By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 29, 2006
President Bush launched an initiative this month to combat international kleptocracy, the sort of high-level corruption by foreign officials that he called "a grave and corrosive abuse of power" that "threatens our national interest and violates our values." The plan, he said, would be "a critical component of our freedom agenda."
Three weeks later, the White House is making arrangements to host the leader of Kazakhstan, an autocrat who runs a nation that is anything but free and who has been accused by U.S. prosecutors of pocketing the bulk of $78 million in bribes from an American businessman. Not only will President Nursultan Nazarbayev visit the White House, people involved say, but he also will travel to the Bush family compound in Maine.
Nazarbayev's upcoming visit, according to analysts and officials, offers a case study in the competing priorities of the Bush administration at a time when the president has vowed to fight for democracy and against corruption around the globe. Nazarbayev has banned opposition parties, intimidated the press and profited from his post, according to the U.S. government. But he also sits atop massive oil reserves that have helped open doors in Washington.
Nazarbayev is hardly the only controversial figure received at the top levels of the Bush administration. In April, the president welcomed to the Oval Office the president of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev, who has been accused of rigging elections. And Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice hosted Teodoro Obiang Nguema, the president of Equatorial Guinea, who has been found to have millions of dollars stashed in overseas bank accounts.
But the Kazakh leader has received especially warm treatment, given that the same government that will host him next month plans to go to trial in federal court in January to prove that he was paid off in the 1990s by a U.S. banker seeking to influence oil rights. Although the banker faces prison time, Nazarbayev has not been charged and has called the allegations illegitimate.
In addition to Nazarbayev's upcoming visit, Vice President Cheney went to the former Soviet republic in May to praise him as a friend, a trip that drew criticism because it came the day after Cheney criticized Russia for retreating from democracy. The latest invitation has sparked outrage among Kazakh opposition.
"It raises the question of how serious is the determination to fight kleptocracy," said Rinat Akhmetshin, director of the International Eurasian Institute, who works for Kazakh opposition. "Nazarbayev is a symbol of kleptocracy . . . and yet they are bringing him in. That sends a very clear signal to people inside Kazakhstan who are very well aware that he stole money from them."
The White House declined to comment because it has not yet officially announced the visit, but Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Evan Feigenbaum was in Kazakhstan last week working out details, and Kazakh officials said the trip will take place in late September. A spokesman for former president George H.W. Bush confirmed that Nazarbayev will visit Kennebunkport as part of his U.S. stay. "An old friend of his was in the U.S. and he extended an invitation," Bush spokesman Tom Frechette said.
An administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the invitation has not been announced, said President Bush often meets with leaders of countries "that are not yet democracies" and uses the time to push for more freedom. "We've always been frank in our discussions with government officials from Kazakhstan about our concerns about lack of democratic movement, and we always press them for democratic reform," the official said.
Kazakhstan, a vast nation of 15 million on the Central Asian steppe, has emerged as an increasingly important player in the world energy market. 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. The Kazakh government hopes to boost production to 3.5 million barrels a day by 2015, rivaling Iran. U.S. and Russian companies and governments have competed for access to its oil.
Nazarbayev, 66, a blast-furnace operator-turned-Communist functionary, has led Kazakhstan since 1990, when it was part of the Soviet Union, and has since won a series of tainted elections. His government has banned or refused to register opposition parties, closed newspapers and harassed advocacy groups. Two opposition leaders were found dead of gunshots in disputed circumstances.
But the Bush administration considers Nazarbayev a friendly, stable moderate in a region of harsher, sometimes hostile dictators and has been hopeful he will open up and cleanse his government. The Kazakh government under Nazarbayev recently embarked on an anti-corruption campaign that has resulted in arrests of mid-level officials.
"I really do think he has learned how to be clean," said Martha Brill Olcott, a Kazakhstan specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "He has learned a lot more about how you can promote to some degree divestiture [of assets]. Most of his holdings are, I wouldn't say transparent, but they're more so."
Others aren't sure. "When the United States is transparently soft on friendly dictators like Nazarbayev, it undermines the effort to be tough on not-so-friendly dictators," said Tom Malinowski of Human Rights Watch.
Transparency International, an anti-corruption organization, ranks Kazakhstan 2.6 on a 10-point scale, placing it 107th out of 159 countries graded. That's a decline from a 3.0 grade and 65th place in 2000.
"You don't have free elections, and the press is pretty much controlled by his family, and a significant portion of assets in Kazakhstan are directly or indirectly controlled by his family," said Miklos Marschall, the group's regional director. "But on the other hand, unlike other Central Asian countries, he is willing to initiate some step-by-step reforms. From our perspective, he's not the worst."
Nazarbayev visited the Bush White House in 2001 -- before the Justice Department filed a case in 2003 alleging that he had taken bribes and before the president issued a 2004 proclamation banning corrupt foreign officials from visiting the United States. A State Department official said hundreds of foreign officials have been denied visas under Bush's proclamation but could not explain how it would not apply in Nazarbayev's case.
U.S. prosecutors have charged businessman James H. Giffen with steering $78 million in bribes to Nazarbayev and one of his former prime ministers in the 1990s in exchange for influence in oil transactions. In addition to cash transferred to secret Swiss bank accounts, Nazarbayev, originally identified in court papers simply as "KO-2," allegedly received two snowmobiles, an $80,000 speedboat, fur coats for his wife and daughter, and tuition for his daughter at a Swiss boarding school and later George Washington University.
Giffen's attorneys have argued that he is not guilty because his actions were sanctioned by the U.S. government. Giffen says he disclosed his activities to agencies including the CIA and was encouraged to continue for national security reasons. The Justice Department is appealing a court decision allowing the defense. The case is scheduled to go to trial Jan. 16.