Two U.S. lawmakers are pushing for a Nobel Peace Prize to go to a politician accused of taking bribes, abusing human rights, and profiting from widespread and sometimes violent election fraud.
But the lawmakers say Nursultan Nazarbayev, president of the central Asian republic of Kazakhstan, deserves the award for "reaffirming the worth and advancing the rights of the human person," according to Reps. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., and Charlie Melancon, D-La., in a recent email to fellow lawmakers.
Their reason? As president of a former Soviet republic the USSR had armed with nuclear weapons, Nazarbayev gave up much of his country's nuclear capacity, including its weapons stockpile.
"It's absurd," said Peter Zalmayev, president of the Eurasia Initiative at Columbia University and an expert on human rights in the region.
Nazarbayev "has been mired in one scandal after another, and they're coming up with all sorts of reasons to secure his legacy, wash his sins," Zalmayev said. "This is all part of that phenomenon."
Nazarbayev has been toasted by prominent Americans and nuclear non-proliferation experts for allowing nuclear weapons in his country to be safely removed. Media mogul Ted Turner, founder of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, praised Nazarbayev's "wise and courageous decision to eliminate nuclear weapons from Kazakhstan" in a 2006 speech.
"You've been leading the world in a wiser direction ever since," Turner told the Kazakh premier.
But Nazarbayev's record in other arenas has drawn sharp words from other quarters, including U.S. government agencies and international election monitors.
Justice Department prosecutors have long alleged in court documents filed in a case against a U.S. businessman that Nazarbayev and his deputies accepted nearly $80 million in kickbacks from foreign companies in exchange for access to Kazakhstan's vast oilfields. Nazarbayev's total worth is not known, but his adviser, daughter and son-in-law are billionaires, Forbes magazine reported in March.
A spokesman at the Kazakh embassy in Washington, D.C., declined to comment on the bribery claims because they were still the subject of court proceedings.
The State Department has criticized Nazarbayev's government for human rights violations. A March report faulted it for practices including "arbitrary arrest and detention", "restrictions on freedom of speech, the press, assembly, and association", "lack of an independent judiciary", "severe limits on citizens' rights to change their government,' and more, including abuse of detainees and prisoners.
"The State Department report in some parts is accurate; in some parts it is a bit exaggerating the situation," said the Kazakh spokesman, Zhanbolat Ussenov. "We're definitely grateful to the State Department for their research. It's always good to hear good advice from our American friends."
Then there are the reports of election fraud: after Nazarbayev was re-elected in 2005 with a recorded 91 percent of the popular vote, independent monitors said the election was flawed by "harassment, intimidation and detentions of campaign staff and supporters of opposition candidates, including cases of beatings of campaign staff," as well as 'bad or very bad" vote-counting procedures.
Those problems, concluded the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), "limited the possibility for a meaningful competition." Nazarbayev has disputed their findings.