President Obama said Sunday that the United States is still "working on" democracy and a top aide said he has taken "historic steps" to improve democracy in the United States during his time in office.
The remarks came as Obama met with Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev -- one of the U.S. president's many meetings with world leaders ahead of this week's nuclear summit.
Kazakhstan, which has been touting its record on combating nuclear proliferation, is a key player in the NATO supply network to Afghanistan and currently heads the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
Some observers see a conflict between Kazakhstan's chairmanship of the 56-nation OSCE, which plays an important role in monitoring elections in emerging democracies, and its own widely criticized human rights record.
But if the Obama administration saw any disconnect, it kept its criticism to itself.
"In connection with the OSCE, the presidents had a very lengthy discussion of issues of democracy and human rights," NSC senior director Mike McFaul said on a conference call with reporters Sunday. "Both presidents agreed that you don't ever reach democracy; you always have to work at it. And in particular, President Obama reminded his Kazakh counterpart that we, too, are working to improve our democracy."
The Wall Street Journal's Jonathan Weisman asked McFaul to clarify.
"You seemed to be suggesting there was some equivalence between their issues of democracy and the United States' issues, when you said that President Obama assured him that we, too, are working on our democracy," Weisman said. "Is there equivalence between the problems that President Nazarbayev is confronting and the state of democracy in the United States?"
"Absolutely not ... There was no equivalence meant whatsoever," McFaul said. "[Obama's] taken, I think, rather historic steps to improve our own democracy since coming to office here in the United States."
In an interview, Kazakh Ambassador Erlan Idrissov told Weisman, "There was no pressure at all in the meeting," and that Obama quoted Winston Churchill as saying that democracy is "the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried."
The warm welcome for Nazarbayev underscores the extent to which Kazakhstan, which agreed in January to allow NATO to ship nonlethal cargo through its territory, has become critical to the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan -- especially given the ongoing instability in neighboring Kyrgyzstan, where the U.S. military leases an important airbase.
Nazarbayev has ruled Kazakhstan since 1991, when the country became independent after the fall of the Soviet Union, and his highly centralized rule has been heavily criticized by human rights monitors.
The State Department's own 2009 human rights report on Kazakhstan reported widespread human rights violations, including severe limits on citizens' rights to change their government; detainee and prisoner torture and other abuse; unhealthy prison conditions; arbitrary arrest and detention; lack of an independent judiciary; restrictions on freedom of speech, the press, assembly, and association; and pervasive corruption, especially in law enforcement and the judicial system.
Freedom House's 2010 world survey declared Kazakhstan "not free" and said, "Kazakhstan holds the chairmanship of the OSCE for the year 2010 despite a record of fraudulent elections and repression of independent critics in the media and civil society -- behavior that only grew worse as 2010 approached."
The latest Human Rights Watch report on Kazakhstan was entitled, "An atmosphere of quiet repression."
"Putting the United States in the same category as a country such as Kazakhstan is ridiculous, said Jamie Fly, executive director of the Foreign Policy Institute, a conservative think tank. "President Obama should be using the success of America's democratic experience to encourage foreign leaders to improve their own systems, not implying that we are all in the same boat."