Oiling the Wheels of War

If only our man in Washington would stay there

On Tuesday, when Robert Wexler beats his underfunded Republican challenger, Jack Merkl, the Boca Raton congressman will get two more years of far-flung travel. As I've reported recently, he's been jetting around the Middle East and Central Asia drumming up sup1port for an invasion of Iraq and the nebulous "war on terror." Wexler is kind of a double agent: The United States is his physical home, Israel his spiritual home, and both motivate him politically as he journeys the world in a bid to show the Arab world who's really boss.

His most recent big trip was to the former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan. Located on the Caspian Sea (not far from Afghanistan and Iran), the country is strategically important to our military interests, and its abundant oil reserves are slated to help fulfill some of America's economic dreams. The only problem is that it's currently ruled by a tyrannical dictatorship.

But that didn't stop Wexler, a Foreign Relations Committee member, from accepting an invitation from a major international Jewish leader named Alexander Mashkevich to celebrate the opening of a synagogue in Kazakhstan and hobnob with the nation's political leaders.

Mashkevich is a big name in Central Asia: He controls much of Kazakhstan's mineral resources, runs the Eurasian Bank, has his hands in the incredibly lucrative oil trade, and is president of the Eurasian Jewish Congress.

In addition to that impressive résumé, Mashkevich is also alleged to be a criminal. Belgian authorities are investigating him in regard to $55 million he and two business partners received from an energy company called Tractebel, before the company won a lucrative contract in 1996 from the Kazakh government. Mashkevich currently faces money-laundering charges in connection with a villa in Brussels that Belgian officials say he bought with illicit cash.

Knowing all that, Wexler still jumped on the plane with his wife, Laurie, on May 27 for Kazakhstan. Once there, the congressman spent a day or two with Mashkevich before he was taken to a palace to meet with President Nursultan Nazarbayev. Mashkevich helps keep Nazarbayev in power, but the duo are more than political allies -- they are also suspected of being partners in crime. Nazarbayev is another subject of the Belgian investigation; authorities suspect some of the $55 million wound up in the president's pocket.

Actually, the term "president" isn't quite accurate. Nazarbayev, in reality, is a dictator -- and a terribly oppressive one at that. Journalists who criticize him generally wind up in jail (often on official charges of "insulting the president") or in the hospital after mysterious attackers severely beat them. Some independent newspaper and television offices have been burned to the ground, and one dissenting reporter's daughter was mysteriously murdered.

Nazarbayev especially doesn't like journalists describing another ongoing criminal investigation, this one conducted by a federal grand jury in New York City. The feds are examining $60 million in payments made by James Giffen, a "consultant" for major United States oil companies. The money was supposed to be for oil rights, but Giffen put much of it in Swiss bank accounts controlled by the Kazakh leader and his aides. Authorities have frozen the accounts, and the investigation continues.

Here in America, human rights groups and the State Department have long criticized Nazarbayev for his undemocratic ways, highlighting little things like his constant bleeding of the economy and the time he banned his chief political rival from running against him. Recently, foreign journalists discovered that Nazarbayev holds a secret $1 billion account, which he claims is a reserve fund for the government. He just didn't tell anybody about it -- for more than five years.

Wexler knew about most, if not all, of these problems before he and Laurie flew to Kazakhstan. I'm still not sure who paid for the trip, since Wexler and his staff didn't return my calls for comment.

After gallivanting with Mashkevich and holding court with Nazarbayev, Wexler held a televised news conference in the capital city of Astana, where he praised Nazarbayev, saying the dictator had "achieved much in terms of the observance of human rights, tolerance, and the peaceful coexistence of various religions," according to the Radio Free Europenews service. RFE's headline on the story proclaimed that the congressman had touted Kazakhstan's "democratic achievements."

A Moscow newswire called Interfax headlined its story: "U.S. Congressman Robert Wexler has expressed satisfaction with democratic reforms in Kazakhstan." Nazarbayev, not surprisingly, boasted of Wexler's endorsement in news releases.

Unfortunately, the notion of democratic progress was news to many of the people who actually live in Kazakhstan. Leading Kazakh cultural figures and writers denounced Wexler the next day. "According to the Kazakh intellectuals, it is ridiculous that such a statement was made in the days when Kazakh society was trying to find out who had organized severe attacks against some independent media outlets in the country," Radio Free Europe reported May 30.

On the day after Wexler spoke in Astana, several journalists held a news conference of their own in Moscow to complain about the beatings and the forced closings of 22 media companies in Kazakhstan, a couple of them gutted by Molotov cocktails. The reporters complained that Nazarbayev's government resorted to violence and trumped-up criminal charges simply because the leader didn't want news of his corruption to reach his people.

