James Nixey
Head, Russia and Eurasia Programme

David Cameron is about to become the first serving British Prime Minister to visit a Central Asian country – specifically Kazakhstan on June 30, the region's most powerful state and the world’s ninth largest by size.

Powerful is a relative term. The yardstick among the other four Central Asian countries is spectacularly low (none have an economy anywhere near the world’s top 50, Kazakhstan is just inside it). While the country can claim genuine achievements in prosperity, and inter-ethnic harmony, the reverse side of the coin reveals at least some familiar elements of post-Soviet inheritance disease: Cameron’s host, President Nursultan Nazarbaev, has led the country since 1989 and in late 2011 it seemed as though his grip was loosening due to street protests and ensuing deadly repression.

Human rights organizations are, predictably, complaining about the message the prime minister's visit to an authoritarian regime sends. Private enterprise, with equal predictability, is delighted at the boost to investor confidence this should bring. For Nazarbaev it is rather a coup; and for Cameron, commensurately, it is something to get over and done with as soon as possible to avoid embarrassment.

Embarrassment from bear hugs with autocrats is probably a cross prime ministers have to put up with, as long as it is made clear (and often it is not) that relationships with dictators have limits. Former prime ministers have no such realpolitik obligations, so Tony Blair should, perhaps be asked more questions about the results so far of his consultancy company's 'support for Kazakhstan’s social, political and economic reform'. The results are abysmal. Most NGOs and experts agree that the human rights situation in Kazakhstan has deteriorated significantly in the past two years. Reform in Kazakhstan of anything other than a technocratic nature, is absent. Indeed, if carried to its logical conclusion, reform could bring about the end of the regime. So a less disingenuous term than 'assistance' would be reputation management. The results for Blair's company do seem clear however: reportedly some $13 million.

A more nuanced, less entirely business-driven approach to Central Asia would also save Mr Cameron the embarrassment that HRH Prince Andrew, the former UK trade envoy, suffered when Wikileaks revealed his disdain for checks and balances on regimes he was close to. The Prince was particularly close to Kazakhstan, even selling one of his UK properties to a controversial Kazakhstani businessman. This untroubled attitude embarrassed the government at the time and the Prince was removed from his business promotion position.

None of which is to say the UK should not have good trade relations with Kazakhstan. The business environment could and should be improved. But this visit does offer an opening for a debate on how to deal more broadly with problematic countries. An uncritical, business-only approach to countries with poor human rights records does not aid reform. In fact, it probably discourages it and prolongs the life of an undemocratic government. If this is Cameron’s approach in Kazakhstan, he should be taken to task for it – and not just by the usual human rights organizations, but by the opposition and the national media too.

By the same token, eschewing trade altogether is too purist an approach. Studies have shown links between economic development and democracy, and holding back Kazakhstan's ambition to be the Central Asian 'tiger' would be perverse. Kazakhstan’s energy wealth plays a significant part in this – and also, conveniently, a role in the EU’s sensible diversity-of-supply strategy. The Kashagan field, for all its difficulties, probably contains 11 billion barrels of oil and one trillion cubic metres of gas. David Cameron and other European leaders should not be sycophantic because of this, and the diversity strategy means he does not have to be. Kazakhstan, after all, equally sensibly courts multiple suitors – Russia, China and the West – and is reliant on none.

Other than energy, military equipment has become a pertinent issue for the wider Central Asian region. The NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan will, in part, reverse back through Central Asia. Arguing that they should not leave weapons behind as they go home is not a purist point of view, but born of an historical awareness that this is not a region which needs more guns. Defence Secretary Philip Hammond's announcement that he was confident that £450,000 worth of the UK’s military kit to neighbouring Uzbekistan would not be used for repressive purposes is, then, either prescient or crass. Either way, the source of his confidence should be made public.

The visit of a leader of a historically significant mid-level power such as the UK, to Kazakhstan – a country struggling for its place in the world, 22 years since independence – is well worth trying. Policy over this time has not worked after all, partly out of western neglect and expediency, and partly due to the tricky combination of diplomatic niceties and the need for change. What is needed is the formulation of principles for dealing with regimes which do not share the same values – and then to stick to them. In short, trade should come with conditions and this should be clearly stated. It will pay dividends in the long run and the friendly squeeze from Mr Nazarbaev this week may not be quite so asphyxiating.