Kazakhstan's autocratic president tells David Cameron: I would vote for you

Nursultan Nazarbayev, who retained presidency in 2011 with 95.5% of the vote, says British PM deserves to win next election

David Cameron has been rewarded for becoming the first British prime minister to visit the autocratic republic of Kazakhstan with a personal endorsement from the country's veteran president.

Nursultan Nazarbayev, who came to power while Kazakhstan was still part of the Soviet Union, said his own "huge political experience" led him to believe that the prime minister deserved to win the next election.

"Personally, I would vote for him, personally," the authoritarian president said on Monday at a joint press conference at his opulent palace, which overlooks the capital, Astana.

Nazarbayev's experience involves cruising home to victory in the 2011 presidential election with 95.5% of the vote after his main opponents said they hoped he would win.

Cameron, who won a more modest 36.1% of the vote in the 2010 general election, welcomed the endorsement. "That's one – I've just got [to get] about another 20m and I am in business. Thank you Mr President."

Nazarbayev's support came during a mildly awkward press conference in which the president rejected criticisms of Kazakhstan's human rights record, saying that some people appeared to believe his country was still in the middle ages.

The prime minister faced the embarrassment of having to express his regret after a Kazakh journalist questioned him over the decision of the British embassy to deny a visa to an artist with no hands on the grounds that he had failed to provide fingerprints. Karipbek Kuyukov says he was born without hands because he grew up near the Soviet Union's largest nuclear test site at Semipalatinsk.

Cameron said: "In terms of the artist, the disabled person you mention, that was clearly a deeply regrettable episode. It is being put right and that shouldn't have happened."

In his opening remarks, the prime minister tried to focus on the positives as he hailed a new relationship between Britain and Kazakhstan – with trade possibly reaching £85bn. He made a point of praising Astana, designated by the president as capital in 1997, as an extraordinary city.

Cameron, who was accompanied by 33 business leaders who signed deals worth £700m, said: "I am delighted to be in Astana today – the first serving British prime minister to come to Kazakhstan. Frankly, such a visit is long overdue. The question should not be: why is the British prime minister in Kazakhstan? The question is: why has it taken a British prime minister so long to visit? Kazakhstan is on the rise – a dynamic country that is poised to become a high-income country by the end of this decade."

The prime minister, who said that trade was the main focus of his visit, said he had raised the issue of human rights with Nazarbayev during talks on a two-hour flight from the Caspian Sea to Astana on the presidential jet on Sunday evening. The talks continued in the Irish bar at the luxury Rixos hotel in central Astana, where a pint of Guinness costs £11.

Cameron said he discussed a letter sent to him by Human Rights Watch on Friday, which raised concerns about "serious and deteriorating" abuses of human rights. "In the relationship that Britain has with Kazakhstan, the relationship I have with President Nazarbayev – nothing is off the agenda. We talk about the full range of subjects and that includes human rights – issues that we discussed at some length last night. I discussed for instance the letter written by Human Rights Watch and the concerns in that letter."

Nazarbayev, who sat stone-faced as Cameron talked, dismissed critics for believing Kazakhstan was in the middle ages.

Asked by ITN's Romilly Weeks about criticism of his record on human rights, the president said: "Perhaps it is pretty normal when someone from your isles, maybe some people see this country as a 'middle ages' country, riding camels and horses, so maybe that's natural to have that kind of vision.

"But you have visited three countries – the three 'Stans' – Pakistan, Afghanistan and Kazakhstan – and I hope you can compare the difference between those countries.

"As for the human rights issues I believe that Kazakhstan secures the key human rights. We have free elections, we have free political parties in the parliament, we have the opposition. There are 3,000 media outlets, including foreign ones."

Nazarbayev then offered a history lesson as he said it would take some time for Kazakhstan to reach the level of democracy in Europe. "Of course we don't reach the level of Europe, including Great Britain. What should be taken into account is that in 1616 the first bill of rights was adopted in Great Britain so the parliamentary democracy is 600 years old. But of course our ways should not be as long as that but the dynamics of that I believe is very correct. Democracy is the outcome, is the aftermath, the final goal, not the beginning.

"For the first time in our history we have adopted our independence because for many years we lived under totalitarianism both under the tsar and the communist regime. So in 20 years to transit to democracy is not an easy thing. So the key asset for us is independence, we have no right for mistakes.

"That is why we are going very carefully. But thank you very much for the recommendations, for the advice, but nobody has a right to instruct us how to live."

The president's endorsement of Cameron came after he was asked whether he could offer any advice to the prime minister on how to win a majority after his own emphatic victories.

Nazarbayev said: "I believe that [with] such a great country with great traditions such as Great Britain, Kazakhstan maybe doesn't have any moral right to actually give advice. But given my huge political experience maybe … monitoring, watching the activities of Mr Cameron, the way he actually protects the interests of the British people all over the world in all areas, I think he will be definitely demanded. Personally I would vote for him, personally."


Nicholas Watt in Astana

The GuardianTramp

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