In fairness, it should be noted that Wexler did ask that Nazarbayev make democratic reforms and improve his "dialogue" with independent media services. But that didn't keep the congressman from providing a big boost to the dictator.

Why did Wexler do it? A news release issued by his office on May 24 provides some clues: "As one of Central Asia's emerging economic powers, Kazakhstan is an important strategic partner for the United States," Wexler was quoted in the release as saying. "Even more important, Kazakhstan is the world's largest source of undeveloped oil reserves."

More reasons for the congressman's sojourn come from a speech he made on the House floor this past December to celebrate the country's tenth year of independence. In the speech, which is proudly posted on a Kazakh government website, Wexler praised the country: "Many of the nefarious international terrorist organizations, like al Qaeda, that seek to inflict harm on the United States and our allies are also trying to destabilize Central Asian nations like Kazakhstan... The United States and the international community must not miss this opportunity to assist Kazakhstan as she takes courageous steps to build a democratic society with an open market economy in a region of the world that is rife with terrorism and discord."

This remarkably false representation indicates that Wexler has managed to fool even himself. It's an odd situation: The congressman is befriending a tyrannous dictator for help in the "war on terror" -- which is supposed to be about protecting democracy and freedom. It is, of course, very much about oil. President Bush, on November 28 of last year, issued a statement saying Kazakhstan was helping to "build prosperity and stability" in the world. The reason for the compliment, predictably, was oil. The president was congratulating the country and its leader for cooperation in creating the Caspian Pipeline Consortium to help major American firms like ChevronTexaco and ExxonMobil extract and distribute Kazakhstan's oil reserves, an estimated 20 billion to 50 billion barrels, worth trillions of dollars.

Like Wexler, Bush failed to mention the ongoing federal grand jury investigation of Giffen's payments to Nazarbayev. He forgot about the violent repression of the media as well. But the president's family has a long history of ignoring Nazarbayev's transgressions. President Bush the First is a longtime friend of Nazarbayev's. In fact, when Nazarbayev visited Bush II in the White House this past December, he stopped first in Houston to meet with the president's daddy. Nazarbayev likes W too -- he recently gave the president a $10,000, ornately trimmed, Western-style saddle.

Not everyone joins in the hypocrisy. Several members of Congress -- including Miami's Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Republican -- have denounced Nazarbayev in speeches. On October 18, Rep. Martin Meehan (D-Massachusetts) wondered on the House floor what "the average Kazakh citizen thinks of U.S. support during this time of tyranny." Human Rights Watch Executive Director Kenneth Roth recently wrote a scolding letter to Vice President Dick Cheney, calling Kazakhstan an egregious example of the "connections between energy development, corruption, and political repression."

Such issues don't seem to bother Wexler, who was warned before embarking on his trip of Kazakhstan's tyrannical times by a Moscow-born political activist named Rinat Akhmetshin, who is director of the International Eurasian Institute for Economic and Political Research in Washington, D.C.

Akhmetshin met with Wexler on May 23 to urge the congressman to denounce Nazarbayev. "I had a one-hour conversation with Wexler in his office," Akhmetshin says. "The meeting occurred the day after two journalists in Kazakhstan were attacked and severely beaten, and I told him, 'This is the kind of country you are going to.'

"I explained everything to Wexler. I told him he should be aware that he was being used for propaganda by a dictator. Wexler said he was going mainly because the government of Kazakhstan was very close to Israel."

But that isn't really true, Akhmetshin notes. The Kazakh government routinely sides with Palestinians and is negotiating with Iran on another oil pipeline deal. In fact, Kazakhstan is only a nominal partner in the "war on terror" and recently admitted to providing North Korea with MiG fighter jets.

Akhmetshin also told the representative about the criminal investigations into Mashkevich and Nazarbayev. He remembers Wexler saying, "I'm a lawyer -- I would like to see some of the Department of State documents about these investigations."

After the meeting, Akhmetshin faxed the investigative information (which has been reported by the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post) to Wexler and repeated a request that he visit a journalist named Bakhytgul Makymbayeva, who had been beaten nearly to death after her newspaper criticized Nazarbayev. "I hope you will... lend moral support not only to her but to all those in Kazakhstan who yearn for freedom," Akhmetshin wrote, adding later, "American influence is essential if it is to turn back toward democratic reform and free market economics."

Unfortunately, Akhmetshin's efforts went for naught. Wexler never visited the journalist. Instead, he played into Nazarbayev's hands and, in the process, became a willing tool for a dictator.

"Wexler is dealing with real criminals here, and I can't understand why he's doing it," Akhmetshin complains. "He should have known better."

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