Kazakhstan praises Cameron and Blair for helping improving country's image

As he flies into central Asian republic, British PM says he will raise Kazakhstan's poor human rights record with its president

David Cameron and Tony Blair have been praised by Kazakhstan, the oil-rich former Soviet republic with a poor record on human rights, for helping to improve its image on the world stage.

As the prime minister flew into the central Asian republic to sign a series of business deals, the Kazakh foreign minister said his country was "honoured and privileged" by the support from Britain.

Amnesty International demanded that Cameron should raise Kazakhstan's "disgraceful" human rights record when he meets Nursultan Nazarbayev, who has been the country's authoritarian president since shortly before its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

Cameron said he would raise human rights but defended his decision to visit such an important trading partner. He said: "On human rights, in all the relationships we have, there's never anything off the table, we raise and discuss all these issues and that will be the case in Kazakhstan as well.

"I think it is important to make this visit and it's very much something I chose and wanted to do. Kazakhstan is one of the rising economic powers in the world. I think it's very important that British business, British investment and British firms get a proper chance in Kazakhstan; they're doing that, I want to help them to do that."

Blair has helped prepare the ground for Cameron's visit – the first by a serving British prime minister. He has been advising Nazarbayev and the Kazakh government on judicial reform, decentralisation and local government.

Blair offered strong support for Cameron's trip. A spokesperson for the former prime minister said: "Kazakhstan is an important country in an important region at an important time for the world. It has made significant progress, with its economy growing around 12 times, by giving up nuclear weapons and is religiously tolerant.

"David Cameron is absolutely right to be seeking to forge closer economic and political ties for these reasons and because of Kazakhstan's strategic positioning in the world and the supportive role it is playing with regard to troops returning from Afghanistan."

Erlan Idrissov, the Kazakh foreign minister, hailed the support offered by Blair and Cameron: "We are very honoured and privileged to have such attention on the part of two prime ministers [towards] Kazakhstan – Tony Blair and David Cameron. We cherish and enjoy the support of developed countries on our part for development … We are grateful that Mr Tony Blair and his colleagues are providing invaluable advice."

The foreign minister said Kazakhstan acknowledged the criticism of its human rights record but insisted that it was on a transition to becoming a "Jeffersonian democracy" that would take some time to complete. Idrissov said: "We do hear criticisms. We do not feel absolutely unhappy about those criticisms. We patiently explain to our partners that we are not today a Jeffersonian democracy and that a Jeffersonian democracy is our ultimate destination."

Idrissov said Kazakhstan had a dialogue with human rights groups, but he accused them of giving a distorted impression of his country. "They are free to express their own opinions, which is not the ultimate truth," he said. "We recommend to those critics and other people to come and see real life in Kazakhstan. You will discover that it is a burgeoning economy and thriving society and developing democracy."

Amnesty International warned the prime minister to pay close attention to Kazakhstan's human rights record after the shooting dead of 12 people in Zhanaozen in western Kazakhstan in 2011 during a protest by oil workers. British companies have a strong interest in the giant offshore western Kazakhstan Kashagan oilfield in the Caspian Sea, which has estimated reserves of 9bn barrels.

Allan Hogarth, the UK head of Amnesty International's policy and government affairs, said: "Kazakhstan might be knee-deep in oil and gas wealth, but David Cameron shouldn't let lucrative energy deals prevent him from raising human rights during his trip. There are reports that the police in Kazakhstan have beaten up and detained oil workers who'd gone on strike to protest at the management's refusal to allow an independent trade union.

"In one case, a labour rights activist, Roza Tuletaeva, was reportedly subjected to a horrifying ordeal of sexual torture – with security officials putting a plastic bag over her head and threatening to harm her 14-year-old daughter. Mr Cameron needs to let President Nazarbayev know that Britain cares about workers' rights and will not turn a blind eye to these disgraceful practices."

As he prepared to fly to Kazakhstan, Cameron tried to avoid embarrassing his hosts by talking about the Sacha Baron Cohen film Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. Idrissov said: "I said [at the time that] as we survived Stalin then we are definitely going to survive Borat."

Cameron said: "I did see it [the film], it was a long time ago. I think I will rest on the words of the foreign minister who I gather … pointed out that his country had survived Stalin and could probably survive anything else. I think that was his remark."


Nicholas Watt in Atyrau

The GuardianTramp

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