An Oil-Rich Test for Bush

In the past two weeks, U.S. President George W. Bush's administration has launched a concerted attempt to translate its pro-democracy rhetoric into action in two little-known Eurasian countries whose importance is about to soar.

Within six weeks, it could pull off a political feat that would electrify a region and energize the president's freedom doctrine. Or it could find itself with yet another messy and possibly dangerous foreign policy dilemma.

The test comes in Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, two former republics of the Soviet Union that hold all of the early 21st century's big cards: huge unexploited oil riches; a majority Muslim population; location between Russia, China, Iran and Afghanistan.

Thanks to large investments by Western oil companies, and in Azerbaijan's case a newly completed pipeline, both are about to become very, very rich. In a few years, their names will be as familiar to Western energy consumers as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.

Both are also ruled by autocrats who would like to follow the Persian Gulf states' example and forge a strategic partnership with the United States. And both of those strongmen have scheduled elections: Azerbaijan for parliament on Nov. 6 and Kazakhstan for president on Dec. 4.

The Bush administration could have ignored those events; both countries, after all, have been staging fraudulent votes for years, just like the friendly autocrats of the Middle East.

Instead, Bush chose to engage. Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan got a letter from the U.S. president and a visit from a senior State Department official last week. Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan was visited by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice the week before. The messages to them were almost exactly the same: Hold a free and fair election, and you can "elevate our countries' relations to a new strategic level."

That could mean a lot -- not just state visits to Washington for Nazarbayev and Aliyev (who covets one), but also closer military ties, help in solving problems (such as an unresolved war between Azerbaijan and Armenia), and status as primary U.S. partners in the Caucasus and Central Asia.

It could also send a powerful message to several neighbors -- such as Uzbekistan, whose strongman just broke off his "strategic partnership" with the Bush administration rather than go along with demands for liberalization.

Both Aliyev and Nazarbayev say they are game; both have taken a few steps toward complying. Aliyev has given his parliamentary opponents some time on state television, while Nazarbayev allowed his principal challenger to legally register and get on the ballot.

But here's the problem: The Bush administration has told the two presidents that the arbiter of whether their elections are fair will be the observer missions of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. And the OSCE reps in both countries warned last week that the governments were failing the test.

Little wonder. Nazarbayev has been rounding up youth group leaders and tightening controls on the media, while Aliyev sealed off the international airport last week to prevent the return of one of his principal rivals and then arrested or fired several members of his Cabinet on charges of plotting a coup.

The OSCE in Azerbaijan denounced the "increasing number of violent incidents, the use of excessive and unjustified force against demonstrators, as well as questionable detentions and mass arrests." In Kazakhstan, its mission chief declared that "at present, from our point of view, the [OSCE] recommendations have not been met."

Nazarbayev and Aliyev may want to please Bush, but they are also terrified that they will be victims of a "color revolution," the popular pro-democracy revolts that have ousted authoritarian regimes in three other former Soviet states in the past two years, in each case after an election the OSCE called unfair. Their opponents are openly modeling themselves after the youth groups and political coalitions that called people to the streets of Tbilisi and Kiev.

Their Russian friends, trying to restore Moscow's influence, are suggesting that Washington's real goal is another revolution. When he held a press conference in Azerbaijan last week, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Fried was immediately asked if he was not "the gray cardinal of the color revolutions."

In fact, the last thing the U.S. administration wants right now is turmoil in another Muslim oil state. It is hoping that a combination of proffered carrots and fear of the consequences of fraud will cause Aliyev and Nazarbayev to reform just enough that they can be embraced as democratic allies.

But time is running out quickly; what if one or both of the regimes are flunked by the OSCE? "You have to mean what you say, which means we have to be prepared to be disappointed," one official told me. And if people then take to the streets to call for democracy, as they have elsewhere? For now, the administration isn't saying what it does then.

Jackson Diehl is a columnist at The Washington Post, where this comment first appeared.