Two members of the US Congress are spearheading an effort to nominate the president of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, for a Nobel Peace Prize, in recognition of Kazakhstan's decision in the early 1990s to give up nuclear weapons it inherited upon gaining independence from the Soviet Union.
The two chief sponsors are Darrell Issa, a Republican from California, and Charlie Melancon a Democrat from Louisiana. In late June, they circulated a letter to other members of Congress seeking their support for Nazarbayev's nomination. The letter also nominates Senator Richard Lugar and former Senator Sam Nunn, who created a US program offering money and technical assistance to help Kazakhstan and other former Soviet republics get rid of their nuclear weapons.
Kazakhstan's poor record on human rights would seem to hinder Nazarbayev's chances of actually becoming a Nobel laureate. Nazarbayev's administration does not allow serious opposition parties or independent media, and in 2007 engineered changes to Kazakhstan's constitution that would allow him to remain president for life. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The most recent State Department human rights report cited "severe limits on citizens' rights to change their government; military hazing that led to deaths; detainee and prisoner abuse; unhealthy prison conditions; arbitrary arrest and detention; lack of an independent judiciary; [and] restrictions on freedom of speech, the press, assembly, and association," among other problems. [For additional information, click here].
But Issa and Melancon's nomination letter focuses exclusively on Nazarbayev's decision to give up nuclear weapons, said Frederick Hill, a spokesman for Issa. "This is not a lifetime achievement award," he said. "This is not intended to gloss over the problems that exist in Kazakhstan in terms of backsliding on democracy and the human rights record. But when they do something significant in the area of nonproliferation, it's important that we recognize that."
Indeed, several past Peace Prize winners have had less than stellar records Henry Kissinger, Yasser Arafat, Mikhail Gorbachev and Frederik Willem De Klerk, for example. But the Nobel committee honored each for a specific achievement.
Hill argued that Nazarbayev's nomination might encourage Kazakhstan to improve its governance. "When you talk about democracy in Kazakhstan, it's actually a reason to do this nomination, because it sends a message: when you do good things you will be recognized," he said.
Issa and Melancon would seem unlikely leaders of the nomination effort. Neither representative sits on any committee dealing directly with Kazakhstan or nuclear anti-proliferation (although Melancon is on the Energy and Commerce Committee). Both do, however, have a history of promoting commercial ties between their districts and Kazakhstan.
Issa has traveled twice to Kazakhstan and has pushed for trade between the United States and Kazakhstan. "Kazakhstan is an emerging market and I would like to see the US presence in their marketplace grow with their economy," Issa said in a 2005 press release announcing a "US-Kazakhstan Business Opportunity Conference" in his home district of San Diego.
Melancon also has traveled to Kazakhstan and advocated for Louisiana's petroleum industries in Kazakhstan. "The Melancon Initiative focuses on opening the door for Louisiana oil and gas companies to help develop Kazakhstan's energy infrastructure and fully realize its potential as a major supplier of oil to the world," reads one press release on Melancon's website.
Melancon's office did not respond to emails and phone calls from EurasiaNet seeking comment.
An email that staff members for Issa and Melancon circulated suggested that improving US-Kazakhstan relations was at least part of the motivation for seeking a nomination for Nazarbayev. "In the past, your bosses have expressed an interest in strengthening the US-Kazakhstan relationship, and it is my hope that they will show their support by signing onto this letter as well," said the note, which was addressed to congressional foreign affairs staff members.
Nazarbayev's decision to give up nuclear weapons was undoubtedly a good decision, but his poor record on democratization and human rights since then stands to damage his legacy, suggested Sean Roberts, Central Asian Affairs Fellow at Georgetown University. "His legacy is something that's still undetermined. He's done some very good things and some not-so-good things. And that suggests that at this point he's probably not an appropriate person to receive the Nobel Peace Prize," Roberts said.
Roberts compared Nazarbayev to Robert Mugabe, the embattled president of Zimbabwe, who was once considered a liberation hero, but who has since become an international pariah for brutally suppressing dissent in order to retain his grip on power.
"Mugabe was at one point a very progressive figure and now he's done atrocious things around the recent elections in order to stay in power. So in that context, the real question about Nazarbayev is whether he will find a way to gracefully step down," Roberts said. "The thing that's really going to define his legacy is how he lives out his political career."
Joshua Kucera is a Washington, DC,-based freelance writer who specializes in security issues in Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Middle East.