U.S. rolls out red carpet for controversial Kazakh leader

Kazakhstan's authoritarian president Nursultan Nazarbayev touted himself as poster boy of a Washington summit on nuclear disarmament Monday -- and President Barack Obama, badly needing allies in Central Asia, was his main fan.

Posters of a smiling Nazarbayev hung prominently on advertising boards around Washington, where leaders of 47 countries were attending a summit on securing the world's loose nukes.

After a one-hour meeting with Obama on Sunday, the Kazakh strongman, who has been in power since his energy-rich state emerged from the 1991 Soviet collapse, has plenty to smile about.

Washington holds up Kazakhstan, which voluntarily ceded its portion of the Soviet nuclear arsenal, as an example of a country benefiting from what Obama says should be the world's ultimate goal: full nuclear disarmament.

Nazarbayev explains on the posters that his vast, sparsely populated nation gave up the inherited nuclear arsenal because atomic testing during the Soviet period had sickened 1.5 million people.

"That's why we got rid of our nuclear arsenal, the world's fourth largest. And that is why we call on the world to follow our example. There is no other way to build a safer world," the poster quotes Nazarbayev saying.

White House advisor Mike McFaul said Obama described Nazarbayev as "one of the model leaders" on nuclear safety issues and said that the Washington summit wouldn't have happened "without his presence."

"By giving up nuclear weapons they went from a country that might have been isolated had they kept those nuclear weapons, and in turn was open to the international economy," McFaul said.

On the sensitive topic of democracy, Obama was more than understanding.

"Both Presidents agreed that it?s never -- you don?t ever reach democracy, you always have to work at it," McFaul said. "President Obama reminded his Kazakh counterpart that we, too, are working to improve our democracy."

Nazarbayev doesn't always get such warm treatment abroad.

Though not considered as repressive as the leaders of Central Asia's Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, Nazarbayev has rigged elections for almost two decades and crushed media freedom, Western watchdogs say.

His country remains almost unknown to ordinary people in the West beyond the satirical send-up in the hit comedy film "Borat," about a bumbling Kazakh journalist.

But reasons are mounting why Nazarbayev matters.

The violent overthrow of the government in neighboring Kyrgyzstan, where the United States has a military base, sharply highlighted the importance of politically stable Kazakhstan as an access route to Afghanistan.

During their meeting, Obama and Nazarbayev strengthened that route by agreeing on overflight rights for US military aircraft coming over the North Pole and directly south into Afghanistan -- a significant shortcut for US-based planes.

"This will save money, it will save time, in terms of moving our troops and the supplies needed into the theater, as President Obama has already announced," McFaul said.

Less immediate, but of equally strategic importance, is Kazakhstan's emerging role as an energy source, both in its huge oil reserves and its ambition -- despite the non-nuclear stance -- of being the world's top producer of uranium.

"The presidents reconfirmed the importance of the long-term energy partnership between the two countries," a joint statement said. "The United States welcomed Kazakhstan?s emergence as the top global uranium producer as an important development for diversification of global energy supply."

Kazakh Ambassador Erlan Idrissov listed a host of issues -- nuclear non-proliferation, energy, Afghanistan, relations with Russia and China, and anti-terrorism -- that he said make US-Kazakh relations "very important."

"Over the first years of emergence, people didn't realize who we are and what we are," he told journalists Monday.

But "Kazakhstan was there for millennia and will continue to be there for millennia."

Source: AFP American Edition

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