Oil Wealth Colors the U.S. Push for Democracy
The White House Makes Overtures In Asia and Africa

By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 14, 2006

The photographs posted on the White House Web site tell the story. On April 28, President Bush had a busy day of meetings. There's a photograph of the president looking eye to eye with little Kim Han Mee, the daughter of North Korean defectors. There's a snapshot of the president greeting Sakie Yokata, representing Japanese abducted by North Korea. There's another photo of the president sitting in the Roosevelt Room meeting with Darfur advocates, including former slave Simon Deng.

And then there's a picture of Bush welcoming President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan to the Oval Office.

Bush said he talked about the "wave of democracy" with a leader who had recently overseen parliamentary elections that human rights advocates had criticized as deeply flawed. But Bush also lauded "the vision of the president in helping this world achieve what we all want, which is energy security."

With energy prices soaring, the administration's campaign to spread democracy has taken a detour in some countries. Azerbaijan and neighboring Kazakhstan have the kinds of human rights records that usually would deny them high-level U.S. attention. But they also have vast oil and gas reserves -- and are key players in a global scramble for energy against the Russians.

Vice President Cheney, for instance, blasted Russian commitment to democracy internally and on its borders when he made a swing through Europe and Central Asia this month. But one day later he was in Astana, the Kazakh capital, where he praised the country for the progress it has made since the fall of the Soviet Union -- even though by all accounts its human rights record is worse than Russia's.

Asked about Kazakhstan's human rights record, Cheney expressed "admiration for all that's been accomplished here in Kazakhstan." The State Department's annual human rights report has decried the rule of the longtime president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, saying dissent is suppressed, journalists harassed and power concentrated in the presidency.

Similarly, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice last month warmly greeted Teodoro Obiang Nguema, the president of Equatorial Guinea, as a "good friend" in Washington, even though he was reelected with 97 percent of the vote in 2002 and a Senate investigation two years later found that he and his wife had accounts worth $13 million in the Riggs National Bank while most of his fellow citizens live on less than a dollar a day. Since offshore oil reserves were discovered in 1995, the country has become the third-largest oil exporter in sub-Saharan Africa and a major player in oil exploration.

"It was pretty surprising he got such a warm welcome in Washington," said Jennifer G. Cooke, co-director of the Africa program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. She said there is "zero space for political dissent" in the country, but that if the United States did not pursue the oil, "there are plenty of others who would jump into our spot."

Tom Malinowski, Washington advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, said the administration risks adding to worldwide cynicism about its democracy push by carving out such exceptions for energy-rich nations.

"The administration's big problem is that even when they are sincere in promoting human rights and freedom, much of the world does not believe them," he said. "When the vice president appropriately criticizes Russia one day and praises Kazakhstan the next, it contributes to that cynical view of U.S. policy."

Administration officials concede that democratic progress has been uneven, at best, in these countries, but they say even haphazard attempts must be encouraged. "We have no litmus test on democracy," said one senior administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak more freely. "Why would we freeze out these guys forever?" he asked, when U.S. officials believe that engagement holds out the possibility of encouraging democratic progress.

The official noted that Azerbaijan is suspended "between an authoritarian past and greater democracy" and that the elections, while "not good enough," included some elements that were unprecedented. "We want to maintain positive movement, as modest as that may be," he said. As for Cheney's remarks on Kazakhstan, he said the "tone is different than Russia because Kazakhstan is not behaving externally like Russia."

In Central Asia, the official argued, the United States has three sets of interests -- energy, regional security and internal reform -- and they must be viewed together. "You could hammer on democracy," he said, but he asserted that would make it more difficult to build up energy investment and revenue, which in turn would make it hard to keep up the push for reform.

U.S. officials are pressing the case for a natural gas pipeline being built from Baku, the Azerbaijani capital, to Turkey. U.S. officials, who became alarmed when Russia earlier this year shut off gas to Ukraine in a pricing dispute, believe it is the last chance to give European countries an alternative route for energy. U.S. officials also are encouraging Kazakhstan, which is across the Caspian Sea from Baku, to link to the pipeline.

Another U.S. official made the case that building a gas pipeline that weakens Russia's monopoly will also help struggling democracies, especially Ukraine -- which has been economically hurt by that monopoly -- and Georgia, which the pipeline crosses.

Some analysts were sympathetic to the administration's arguments but questioned whether the administration, having opted to emphasize energy, will really see much performance on democracy.

"Officials have convinced themselves that through engagement they will encourage these countries to open up," said Cory Welt, deputy director of the Russia and Eurasia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "The governments in question know they have considerable leverage. If they don't respond, they know there is not much the U.S. can do about it."

Zeyno Baran, director of the Center for Eurasian Policy at the Hudson Institute, said, "This is a new approach; this has not been tried before." But she said Russia and China are not going to emphasize democratic issues and will simply lock up markets now if the United States does not act first.

"The bottom line is that only the United States and, to a degree, Europeans are going to push these countries in a reform direction," Baran said. "Russia, through its energy deals and buying off people, is creating no conditions for reform."

Malinowski of Human Rights Watch agreed there is "a strong case to be made" that helping to develop the energy sectors of the Central Asia countries would be good for their internal political development. But he said that did not mean democracy should be deemphasized. "The Azerbaijanis are not going to turn their backs on a lucrative pipeline deal because President Bush has asked them to hold clean elections," he said.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company