- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 30, 2006

Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev said yesterday that his country’s plan to dismantle its vast Soviet-era nuclear weapons programs could serve as a model for solving the confrontation over Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

Mr. Nazarbayev spoke with a small group of reporters at Blair House after an Oval Office meeting and working lunch with President Bush. It was the Central Asian leader’s first official visit to Washington in five years.

The Kazakh leader, whose human rights record has been sharply criticized by some U.S. groups during his visit, also said Mr. Bush had offered his support for Kazakhstan’s bid to chair the 55-nation Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in 2009, which would be a diplomatic first for a former Soviet republic.

“Of course, in order to meet that objective, we have to accomplish a lot by 2009 and we are eager to do so,” Mr. Nazarbayev said, speaking through a translator.

American and Kazakh energy officials announced yesterday an agreement to “down-blend” Kazakhstan’s remaining stocks of highly enriched uranium, which can be used for nuclear weapons, and to convert a Kazakh research reactor so it can operate on the safer, low-enriched uranium for civilian power needs.

Mr. Nazarbayev, who has led his country since it gained independence in 1991, called Iran a “very close neighbor,” and said he explained to hard-line Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in a recent talk the benefits Kazakhstan had won by voluntarily giving up its weapons, test sites and other nuclear assets inherited after the Soviet collapse.

He said his country in return had received security and territorial guarantees from the United States and other major powers, as well as major American financial aid to eliminate existing weapons stocks and transform its facilities to peaceful uses.

“I told the president of Iran, ‘Isn’t that a shining example for Iran to follow?’” Mr. Nazarbayev said.

Mr. Ahmadinejad continues to defy U.N. demands that he halt Iran’s efforts to enrich uranium.

The 66-year-old Mr. Nazarbayev displayed the balancing skills that have helped keep his large, resource-rich and lightly populated country an island of relative stability and prosperity in the troubled Central Asian region.

He noted that Kazakhstan also has extensive political and economic ties with Russia and China, even as it rates as a “strategic partner” of the United States.

The country’s vast oil and gas reserves and its image as a model Muslim ally in the U.S.-led war on terror have boosted Kazakhstan’s standing with the Bush administration, which has generally softened its public criticisms of the country’s democratic shortcomings.

“I have watched very carefully the development of this important country from one that was in the Soviet space to one that is now a free nation,” Mr. Bush told the Kazakh leader yesterday in the Oval Office, “and I appreciate your leadership.”

A joint statement by the two leaders did not mention the U.S. stand on the OSCE chairmanship.

In an apparent reference to the government’s closing last spring of two U.S. advocacy groups promoting democratic parties and institutions in Kazakhstan, the statement said Kazakh officials supported such groups and “will take the necessary steps to facilitate their legal functioning.”3

Mr. Nazarbayev received a relatively warm welcome in Washington, a reflection of his country’s political progress and an economy producing strong growth and expanding opportunities for foreign investors.

Just before the visit, Mr. Nazarbayev’s government signed an accord to transport Kazakh oil through the new pipeline across Armenia, Georgia and Turkey, a route that bypasses Russia and has been strongly supported by the U.S. government.

During his visit, Mr. Nazarbayev also met with the heads of major U.S. corporations considering new investment in the country, including ExxonMobil, ConocoPhillips, and Halliburton.

Mr. Nazarbayev said General Electric had just signed a major deal to locate a factory in Kazakhstan.

The OSCE and Western civil rights groups have criticized restrictions on last year’s presidential campaign, which gave the president a new seven-year term with 91 percent of the vote.

The country also has been shaken by the violent deaths of two opposition leaders in late 2005 and early 2006.

Analysts said Mr. Nazarbayev is genuinely popular despite the government’s tight oversight of the press and political dissent, in large part because of rising prosperity.

But the recent violence suggests that the delicate balance of competing factions within the country’s ruling elite, with Mr. Nazarbayev as the ultimate arbiter, is under growing stress, according to Daniel Kimmage, Central Asia analyst for Radio Free Europe-Radio Liberty.

Mr. Nazarbayev in the interview acknowledged his country’s democracy is “not perfect,” but said his government has made a conscious decision to make economic development the first priority after independence.

As for getting 90 percent of the vote, he switched briefly to English to joke, “I am sorry.”

“I wish it could have been less so you all would believe in it,” he said, “but do you expect me to go to people and say, ‘Don’t vote for me. Vote for that guy.?’”

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