Their Ma’am in Aqmola

As a relatively obscure country, Kazakhstan has not been a dream destination for top-notch Western reporters or experts. Therefore, our country has been accustomed to run-of-the-mill journalists like Douglas Busvine of Reuters News Agency or mediocre experts such as Martha Brill Olcott of the Carnegie Endowment, who don’t speak Kazakh. No wonder that their heavy dependence on Russian-speaking sources has often made them undistinguishable from their Russian counterparts. But, every rule has an exception. At least, it looks that way. A British journalist Joanna Lillis, with her extensive hands-on experience of the former Soviet Union, is definitely better informed on the subject than the vast majority of Western journalists and experts, who deal with Kazakhstan. A cunning linguist, who speaks several languages, she has even attempted to master the Kazakh one. Consequently, Ms. Lillis has reported for such prestigious media outlets as The Guardian and the Economist.

A bottle of vodka on the window sill.

Celebrating the 20th anniversary of her presence in Central Asia and Kazakhstan, I humbly propose the following review of the British one’s book and articles. Incidentally, this one will be the 600th post of my blog.

Her book, Dark Shadows: Inside the Secret World of Kazakhstan, published by I.B.Tauris & Co. Ltd. in 2019, contains quite instructive data, too. For instance, on page 4 the author tells us that in 1995 in Moscow she worked “in a menial job at the British embassy (as “social secretary” to the ambassador, organising his receptions and dinners)”. Well, in my opinion, here Miss Moneypenny Ms. Lillis shows false modesty, not letting us inside the secret world of MI6. But, generally she remains rather an outsider in terms of comprehension of indigenous affairs. Right on page 1, the author succinctly describes Kazakhstan’s progress during the period from 1991 to 2001 as though it “had emerged blinking from a post-Soviet depression and stumbled into an oil boom”. Personally, I want this “depression” back! At the beginning of the 1990s, our country was one of the top 20 world producers of electricity, being ahead of such large countries as Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey. In terms of military might, with more than 1,000 nuclear warheads and 40 strategic bombers Kazakhstan ranked number 4 in the world, just after USA, Russia, and Ukraine. The country also had strong agricultural capabilities, freedom of speech, etc. Nowadays, both our industrial and military rankings are much lower than they were at the end of 1991. There is a ruined opposition in the country. The disarmed Kazakhstan lost some 15,000 square kilometers of its south-east territories to China in 1999. In the north, Russia captured our Ogneuporny settlement in 2005. Technically, it was an exchange of territories between the two countries. But, while Russia got hold of the Kazakh settlement with valuable deposits of fire clay, Kazakhstan received an uninhabited landplot with no valuable resources.

Failing to grasp local subtleties, Ms. Lillis sometimes makes technically correct statements, which are not so true in their substance. For example, on page 79 she asserts that president Nursultan Nazarbayev “first faced a challenger in 1999, trouncing communist leader Abdildin, a respected elder statesman figure, with 81 per cent”. Ok, the author dutifully repeats official results of the presidential elections. But, election campaigns, especially in Central Asia and Kazakhstan, have been prone to vote rigging. In August 2016, I met the aforementioned Serikbolsyn Abdildin – the former Chairman of the Kazakh Parliament. Mr. Abdildin told me that some experts firmly believe that he actually won the 1999 presidential elections. Anyway, it wasn’t the landslide victory as she depicts this event.

The author also commits certain inaccuracies in her historical studies. On pages 131-132, Ms. Lillis sheds some light on the Jewish revolutionary Filipp Isayevich (Shaya Itskovich) Goloshchyokin: “As military commissar of the Urals after the revolution, he had been instrumental in orchestrating the bloody execution of the last tsar Nicholas II and his wife, children and servants in a Siberian cellar in 1918 and the disposal of the royal bodies down some nearby mineshafts”. First of all, Nicholas II abdicated the throne on 15 March 1917. So, at the time of their execution on 16-17 July 1918 in an Urals cellar of Yekaterinburg City, Nikolai Romanov and his family were ordinary citizens. Of course, killing innocent children is a crime. But, the author should have noted that Nicholas II himself was a war criminal, who was responsible for the bloody suppression of the Kazakh uprisal in 1916, when hundreds of thousands peaceful Kazakhs were murdered by the Russian military and the Cossacks.

Despite her impressive portfolio of publications on Central Asia and Kazakhstan, Ms. Lillis often doesn’t see the forest for the trees. For example, her article Almaty banks on real snow to win Winter Olympics from Beijing, published on 30 July 2015, ignores the evident fact that Almaty has been a convenient sparring partner for Russia and China, when they bid and eventually win Winter Olympics. This time, the Chinese capital was awarded with the 2022 Games, although the Kazakh city is much more suitable for winter sports, especially skating and skiing. Before that, a Russian city of Sochi in 2007 succeeded with the Russian bid to hold the 2014 Games, while Almaty didn’t make the short list. The unorthodox decision by the International Olympic Committee to choose the subtropical resort in the Caucasus as a venue for winter sports events was, of course, deeply influenced by Russian petrodollars and escort girls. But, the inept bidding campaign of Kazakhstan – a Russian proxy – also played in favor of the Sochi candidacy. So, the Kazakh government, infested with Russian and Chinese agents, has been traditionally good in creating an illusion of fair competition with its Moscow and Beijing superiors.

