ASTANA, Kazakhstan, Sept. 26 — When Vice President Dick Cheney came to this oil-rich Central Asian nation this spring he expressed admiration for what he called its “political development.” Yet just a day before his visit began, the authoritarian government effectively shut down the two most prominent American democracy organizations working here.
While American officials are negotiating to reverse the government’s decision, they have yet to complain about it publicly.
As President Bush prepares to receive the Kazakh president, Nursultan A. Nazarbayev, at a state dinner in Washington on Friday, the episode reflects the delicate balance the administration has struck with a country of growing strategic importance that has a record of corruption, flawed elections and rights violations, including the killings of two opposition leaders in the last year in disputed circumstances.
Critics here say the episode also illustrates the Bush administration’s willingness to sacrifice democracy, a centerpiece of its foreign policy, when it conflicts with other foreign policy goals.
“There are four enemies of human rights: oil, gas, the war on terror and geopolitical considerations,” said Yevgeny A. Zhovtis of the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law, an organization that has received financing from the American Embassy and the National Endowment for Democracy. “And we have all four.”
The Bush administration has promoted democratic reforms in Kazakhstan for years, but it also appears eager to mollify a president who has been a comparatively moderate Muslim leader in Central Asia, who has allowed NATO aircraft headed to Afghanistan to fly over the country and sent a company of soldiers to Iraq, and who controls vast resources of oil and gas, much of it extracted by American companies.
In a meeting on Monday in New York with Foreign Minister Kasymzhomart Tokayev, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice spoke generally about democracy and human rights in Kazakhstan, a senior State Department official said, but did not raise the matter of the two democracy groups — the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs and the International Republican Institute.
In Washington, Frederick Jones, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said the White House was aware of the problem with the institutes but added that he could not say whether President Bush would raise it this week, since the discussions were not scripted in advance. Still, he said, “Democratization is a very important part of the agenda.”
The backlash against promotion of democracy is by no means limited to Kazakhstan. The institutes, which are nonprofit, nonpartisan groups financed by the United States government, have been eyed warily not just here but in Russia, China and an array of authoritarian Central Asian countries that were alarmed by the “color revolutions” in Serbia, Georgia and, particularly, Ukraine.
As outlined in a recent report by the National Endowment for Democracy, many of them, including Kazakhstan, have followed the lead of Russia and severely restricted nongovernmental organizations. Some countries, notably Belarus, but also the Persian Gulf state of Bahrain, have closed them down altogether.
For Kazakhstan, as for the Bush administration, the coming visit has created an opportunity for improving relations that have been strained in recent years, even as Russia has taken advantage of its own political and economic influence.
The strains have stemmed from American concerns over corruption, restrictions on the news media and President Nazarbayev’s consolidation of political control.
The Kazakh government has its own concerns with American policy. They include a criminal case in New York against James H. Giffen, an American businessman, that implicates Mr. Nazarbayev in a bribery scheme dating from the 1990’s, and lukewarm American support for Kazakhstan’s bid to preside over the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
Here in Kazakhstan, Mr. Nazarbayev’s visit has been portrayed as a chance for him to enhance his international prestige by improving relations with the United States. “The time has come when we can raise our relations to a completely new level,” Mr. Nazarbayev told reporters in Astana earlier this month.
Kazakhstan, the ninth largest country in the world in area but with only 15 million people, the majority of them Muslims, has experienced an energy-fueled economic boom that has transformed it into a regional power.
Mr. Nazarbayev is genuinely popular inside the country, though that popularity is certainly nurtured by the government’s control of television, which provides lavish, uncritical coverage. Even independent surveys of voters leaving the polls showed him winning re-election handily last December, with a vote as high as 82 percent, compared with the official result of 91 percent. The lower figure came from a poll financed by the International Republican Institute.
Mr. Nazarbayev’s opponents said the government’s need to pad what would have been a clear victory anyway highlighted a growing trend toward authoritarianism. Oraz Jandosov, a co-chairman of a democratic opposition party, True Bright Path, said the most disturbing consequences of the power and impunity enveloping Mr. Nazarbayev’s government were the deaths of two opposition leaders.
One, Zamanbek N. Nurkadilov, was found shot three times, once in the head, last November. His death was subsequently declared a suicide. The other, Altynbek Sarsenbaiuly, was killed in February along with two bodyguards on a road outside Almaty, the country’s biggest city.
In August, an aide in the upper house of Parliament, Yerzhan Utembayev, and several officers of the secret services were convicted of those killings, though few here believed the declared motive: that Mr. Utembayev had been angered that Mr. Sarsenbaiuly had accused him of being a drunk in a newspaper interview three years earlier.
The actions against the American democracy programs followed soon after Mr. Sarsenbaiuly’s killing, reflecting a trend to stifle any open discussion of the country’s problem.
In a letter to the American Embassy, a copy of which was shown to The New York Times, Kazakh prosecutors charged the two institutes under a law that forbids “material assistance” to political parties. The institutes were accused of “the handing over of materials” and “illegal instances of transport” during their work with political and civic groups.
The accusations fit a pattern of harassment in the months leading up to last year’s election, when government tax and financial agencies repeatedly investigated and audited dozens of private organizations. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the institution Mr. Nazarbayev hopes to lead as chairman in 2009, criticized the election for “a number of significant shortcomings,” including “an atmosphere of intimidation.”
Four American officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the continuing negotiations over the institutes, said neither institute had paid for or otherwise supported partisan activity.
Two people involved in the discussions said former Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright and Senator John McCain of Arizona, the chairwoman and chairman of the Democratic and Republican institutes respectively, had written a letter to Mr. Bush urging him to raise the issue with Mr. Nazarbayev during his visit.
American officials continue to express support for Kazakhstan’s opposition and for democracy here in general.
Mr. Cheney, when he visited, met over breakfast with opposition leaders for an hour and 20 minutes in a hotel in Astana, the capital. Mr. Jandosov, who was there, said he welcomed the chance to explain “what the real situation was,” but expressed regret that the meeting came the morning after Mr. Cheney appeared in public with Mr. Nazarbayev and expressed support for him.
Murat Laumulin of the Kazakhstan Institute of Strategic Studies, a research organization with close ties to the government, said Mr. Nazarbayev’s government had made concessions to the United States in the field of energy and in the Bush administration’s fight against Islamic terrorism, among other areas, and thus merited a reprieve in demands for swift democratization.
“Kazakhstan has gone along with a lot of the American oil agenda with the unspoken understanding that the Kazakhstan population is not going to be provoked,” Mr. Laumulin said. “There isn’t to be a ‘color revolution’ here, and for five to seven years we don’t have to worry about needing to introduce genuine democracy. We get a strategic pause.”