Had Dick Cheney, the American vice president, declared during his visit to Kazakhstan that 'in many areas of civil society ' from religion and the news media to advocacy groups and political parties ' the government has unfairly and improperly restricted the rights of the people,' human rights groups would have cheered. But he said that in Russia a few days earlier. What he told Kazakhstan's dictator, Nursultan Nazarbayev, was that 'all Americans are tremendously impressed with the progress that you've made in Kazakhstan in the last 15 years. Kazakhstan has become a good friend and strategic partner of the United States.'
Cheney's blunt condemnation of the Russian government's behaviour certainly roused a vehement reaction in Russia. President Vladimir Putin's drift towards a 'soft dictator- ship' has the support of most Russians, who are still smarting from the anarchy, corruption and poverty of the first post-Communist decade under Boris Yeltsin. Now the anarchy has been suppressed, the corruption is better hidden, and the economy is growing, so the Russian media's bitter response to Cheney's strictures really did match popular attitudes.
Under a headline reading 'Enemy at the Gate', the Moscow business daily, Kommersant, normally a critic of the Kremlin, said that 'the Cold War has restarted, only now the front line has shifted.' Over-reactions, of course, but Cheney's criticisms would have been more credible and less offensive if he were not so obviously applying a double standard.
Kazakhstan is expected to become one of the world's top ten oil producers in the next decade. It is a close ally of the US, even sending a small contingent of troops to Iraq. But Kazakhstan is not a democracy and Nazarbayev is not a democrat.
When Cheney became secretary of defence in the administration of the elder George Bush, Nazarbayev was already the first secretary of the Kazakh Communist Party. By 1990, he was president of the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic and a member of the Soviet politburo in Moscow. And by the end of 1991, he was the president of an independent Kazakhstan and a keen advocate of the free market.
Fifteen years and three 'elections' later, Nazarbayev is still president of Kazakhstan, re-elected only last December with a 91 per cent majority in a vote that foreign observers condemned as fraudulent. His daughter, Dariga Nazarbayeva, who controls the Khabar media conglomerate and leads the 'opposition' Asar party, is widely expected to take power when his current seven-year term expires in 2010.
Nazarbayev's Kazakhstan is only the third or fourth worst dictatorship, but it is a far less democratic society than Putin's Russia. So why did Cheney castigate Russia's imperfect democracy while saying not a word about Kazakhstan's shameless travesty of the democratic system' Oil, obviously, but how could he be so ignorant of Nazarbayev's priorities'
What Cheney wants out of Nazarbayev is commitment to pipelines that will move Kazakh oil and gas to Europe by routes that do not cross Russia. But what Nazarbayev wants is a solid American offer that he can take to the Russians so that he can demand a higher price for his gas exports to them. He will also take it to the Chinese and suggest that they build pipelines to bring his oil and gas to China.
Nazarbayev is holding out for the best price, and the winning bid is unlikely to come from the US. Cheney's kow-towing to Nazarbayev is as futile as his chiding of Putin. And although his hypocritical moralizing about the shortcomings of the Russian democracy has little direct effect on the calculations of a strategist as cool as Putin, it does poison the relationship. That still matters, because Russia is coming back as a force in the world.