Another instance of her rather superficial knowledge of regional topics can be illustrated by an article Kazakhstan: The Northern Aral Sea Rides Wave of Optimism, published on 24 April 2009. Once again, the tragedy of the shrinking sea was presented like an extreme tourist attraction: “The rotting, graffiti-covered hulk of this ship, resting in what used to be the harbor of Aral (formerly Aralsk), is a testament to the environmental devastation that ill-conceived irrigation policies inflicted on the region”. Apparently, Ms. Lillis  ignored some important data, concerning the grave topic. For instance, Aral is a hometown for such distinguished persons as an outstanding Kazakh writer Abdizhamil Nurpeissov, Russian Jewish general Lev Rokhlin, the prime minister of Kazakhstan Uzakbai Karamanov, and so on. Thus, the town has also contributed to political and cultural life of the former Soviet Union.

Moreover, one of the promising projects to save the Aral Sea is the Northern river reversal. Give&Take – a journal on civil society in Eurasia – reports on page 10 of its Spring 2003 Vol. 6/Issue 2, where an article In a Turn to the Past, Moscow Proposes To Reverse Siberia’s Rivers by Irina Zherelina tells that “Moscow’s mayor, Yuri Luzhkov, has recently managed to revive the idea of turning Siberian rivers back toward Asia, claiming that his particular plan for a 2500-kilometer canal is somehow new. Luzhkov attributes the 1986 rejection of the project to “weak and indecisive leadership” and to “disinformation by pseudopatriots and pseudoenvironmentalists”—the president of the Siberian branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences, a leading proponent of sustainable development in Russia, being one such “pseudoenvironmentalist”. Unfortunately, the noble idea of the late ex-Mayor of Moscow has been rejected by the Russian establishment, who erstwhile had made multi-billion profits out of the Aral cotton, fish, and rice.

By the way, the former fishing minister of Kazakhstan, Kudaibergen Sarzhanov, told me last year that the Aral Sea fish was especially valuable, since it wasn’t as salty as ocean fish, at the same time being more nutritious than river fish. Mr. Sarzhanov, who was also born in Aral, says that Communist leaders of the USSR regaled themselves with the Aral Sea fish, too. Besides, Ms. Lillis doesn’t mention that up to 1936 the Aral Sea was entirely a Kazakh lake, because the Republic of Karakalpakstan had been a part of Kazakhstan before its Kremlin-approved annexation by Uzbekistan. The Kazakhs, devastated by the famine orchestrated by Mr. Goloshchyokin, couldn’t put much resistance to the forceful separation from their almost identical twins, the Karakalpaks, who are as close to the Kazakhs as Austrians to Germans.

Once more, I regret to point out that Ms. Lillis from time to time simply miss major trends. So, there are misplaced accents in her reports. For example, in 2013-2014 the British one’s articles both in The Guardian and Eurasianet don’t even mention a vitally important stage of the Russia’s insidious encroachment on Kazakhstan, whose legal framework and initial deployment were successfully carried out during the period. Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimea in the spring of 2014. But, it gained control of the Kazakh airspace in more subtle ways. On 27 May 2014, an English-language Russian media outlet reported in its publication Russia and Kazakhstan Create Unified Air Defense System that “As part of the agreement reached between Moscow and Astana in January 2013 and signed by Nazarbayev on Monday, Russia will provide Kazakhstan with five divisions of the advanced S-300PS anti-aircraft missile systems for free. The joint Russia-Kazakhstan command will be headed by an officer who will be appointed by the presidents of Russia and Kazakhstan after being nominated by the defense ministers of the two countries”. Well, nowadays the proverbial free cheese in the mousetrap can take the form of ostensibly free weaponry. The “independent” Kazakhstan once again demonstrated its puppet nature: they have to get Russia’s approval before the appointment of its air-defense commander.

However, there is no limit to perfection. The obliging Kazakhs take their unequal cooperation with Russia still further. Earlier this autumn, the Russians made a successful move to gain control of personal information of Kazakhstan’s citizens in its entirety. An article PJSC Sberbank : Kazakhstan to abandon domestic eGov platform for Russian service reports that “A plan to move Kazakhstan’s well-regarded e-government system onto an untried, Russian-made platform has the Central Asian nation’s IT sector up in arms, worried about security and furious that domestic talent was not assigned the task. The platform, known simply as GosTekh, was developed by state-owned Sberbank. Early this month Prime Minister Askar Mamin signed a memorandum with Sberbank CEO Herman Gref on adopting GosTekh in a deal potentially worth $500mn. Sberbank, Russia’s largest bank, launched GosTekh last autumn. It has not yet been adopted anywhere; Russia reportedly plans to roll it out in late 2023…

Kazakhstan’s current eGov system, which was built domestically and launched in 2006, helps citizens pay taxes, send inquiries to officials, manage real estate ownership, and much more. It is a repository of sensitive personal data. By international standards, it works well. Kazakhstan ranked 29th of 193 countries in a 2020 UN survey of e-government development. In the same report, Kazakhstan ranked 11th for the quality of its online government services, ahead of the Netherlands; Russia took 36th place… Nurlan Isin, president of the Association of IT Companies, a trade group, believes Kazakhstan “cannot maintain digital sovereignty while the GosTekh platform is built and managed by a foreign company. The IT industry of Kazakhstan is capable of creating a new platform for the government”, Isin said in an interview this month with Kursiv.kz”.

