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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Kazakh Oil to Pose Challenge for U.S.

ALMATY, Kazakhstan -- Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev was to fly to the United States on Tuesday for a visit that might be smiles and backslapping on the surface but would raise difficult questions for Washington and the West.

Nazarbayev has been in power since 1989, when Kazakhstan was still a Soviet republic, but has yet to preside over any poll judged free and fair. Moreover, U.S. prosecutors say -- but Nazarbayev denies -- that he has accepted $60 million in oil-company bribes.

Balanced against that, the vast oil-producing Central Asian state is the most economically advanced and politically stable of the five former Soviet "Stans" that also include Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.

And, as Nazarbayev told reporters before his trip: "Of the $50 billion that we've attracted as investment to Kazakhstan, a third belongs to American companies."

During his first trip to the United States in five years, Nazarbayev will meet U.S. President George W. Bush on Friday and spend time with former U.S. President George H.W. Bush at their holiday home.

Skilled at balancing competing interests, he is equally welcome in the White House's Rose Garden, the Kremlin corridors and the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.

What attracts all three powers is the fact that Kazakhstan will join the top 10 oil producers in a decade, is doling out oil and gas exploration and production licenses, and still has decisions ahead on routes for pipelines.

For Washington for and other Western capitals, that may sap the will to publicly upbraid Nazarbayev on such issues as democratic reform.

"The biggest rough spot we have is the slow movement in terms of furthering democratic reforms and development of civil society," a Western diplomat in the Kazakh capital, Astana, said.

Civil liberties have been deteriorating with a new, restrictive media law and a bill that will tighten already draconian laws banning any demonstration not sanctioned by the authorities.