America's Soft Power in Kazakhstan

Article excerpt

Something smells when a president pulls off reelection with 91 percent of the vote. That happened Sunday in Central Asia's largest country, Kazakhstan. Election monitors dubbed the poll flawed. Yet the US reacted with surprising softness. Why?

If any nation in this dangerous and strategically vital neighborhood ought to be rigorously held to international election standards, it's Kazakhstan.

The most prosperous and stable nation in Central Asia, a Muslim - majority country that practices religious tolerance and free-market principles, this oil gusher is a potential democratic model in the region.

But it's precisely for these attributes that Washington is choosing to see a glass half full in this election, instead of emptying it out with a barrage of criticism. US diplomats acknowledge the vote's shortcomings, but point to this multiethnic giant bordering Russia and China as a democratic work in progress. That long-view emphasis is a wise one.

Sixteen years ago, when Kazakhstan gained independence from the Soviet Union, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev inherited a dirt- poor dumping ground for Soviet populations, gulag camps, and harmful nuclear tests.

Now, it's producing 1.3 million barrels of oil a day (the Kashagan field is bigger than Alaska's North Slope), and is expected to become a top-10 oil exporter within a decade. It's reduced its poverty rate to 12 percent (the regional rate is 44 percent). By sending young people to study in the West, Russia, and China, it's cultivated a talented civil service. And it's one of the best performers in nuclear nonproliferation.

Mr. Nazarbayev is popular. Reliable surveys showed 60-70 percent support for him before the election, and the same range in exit polling. …