russia said Kazakhstan deserved the same. "It is hardly consistent," said Curt Goering, deputy executive director of Amnesty International. "He made some important remarks [on Russia]. He said some of the right things that needed to be said. But he should have said some similar things in Kazakhstan."

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