By Andrew Osborn
ATYRAU, Kazakhstan (Reuters) – British Prime Minister David Cameron flew into Kazakhstan on Sunday to help inaugurate the world’s costliest oil project and seal new business deals, but faced immediate pressure to denounce the country’s poor human rights record.
Cameron‘s visit, the first by a serving British prime minister, is seen by the Central Asian government as a coup it hopes will cement its status as a rising economic power and confer a degree of legitimacy from the West it has long sought.
It comes just days before the 73rd birthday of President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who has ruled the former Soviet republic with a tight grip for over two decades.
Former British prime minister Tony Blair’s consultancy firm already advises Nazarbayev, a former Communist party apparatchik who tolerates no dissent or opposition.
“We are very honored and privileged to have such attention on the part of two prime ministers – Tony Blair and David Cameron,” Kazakh Foreign Minister Erlan Idrissov told reporters in a phone call before the visit.
“We cherish and enjoy the support of developed countries.”
Cameron, who is accompanied by a British business delegation, is expected to oversee the signing of about a dozen contracts involving British firms and to cut the ribbon on infrastructure elements of the Kashagan offshore oilfield.
Royal Dutch Shell has a 16.81 percent stake in the facility, which is in the Kazakh segment of the Caspian Sea. Nazarbayev said last week consortium members had so far invested $48 billion, making it the most expensive oil venture in the world.
It is due to produce its first oil in September.
Cameron is also hoping to persuade Kazakhstan to expand transit rights for British military forces relocating equipment from Afghanistan between now and a planned withdrawal next year. Nazarbayev has already granted overflight rights, but Cameron is looking for land transit rights too.
As Britain’s trade with the euro zone suffers because of the currency bloc’s debt woes, it is looking further afield to forge business links with countries that have enjoyed rapid economic growth in recent years.
With a $200 billion economy, the largest in Central Asia, and deep oil and gas reserves, Kazakhstan is a tempting target. Britain is already among the top three sources of foreign direct investment, according to Kazakh officials.
Since its 1991 independence, officials say British firms have invested about $20 billion in their economy, part of a total $170 billion ploughed into Kazakhstan since then.
But more high profile trade links carry political risks.
New York-based Human Rights Watch said Cameron had a duty to use his trip to denounce human rights abuses.
“We are very concerned about the serious and deteriorating human rights situation there in recent years, including credible allegations of torture, the imprisonment of government critics, (and) tight controls over the media and freedom of expression and association,” it said in a letter on Friday.
Cameron told reporters in Islamabad on Sunday he never shied away from having difficult conversations on such trips.
“In all the relationships we have there’s never anything off the table and we raise and discuss all these issues, and that will be the case with Kazakhstan as well,” he said.
“It is important to make this visit. It’s very much something I chose and wanted to do.”
Kazakhstan was a key market for British firms, he added, saying that other European leaders had visited and it was “high time” a British prime minister did too.
In another awkward twist for Cameron, the London-based daughter of a jailed former Kazakh businessman, Mukhtar Dzhakishev, has urged him to raise her father’s case when he meets Nazarbayev.
But it is the case of Vladimir Kozlov, a jailed opposition leader, that activists most want Cameron to mention.
An outspoken critic of Nazarbayev, Kozlov was jailed for seven-and-a-half years in October for colluding with a fugitive billionaire in a failed attempt to rally oil workers to bring down the government. Kozlov denied the charges.
Idrissov, the foreign minister, said criticism of his country was overdone.
“We do not claim that we have got everything right,” he said. “It was never going to be possible to turn a country with no democratic institutions or culture into a Jeffersonian democracy in two decades.”
(Additional reporting by Dmitry Solovyov; in Almaty; Editing by Andrew Heavens)