Thus, Russia exerts effective control over Kazakhstan from airspace to cyberspace. Directly harming our country, the aggressive Russian policy indirectly brings losses to the West, obstructing its access to the Kazakh marketplace. In this respect, let me tell you about my neighborhood in Almaty. Just across the street, to the south of my house, there was a sewing factory, named after the 1st of May Holiday. Well, its Soviet-style products were not of superb quality, but the factory provided hundreds of workers with jobs up to the end of the 1990s. Now, the majority of these workers are unemployed, and in place of the sewing factory the invisible hand of the “market” has established a department store, which predominantly sells Russian and Chinese goods of mediocre quality. Two blocks away to the north-east, a furniture factory “Мерей” (Merei, which means “Glory” in Kazakh) operated up to the end of the 1990s. The furniture factory turned out shabby chairs and cupboards, providing not only numerous workplaces, but also sizable income for shareholders. Now, its workers for the most part don’t have regular jobs, and in place of the factory another department store of the same name is operating, selling shabby products, as a rule, from Russia and China. Finally, one block away to the south-east, an industrial-size bakery of the Soviet era operated up to the early 2010s. The bakery provided us with fresh bread, not to mention dozens of its workers, enjoying stable and noble jobs. Now, there is a supermarket in place of the bakery. The supermarket – surprise, surprise! – provides us mostly with Russian and Chinese products of mediocre quality.

Once again, Ms. Lillis doesn’t seem to feel such distinct symptoms of the insidious Russo-Chinese conspiracy to invade the Kazakh marketplace, smothering local producers and discouraging foreign competitors. Apart from the past and present major events, overlooked by her, there are some future projects of regional importance, which the British one neglects to notice. Starting from 1 January 2023, they plan to introduce mandatory fingerprinting of all citizens of Kazakhstan and foreign visitors. Thus, our country would follow in the footsteps of such authoritarian countries, as China and South Korea, where technological advances have been used primarily for surveillance purposes. Every Kazakh would be relegated to the level of suspects and criminals. But, instead of promoting democratic values, Ms. Lillis is busy with a police-state agenda.

A cartoon, depicting ordinary citizens, suffering from covid-19 restrictions.

What are the real healthcare issues of our country? Many Kazakhs suffer from tuberculosis, hepatitis, heart diseases, etc. Due to bad environmental conditions, which adversely affect female body parts, some Kazakh women have to pass through the ordeal of breast surgery. But, the British one has other priorities on her mind. Within one year of 2020-2021, she made four Eurasianet publications about the grossly exaggerated Covid-19 in Kazakhstan, as though other healthcare problems in our country have been satisfactorily resolved. In a word, the mortality of many unemployed, malnutrioned Kazakhs has been mainly caused not by the pathetic common cold or pneumonia. As for other countries, take a look at the last year clashes in Belarus and USA after presidential elections in these countries. Millions of unmasked Belorussians and Americans, violating the “sacred” law of social distance, participated in numerous outdoor and indoor meetings across their nations. These massive gatherings took place many times for a couple of months. Personally, I haven’t heard about outbreaks of infectious diseases in Belarus and USA due to the aforementioned meetings and gatherings. Such info is just another proof of rather business/political than medical driving forces behind the Covid Hoax.

Journalist Joanna Lillis, left, with a political scientist Dossym Satpayev.

Certainly, long-standing activities of Ms. Lillis in Central Asia and Kazakhstan have also been based on her cooperation with the intelligence community of Kazakhstan. One of her connections there – a “political scientist” Dossym Satpayev. According to the late Ambassador Rakhat Aliyev, both Mr. Satpayev and his fellow “political scientist” Yerlan Karin – currently, a senior aide to president Kassym-Zhomart Tokayev – are agents of the National Security Committee of Kazakhstan (KGB).  Figure it out for yourselves, whom you should trust.

As for the title of the post, I have used the historical name of the current capital of Kazakhstan – Ақмола (Aqmola), which means “The White Shrine” in Kazakh. Even the Russian Czars respected this placename, only slightly Russifying it as Акмолинск (Akmolinsk). However, since the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev they have arbitrarily renamed the city several times. First, the city was renamed as Целиноград (Tselinograd) – “The City of Virgin Lands” in Russian. Then, it was renamed as Астана (Astana) – “The Capital”, but this Persian word means “a region” actually. Now, the official name of the city is Нұр-Сұлтан (Nur-Sultan) – “The Luminous King” in Arabic. Incidentally, it is Lucifer in Latin. Thus, the complicated story of the placename itself convincingly demonstrates dependent nature of the Kazakh politics. This didactic story has also eluded attention of Joanna Lillis.

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