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Kazakhstan's no joke

September 29, 2006

KAZAKHSTAN PRESIDENT Nursultan Nazarbayev's visit with President Bush today has generated a good deal of attention, mostly for the wrong reasons. The government of Kazakhstan has been buying newspaper advertisements and TV commercials as part of a misguided PR blitz to show that the country isn't really the anti-Semitic, homophobic, sexist backwater that comedian Sacha Baron Cohen -- in the character of a Kazakh journalist named Borat Sagdiyev -- portrays it to be. Kazakhs' primary hobbies are not, as he says, "disco dancing, archery, rape and table tennis." Really.

It's not clear whether this advertising blitz has changed anyone's opinion about Kazakhstan (although it has certainly been a publicity boon for Cohen and his upcoming film). Not too many Westerners, including Cohen, have ever been to Kazakhstan, a country bigger than all of Western Europe but with a population only about 1 1/2 times that of Los Angeles County, making it the perfect blank slate for satire.

Yet there are few nations more strategically important to the United States than Kazakhstan. Its mineral resources are vast; by 2015, it is expected to account for nearly as much oil production as Iran. It is a stable U.S. ally in a region marked by shaky friends, rivals and foes, such as Russia, China, Afghanistan and Iran. It is a majority-Muslim country that sent troops to Iraq and opened its airspace to U.S. flights during the invasion of Afghanistan. It is a model for nuclear disarmament, having agreed to destroy the missiles it inherited from the former Soviet Union.

Those not tittering over Nazarbayev's visit because of the Borat fuss, such as Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), are mostly complaining about it. Levin told the Senate on Tuesday that the visit was yet another example of foreign policy hypocrisy by the Bush administration. The president's "courtship of corrupt dictators" such as Nazarbayev, he said, is "morally wrong."

It is true that Bush's commitment to spreading democracy and rooting out kleptocratic leaders does seem to wane when an important oil-producing state is involved. Though Nazarbayev appears to be genuinely popular with his people, he is undoubtedly guilty of repressing the media and imprisoning his political opponents.

Yet Kazakhstan is too important to ignore or keep at a distance -- and the reasons go far beyond its oil wealth. If Bush confines himself to meeting only with leaders who have perfect democratic records, he'll have to rule out the heads of most countries in the developing world.

By the standards of Central Asia, Kazakhstan is practically a Jeffersonian wonderland. Administration officials say the need for democratic reform in Kazakhstan will be part of Bush's discussion with Nazarbayev. It should be. The president can have more influence over Nazarbayev by keeping him close -- and offering incentives to open his society -- than by shunning him.

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