By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 30, 2010; 2:47 PM
ASTANA, KAZAKHSTAN - Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton opened her three-nation tour of Central Asia here Tuesday promoting the role of civil society and dissent in a largely authoritarian region, but she was still feeling reverberations from the WikiLeaks disclosure of State Department documents.
Among the more embarrassing cables unearthed by the online whistle-blowers was a lengthy 2008 account by a U.S. Embassy official based in Kazakhstan's capital, Astana, detailing the rulers' proclivity for heavy drinking and hard partying and their fanatical love of horses. The officials wrote that Kazakh leaders "are able to indulge in their hobbies on a grand scale, whether flying Elton John to Kazakhstan for a concert or trading domestic property for a palace in the United Arab Emirates," an apparent reference to President Nursultan Nazarbayev hiring the singer to perform at a birthday party for his son-in-law.
The publicity surrounding the cable could make for awkward conversation when Clinton holds a planned meeting with Nazarbayev on Wednesday before attending a summit of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. This is the first time Kazakhstan has hosted such an important international event, and Nazarbayev - who has been president since the country was formed after the Soviet breakup in 1991 - has spared no effort to demonstrate that the oil-rich nation is capable of becoming a regional player.
The cache of diplomatic cables was also a hot topic among a group of female activists as they waited to meet privately with the secretary. "It is very entertaining reading," said Aigul Solovyeva, a lawmaker, adding that most educated people would not find much to surprise them in the documents.
Zauresh Battalova, head of a group advocationg greater powers for parliament, said the breadth of the issues covered by the cables was "another confirmation of U.S. leadership on global and international issues."
Clinton last visited in Kazakhstan in 1997, when she was first lady, and several activists said that trip unleashed efforts to give women here a greater voice and "a new way of thinking." Women head three of the country's 14 ministries.
In a speech and a question-and-answer session, Clinton stepped gently around the issue of rights and freedoms in Kazakhstan, where insulting the president still is a criminal offense. When one questioner asked her to confirm that Kazakhstan is a "modern, confident state which is open and democratic," Clinton demurred.
She said the country has made "remarkable progress, especially in the economic sphere" but added, "I know there are still many issues that not satisfying people."
Moments later, another questioner stood up to complain that her husband, a journalist, had been jailed and denied access to a lawyer for weeks.