Former British PM Tony Blair has appeared in a promotional video for Kazakhstan praising "progress" in the former Soviet state. In heavily edited clips from a TV interview he talks about the country's "extraordinary economic potential". Mr Blair has been advising President Nursultan Nazarbayev on political reform and economic development. But human rights campaigners say the video presents a "sanitised image of this repressive country".
The country has been criticised over clashes in December between police and striking oil workers in which at least 14 people died. This week the New York-based campaign group Human Rights Watch said the country should suspend the trial of other oil workers who took part, who have claimed they were tortured.
The hour-long video, titled "In the stirrups of time" by Kazakh satellite channel Caspionet, features photos and video of the president and the country and clips of interviews with international business figures and Kazakh ministers. It also features several clips of an interview with Mr Blair recorded last November, conducted as the country geared up for the 20th anniversary of its independence from the Soviet Union.
The former British PM - whose Faith Foundation promotes respect and understanding between religions - is filmed saying: "It's a country that is almost unique I would say in its cultural diversity and the way it brings different faiths together, and cultures together. "In the work that I do there, I've found them really smart people, capable, very determined and very proud of their country."
In a clip which jumps between comments, he says the country's "progress is remarkable" since independence and in another heavily edited clip, he says President Nazarbayev had "a combination of the toughness necessary to take the decisions to put the country on the right path" and "a certain degree of subtlety and ingenuity that allowed him to manoeuvre in a region which is fraught with difficulties".
He says the country has an "extraordinary economic potential that, if it's developed in the right way, will create... a real bastion of stability and progress". President Nazarbayev has led Kazakhstan since the Soviet era, achieving stability and strong economic growth, but tightly suppressing opposition to his rule. International observers have never deemed any election in Kazakhstan as free and fair and Mr Blair's appearance in the video has come in for some criticism.
Jane Buchanan, acting deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Central Asia Division, said: "We strongly believe that if Mr Blair wants to help the government of Kazakhstan improve its international reputation so that people outside of Kazakhstan realise, as he says in the video, 'the country is an important player in the world', then his efforts would be better spent advising them to fix human rights problems than appearing in promotional videos that present a sanitised image of this repressive country." But Mr Blair's spokesman said, in the full interview, Mr Blair had "made it clear that there had to be political reform including on human rights".
"He's working with the government on that. But, in the video, he was commenting on their 20 years since independence. He does believe that increasing the size of the economy by ten times and giving up nuclear weapons, guaranteeing religious equality and a secular approach are real achievements." He stressed that Mr Blair had not been paid for taking part in the video and said he did not make "any personal profit" out of his advisory work with the president. He said Mr Blair's approach to Kazakhstan was consistent with that of other Western leaders and institutions like the European Union and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development.
"He believes that it is important for the West to work with those leaders and countries that are willing and determined to reform their systems and consider advice from the international community and Western leaders," the spokesman said. Awareness of Kazakhstan was boosted in the West when it featured in the 2006 spoof film Borat, by British comic Sacha Baron Cohen. At the time its potrayal of an uncultured Kazakh journalist outraged people in Kazakhstan and was eventually banned in the country. But this week Yerzhan Kazykhanov, Kazakhstan's foreign minister thanked "Borat" for boosting tourism to the Central Asian country.