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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Kazakh Visit Betrays Bush's Competing Values

WASHINGTON -- U.S. President George W. Bush launched an initiative this month to combat international kleptocracy, the sort of high-level corruption by foreign officials that he called "a grave and corrosive abuse of power" that "threatens our national interest and violates our values." The plan, he said, would be "a critical component of our freedom agenda."

Three weeks later, the White House is making arrangements to host the leader of Kazakhstan, an autocrat who runs a nation anything but free and has been accused by U.S. prosecutors of pocketing the bulk of $78 million in bribes from a U.S. businessman. Not only will Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev visit the White House, people involved say, but he also will travel to the Bush family compound in Maine.

Analysts and officials say the upcoming Nazarbayev visit offers a case study in the competing priorities of the Bush administration at a time when the president has vowed to fight for democracy around the globe. Nazarbayev has banned opposition parties, intimidated the press and profited from his post, according to the U.S. government. But he also sits atop massive oil reserves that have helped open doors in Washington.

Nazarbayev is hardly the only controversial figure received by the top levels of the Bush administration. In April, the president welcomed to the Oval Office the president of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev, who has been accused of rigging elections. And U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice hosted Teodoro Obiang Nguema, the president of Equatorial Guinea, who has been found to have millions of dollars stashed in overseas bank accounts.

But the Kazakh leader has received especially warm treatment, given that the same government that will host him next month plans to go to trial in federal court in January to prove that he was paid off in the 1990s by a U.S. banker seeking to influence oil rights. While the banker faces prison time, Nazarbayev has not been charged.

Even before Nazarbayev's upcoming visit, U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney went to Astana, the capital, in May to praise the Kazakh leader, a trip that drew criticism because it came the day after he denounced Russia for retreating from democracy. The latest invitation has sparked anger in opposition circles.

"It raises the question of how serious is the determination to fight kleptocracy," said Rinat Akhmetshin, director of the International Eurasian Institute, who works for the Kazakh opposition.

The White House declined to comment because it had not yet officially announced the visit, but Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Evan Feigenbaum was in Kazakhstan last week working out details and Kazakh officials said the trip would take place in late September. A spokesman for former U.S. President George H.W. Bush confirmed that Nazarbayev would visit Kennebunkport, Maine as part of his U.S. stay.

An administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity because the invitation has not been announced, said Bush often met with leaders of countries "that are not yet democracies" and used the time to push for more freedom.

Kazakhstan has emerged as an increasingly important player in the world energy market. With the largest crude oil reserves in the Caspian Sea region, Kazakhstan pumps 1.2 million barrels per day and exports 1 million of those. The Kazakh government hopes to boost production to 3.5 million barrels per day by 2015, rivaling Iran. U.S. and Russian companies and governments have competed for access to Kazakh oil.

Nazarbayev's government has banned or refused to register opposition parties, closed newspapers and harassed advocacy groups. Two opposition leaders were found shot dead recently under suspicious circumstances.

But the Bush administration considers Nazarbayev a moderate in a region of harsher, sometimes-hostile dictators. The Kazakh government under Nazarbayev has embarked on an anti-corruption campaign that has resulted in arrests of mid-level officials.

"He has learned how to be clean," said Martha Brill Olcott, a Kazakhstan specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "He has learned a lot more about how you can promote to some degree divestiture [of assets]. Most of his holdings are, I wouldn't say transparent, but they're more so."

Others aren't sure. "When the United States is transparently soft on friendly dictators like Nazarbayev, it undermines the effort to be tough on not-so-friendly dictators," said Tom Malinowski of Human Rights Watch.

Nazarbayev visited the Bush White House in 2001 -- before the U.S. Justice Department filed a case in 2003 alleging he had taken bribes and before Bush issued a 2004 proclamation banning corrupt foreign officials from visiting the United States. A U.S. State Department official said hundreds of foreign officials had been denied visas under the Bush proclamation but could not explain how it would not apply in Nazarbayev's case.