NEW YORK--Each summer, America's financial elite head for the Hamptons. But bold men who lust for power have an agenda far more ambitious than the seduction of Botox babes at cocktail parties where grown men wear pastels. They go where the real action is: the former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan, home to the world's largest untapped oil reserves.
Dick Cheney has been spending a lot of time in the huge Central Asian republic, so much so that its windswept steppes have become his new Secret Undisclosed Location. Mostly the Acting President hangs out in Kazakhstan's landlocked hinterlands wooing a reviled dictator, the only ruler the nation has known since being evicted by the USSR in 1991. Thanks in part to more than $50 million a year in U.S. taxpayer money and ever-soaring bundles of military aid, Cheney hopes to secure "total energy dominance" via lucrative oil pipeline deals on behalf of GOP-connected energy companies.
Cheney is also sending a terrible message to the world's most repressive regimes: The United States still cares more about oil than democracy.
The Bush administration has unleashed a full-court press of shuttle diplomacy in an effort to keep Nursultan Nazarbayev out of the orbit of Russia and China, America's rivals in the region. On May 5, Cheney appeared in the capital city of Astana with Nazarbayev at his side, hailing Kazakhstan's supposed political and economic liberalization. Declaring the police state America's "strategic partner," the veep invited Nazarbeyev to the White House this September for an official state visit with Bush--an honor recently denied to the president of China on human rights grounds. "I think the record speaks for itself," Cheney said.
Indeed it does.
Kazakh opposition leader Galymzhan Zhakiyanov was scheduled to meet with Cheney in Astana. "I wanted to tell him about the problems we've faced building freedom and democracy here in Kazakhstan," he said, "and I wanted to remind Cheney of what President Bush said in his second inauguration speech--that the freedom and prosperity of citizens in the U.S. depends on the freedom and democracy of other countries in the world." But he never got to deliver that message, having been arrested by Kazakhstan's notorious militsia military police. Cheney didn't make a peep about Zhakiyanov's missed appointment.
"In reality," reports the Chicago Tribune, "most analysts agree Kazakhstan remains an authoritarian regime where opposition parties are banned without cause, independent media outlets are routinely shut down and corruption is rife throughout the government. In recent months, merely belonging to the opposition movement has become dangerous. Two prominent critics of the Kazakh government have been found shot to death since last fall. The death of one of those men, Zamanbek Nurkadilov, was ruled a suicide even though he had been shot three times, twice in the chest and once in the head."
Nurkadilov's body was discovered shortly after Bush wrote Nazarbayev to ask him "to make sure that economic reforms are backed up with bold democratic reforms" in time for the upcoming 2005 presidential election. Even though Nazarbayev won a Saddam-esque 91 percent of the vote in polling universally declared fraudulent by international observers, Bush didn't say a word.
After the "election," the bodies of outspoken former minister Altynbek Sarsenbaev and four members of his Nagyz Ak Zhol Party, reported Radio Free Europe, "were discovered on a desolate stretch of road outside Almaty on February 13, , their bodies riddled with bullets and their hands bound behind their backs." As I write in my upcoming book about U.S. involvement in Central Asia, Silk Road to Ruin: Is Central Asia the New Middle East?, the Kazakh NSC (former KGB) "pinned the blame on Erzhan Utembaev, a former deputy prime minister then serving as head of administration of the Kazakh Senate, but political opponents and some militsia sources say Nazarbayev personally paid $60.000 to have him silenced." Again, there was no condemnation from the White House.
Cheney showed up to kiss up less than three months after the killings. The Bush Administration, hoping to convince the ruthless Nazarbayev to join its U.S.-backed Baku-Ceyhan Trans-Caucasus oil pipeline, remained silent about the Kazakh tyrant's unpleasant practice of dispatching his political critics.
"Since Cheney's May 5 visit with Nazarbayev," writes the Tribune, "opposition leaders pushing for democratic change in Kazakhstan are beginning to wonder about the Bush administration's commitment to the president's inauguration rhetoric."
Sergei Duvanov, deputy director of the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law, accuses the U.S. of siding with vicious dictators against the millions of people they oppress. "Nazarbayev was very glad to hear what Cheney had to say, and understood it as carte blanche to come down harder on the opposition," Duvanov, a former journalist who spent a year and a half in a Kazakh prison on rape charges trumped up to silence his pro-democracy reporting, said. "He now understands that building democracy is not as important as oil and economic stability."
At first glance, Kazakhstan appears to be booming. The country is "overrun with construction cranes," reports the New York Times. Almaty has its first French restaurant. There's even a Kazakh edition of Cosmopolitan magazine. But there are two economies, one for a tiny portion of wealthy elites, the other for everyone else. The Red Cross says that "three-quarters of Kazakhstan's 15.7 million population [lives] below the poverty line." Poverty is getting worse as spending by corrupt government officials and their oil-connected benefactors fuels inflation.
Someday, inevitably, those millions of Kazakhs will liberate themselves from Nazarbayev's rule. They, not him, will control the world's largest untapped oil reserves. And they won't forget America's role in prolonging their agony.