David Cameron hopes to trigger a series of business deals in the oil-rich republic of Kazakhstan worth up to £85bn over the next decade and has made it clear that he is placing Britain’s role in the economic “global race” above the defence of human rights.
As he opened a new oil plant linked to the vast $136bn (£89bn) Kashagan oilfield in the Caspian Sea, the prime minister said he had disturbed his weekend to promote British businesses rather than challenge the authoritarian Kazakh president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, on human rights.
The prime minister, who is accompanied by a 33-strong business delegation, said he would only raise human rights with the president as a subsidiary issue, despite a warning from Amnesty International that the former Soviet republic has a “disgraceful” record.
Cameron had what was described as a “substantial bilateral” meeting with Nazarbayev, who was re-elected in controversial circumstances in 2011, during a two-hour flight on the president’s private jet from the Caspian Sea oil port of Atyrau to the capital, Astana.
Cameron showed some irritation with questions about human rights as he arrived in Kazakhstan from Pakistan. “Let’s be clear. Why am I here in Kazakhstan on a Sunday? I’ll tell you why. We are in a global race for jobs and investment. This is one of the most rapidly emerging countries in the world.
“I have over 30 British businesses with me. We’re hoping to sign over £700m worth of deals. That means jobs back at home and also investment in this rapidly growing economy. That’s what this is about. But of course nothing is off the agenda, including human rights.”
The Kazakh foreign minister praised the prime minister and Tony Blair, who is advising the president, for helping to improve the republic’s image on the world stage.
Erlan Idrissov said: “We are very honoured and privileged to have such attention on the part of two prime ministers [towards] Kazakhstan – Tony Blair and David Cameron. We cherish and enjoy the support of developed countries on our part for development … We are grateful that Mr Tony Blair and his colleagues are providing invaluable advice.”
Idrissov said Kazakhstan acknowledged the criticism of its human rights record but insisted that it was on a transition to becoming a “Jeffersonian democracy” which would take some time to complete.
The foreign minister said: “We do hear criticisms. We do not feel absolutely unhappy about those criticisms. We patiently explain to our partners that we are not today a Jeffersonian democracy and that a Jeffersonian democracy is our ultimate destination.”
But Amnesty International called on the prime minister to pay close attention to Kazakhstan’s human rights record after the shooting dead of 12 people in Zhanaozen in the west of the country in 2011 during a protest by oil workers.
British companies have a strong interest in the giant offshore western Kazakhstan Kashagan oilfield in the Caspian Sea, which has estimated reserves of 9bn barrels.
Allan Hogarth, Amnesty International’s UK head of policy and government affairs, said: “Kazakhstan might be knee-deep in oil and gas wealth, but David Cameron shouldn’t let lucrative energy deals prevent him from raising human rights during his trip.
“There are reports that the police in Kazakhstan have beaten up and detained oil workers who’d gone on strike to protest at the management’s refusal to allow an independent trade union.”
The business leaders accompanying the prime minister, including representatives from Shell, BG and Petrofac, are due to close deals worth £700m. Downing Street has its eye on future deals estimated by officials to be worth £85bn over the coming years.
The prime minister urged Nazarbayev to move to the next stage of the development of the Kashagan oilfield. This would benefit Shell, which has a substantial stake in the oilfield, and smaller British companies in the supply chain such as Wood Group.
Britain is also to encourage trade by piloting a special visa service, called the Business Bridge, in the new capital of Astana for selected companies. Britain still processes visas from the old capital, Almaty, which is 60 miles away.