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Bush administration pursues ties to oil-rich Kazakhstan despite backslide on democracy

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Bush administration pursues ties to oil-rich Kazakhstan despite backslide on democracy

President George W. Bush is pursuing closer ties to oil-rich Kazakhstan despite what human rights observers have said is a disturbing backslide toward autocracy in the former Soviet republic.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice did not answer when asked Monday whether human rights or energy would top the agenda for a meeting with her Kazakh counterpart. The session on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly sets up a coveted White House invitation for Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev on Friday.
Nazarbayev's trip starts Tuesday with a private visit to the Bush family home in Maine to meet the president's father, former President George H.W. Bush.
"The time has come when we can raise our relations to a completely new level," the Kazakh leader said before leaving for the United States.
Kazakhstan has grown in importance because of its huge oil reserves. The vast Central Asian republic, which is the size of Western Europe, is expected to pump 3.5 billion barrels of oil a day in the coming decade.
With the other four former Soviet Central Asian nations being more authoritarian, too unstable, too poor, or a combination of all three, Kazakhstan emerges as the West's logical ally in the strategic energy-rich region north of Afghanistan and Iran.
The Bush administration also has praised Kazakhstan as a model because of its decision in the 1990s to dismantle nuclear weapons it acquired under Soviet rule.
Nazarbayev has held tight control for 17 years, overseeing Kazakhstan's notable economic advance after the 1991 Soviet breakup. The economy has grown around 10 percent annually in the past eight years.
But democratic reforms have stumbled and Nazarbayev's image has been tarnished by allegations of graft.
Nazarbayev was re-elected 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.
In July, Nazarbayev signed legislation that sets up new regulations for media organizations.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe called the law "a step backward" for media freedoms. Freedom House, a New York-based pro-democracy group, said the law "will greatly threaten freedom of expression and freedom of the press."
Two of Nazarbayev's most outspoken critics were killed over the past year _ a worrying signal in a country that had no culture of political murders. Authorities have said both slayings were nonpolitical.
The United States has criticized the election and Kazakhstan's human rights record, but kept its comments mild.
"We have talked to the government of Kazakhstan about the importance of a free, open and vibrant media as part of an evolving democracy, so certainly any moves that would run counter to that kind of idea and that kind of trend would be a source of concern to us," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said in May.
The State Department's top official for human rights and democracy accompanied Rice to her session with Kazakhstan Foreign Affairs Minister Kassymzhomart Taokaev, held in her suite at the opulent Waldorf-Astoria hotel. The short session was their second in three months.
Afterward, the State Department said the session included discussions about Kazakh cooperation in Afghanistan and Iraq, and hopes for "a multidimensional relationship with Kazakhstan which includes U.S. encouragement for continuing reforms."
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Associated Press Writer Bagila Bukharbayeva contributed to this report from Almaty, Kazakhstan.