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Bush Hails `Free' Kazakhstan

He stresses his alliance with the leader of the nation, which rights groups have criticized.

September 30, 2006|James Gerstenzang | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Seeking to encourage Kazakhstan to embrace democracy, President Bush on Friday characterized the oil-rich Central Asian country that faces continued criticism from human rights organizations as "a free nation."

With President Nursultan A. Nazarbayev at his side in the Oval Office, Bush said the United States and Kazakhstan shared a goal of defeating "extremism" and supporting "the forces of moderation throughout the world."

Nazarbayev, who first visited the Oval Office as Kazakhstan's chief executive when Bush's father was president, has become one of the current administration's favored allies in a troubled region, with officials downplaying questions critics have raised about his commitment to democracy and about government corruption.

Giving his guest a verbal pat on the back between their formal meeting and lunch, Bush said, "I have watched very carefully the development of this important country from one that was in the Soviet sphere to one that now is a free nation."

Though Kazakhstan is seen as more open and economically progressive than some of its neighbors, Nazarbayev in July signed legislation tightening controls on the news media, drawing criticism from the West. His country's human rights record has also been assailed.

Asked whether Bush or his aides gave Nazarbayev a list of specific reforms to pursue, or raised complaints about the course of political freedom there, White House Press Secretary Tony Snow said: "There was an encouragement for the government of Kazakhstan to pursue a democratic path."

Another White House official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to publicly address the conduct of a diplomatic meeting, said Nazarbayev, who was reelected nearly a year ago with more than 90% of the ballots amid opposition complaints of voting irregularities, "has a vision toward greater democracy, civil society, and freedom."

The official acknowledged that the U.S. needed to "push and enable" democracy in Kazakhstan and that it was working with the government there "to develop greater press freedom."

In the Oval Office, as he and Bush posed for photographers, Nazarbayev said that "in economics, in energy partnership, in policy, in war on terrorism, we've truly become close partners."

Kazakhstan has been a strong economic performer among developing nations, helped by oil riches that have fueled growth of about 9% a year since 2000.

In a written statement, the two countries agreed to extend cooperation in such areas as anti-terrorism, reconstruction in Iraq and Afghanistan and development of energy resources.

james.gerstenzang@ latimes.com

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