WASHINGTON -- President Bush heaped praise yesterday on the president of Kazakhstan, a Central Asian country important to the United States as an oil supplier and war-on-terror ally, but which has a political system that stifles dissent.
US concerns over President Nursultan Nazarbayev's heavy-handed rule did not come up when the two leaders appeared before reporters after their nearly hourlong Oval Office meeting. Instead, the two were all compliments in brief comments that were made before Bush hosted a private luncheon for Nazarbayev in the White House residence.
Bush thanked Nazarbayev for supporting the US-led war in Iraq, for his willingness to fight terrorists and to help neighboring Afghanistan become a stable democracy, and for his ``commitment to institutions that will enable liberty to flourish."
Bush offered support for Kazakhstan's desire to join the World Trade Organization.
``I have watched very carefully the development of this important country from one that was in the Soviet sphere to one that now is a free nation," Bush said as the two sat side by side. ``I appreciate your leadership, Mr. President."
White House officials had said beforehand that they could not gauge how big a part of the agenda Nazarbayev's democratic record would be in Bush's private meeting with him, and there was no immediate comment on the content of their talks.
Nazarbayev expressed gratitude for US support of Kazakhstan's independence from the Soviet Union 15 years ago.
``In economics, in energy partnership, in policy, in war on terror, we truly [have] become close partners," he told reporters, speaking through a translator.
His highest concern appeared to be the turmoil in nearby Afghanistan, where the Taliban have regrouped, the cultivation of illegal drugs is rising, and the democratic government remains fragile.
``Nobody in Central Asia will feel safe and peace if we are surrounded by countries populated with terrorist people," he said.
Kazakhstan, a vast country north of Afghanistan and Iran that is nearly the size of Western Europe, is expected to pump 3.5 million barrels of oil a day in the coming decade. It is also a very friendly country for the United States in a part of the world where pro-American sentiment is not widespread.
But it is also known internationally for a political system in which dissent is stifled.
Nazarbayev has been his country's only leader since it achieved independence in December 1991, and has brought stability and prosperity. Like those of most other Central Asian nations, however, Kazakhstan's record on democracy and protecting human rights is seen as poor.
Nazarbayev was reelected with 91 percent of the vote in December balloting that international observers called flawed. The 2004 parliamentary vote produced a legislature without a single opposition lawmaker.
Kazakhstan has placed ads in US newspapers to coincide with Nazarbayev's visit to the United States. The ads also are intended to battle the image of Kazakhstan created by British comic Sacha Baron Cohen, creator of a fictional Kazakh reporter known as Borat. Cohen is launching a full-length movie based on the character.
The homophobic, misogynistic, English-mangling Borat -- who portrays Kazakhs as addicted to horse urine, fond of shooting dogs, and viewing rape and incest as respectable hobbies -- has mortified the government of this former Soviet republic.