Residents of Washington, D.C., faced severe gridlock this week as the heads of more than 40 countries arrived in town for President Barack Obama's nuclear security summit. That prompted more than a few extra Washingtonians to opt for public transport. But surely they couldn’t have expected the rare opportunity that their decision afforded -- a chance to wait for the bus with the president of Kazakhstan!
In recent days, the world has paid more attention to Central Asia than usual. It isn’t common that a government is toppled, and that appears to have happened in Kyrgyzstan. But perhaps wanting to remind residents and the investment-hungry businessmen of the U.S. capital -- along with visiting world leaders -- that Kyrgyzstan isn’t the only Central Asian country worthy of attention these days, the Kazakh PR machine has put up posters of President Nursultan Nazarbaev at bus stops throughout the city.
The ads, featuring a smiling Nazarbaev looking off into the yonder, tell readers of Kazakh leadership in working toward a nuclear-free world. Indeed, Kazakhstan has dismantled its Soviet-inherited nuclear weapons program, the world's fourth largest. In a meeting with Nazarbaev on April 11, Obama praised his counterpart’s leadership on non-proliferation issues.
But according to Michael McFaul, Obama's adviser for Russian and Eurasian affairs, the U.S. president also had a “lengthy” and “frank” discussion with Nazarbaev on human rights issues in his country. Nazarbaev has been widely criticized for his authoritarian clampdown on freedoms, and independent journalists in Astana have submitted a petition to the U.S. Embassy urging Obama not to attend an OSCE summit that Nazarbaev hopes to hold later this year. Obama’s absence would send a message, the journalists hope, that leadership in one arena doesn’t mask deficiency in others.
But for or now, Nazarbaev is on Obama’s home turf. He’s here for the summit, and to greet Washingtonians -- some interested, some amused, some perplexed -- with his bus stop message.