US President George W. Bush heaped praise on the president of Kazakhstan, a Central Asian country important to the US as an oil supplier and war-on-terror ally but which has a political system that stifles dissent.
US concerns over Kazakhstani President Nursultan Nazarbayev's heavy-handed rule did not come up when the two leaders appeared before reporters after their nearly hourlong Oval Office meeting on Friday. Instead, the two were all compliments in brief comments that came before Bush hosted a private luncheon for Nazarbayev in the White House residence.
Bush thanked Nazarbayev for supporting the US-led war in Iraq, for his willingness to fight terrorists and to help neighboring Afghanistan become a stable democracy, and for his "commitment to institutions that will enable liberty to flourish."
Bush offered support for Kazakhstan's desire to join the WTO.
"I have watched very carefully the development of this important country from one that was in the Soviet sphere to one that now is a free nation. I appreciate your leadership, Mr President," Bush said as the two sat side by side.
The meeting coincided with an official announcement of a US-Kazakhstan agreement in principle to dilute highly enriched uranium in Kazakhstan so that it is no longer suitable for nuclear weapons.
The agreement was announced by the US Department of Energy and the private Nuclear Threat Initiative, which opposes the development of weapons of mass destruction.
It also calls for the conversion of a research reactor in Kazakhstan so that it can operate on low enriched uranium fuel instead of the highly enriched variety.
US Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman said the agreement was another example of "of the kind of productive cooperation the United States and Kazakhstan have shared in furthering nuclear non-proliferation."
After the meeting, the White House released a joint statement by the two governments that stressed their commitment to development in Kazakhstan of an "independent media, local self-government and elections deemed free and fair by international standards."
After his meeting with Bush, Nazarbayev expressed gratitude for US support for Kazakhstan's independence from the Soviet Union 15 years ago.
Nazarbayev said in his dinner speech that thousands of Kazakhs suffered from the radiological fallout from Soviet nuclear testing in his land that lasted more than 50 years. The testing took place in populated areas, he said.
He challenged the US and other nuclear powers to follow his example and make their countries nuclear-free.