The Quiet Dictator

Presidential elections will be held in Kazakhstan on April 26, 2015. Formidable old-timer Nursultan Nazarbayev is most likely to have a walkover, certified by the rubber-stamp election commission of the country. Of course, there are rulers, who have reigned for much more time than he has. For example, Queen Elizabeth II ascended the throne, when Mr. Nazarbayev was the 12-year-old son of a shepherd in the Stalinist Kazakhstan. However, he eclipses the queen and many other monarchs in terms of personal wealth and political clout. The late Ambassador Dr. Rakhat Aliyev told a remarkable anecdote in his book, The Godfather-in-Law, 2009. Mr. Nazarbayev said to the then-son-in-law about his meeting with King Juan Carlos I of Spain: “Can you imagine? The king does not have money! I gave him a little help” Namely, according to Mr. Aliyev, the Kazakh President presented to the king one million dollars in cash.

Azeri Filmmaker Rustam Ibragimbekov sits at the foot of the dictator's throne, 2004.
Azeri Filmmaker Rustam Ibragimbekov sits at the foot of the dictator’s throne, 2004.

Nevertheless, the story of his fabulous net worth would be just another tale of petrodollars, too familiar to the audience. But, what about an implicit connection between the Malaysian Boeing 777, reportedly brought down by pro-Russian terrorists, and Kazakh authorities? Does it sound somewhat far-fetched? Not in the least. Did you know that one of the main military test sites for Russian anti-aircraft forces, Sary Shagan, is located in Kazakhstan? Therefore, there is a considerable possibility that the criminals, who shot down the airplane, could have passed drills at this test site. Here, in Kazakhstan it is difficult to obtain a small land plot for an ordinary citizen. However, the Russian army has rented eleven million hectares of our soil, which is bigger than the territory of South Korea, for a dirt-cheap price of 27.5 million dollars a year. Technically a head of sovereign state, Mr. Nazarbayev is practically a Moscow’s proxy, asking the French President Francois Hollande how the EU sanctions against Russia can be lifted. Even in the field of telecommunications, Mr. Nazarbayev’s Kazakhstan submits to Russia: along with the Georgia’s separatist region of Abkhazia, it uses the Russian country code, +7.

His unwavering loyalty to the Kremlin dates back to the end of fifties. There are two undisputable facts, which prove special relations between the imperial center and the dictator-to-be. You know, in the USSR only young men with exceptional skills, poor health, or very influential relatives were exempt from military service. The potential conscript Nazarbayev was not a brilliant artist or scientist. His health was good and he had no relatives among Communist bosses. Nevertheless, he evaded the conscription. Perhaps, he was a KGB informer or a prospective cadre for the Communist Party. That is why, his activities were much more useful in civilian life, where the teenage demagogue made his first steps up the pyramid of power. Another telltale fact refers to his Helsinki voyage, where he participated in the World Festival of Youth and Students, 1962. A visit to a capitalist country was a rare privilege for Soviet citizens. For example, Soviet delegation of the festival included such outstanding personalities as the first cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin and a gifted singer Muslim Magomayev. Needless to say that the peasant offspring had not similar extraordinary qualities. However, his Muscovite sponsors diligently built an impressive CV for their faithful protégé.

Mr. Nazarbayev may be righteously nicknamed a “PR creature”, for his stellar career as a communist activist consisted mainly of endless speeches, conferences and sessions, well covered by Soviet media. For instance, in December 1976 the leading Soviet newspaper, Pravda, published his critical essay about shortcomings in iron industry on the second page right after headlines! He was then just an obscure secretary of the communist organization at a steel plant. Afterwards, his career skyrocketed. Even, the ominous head of Soviet ideology, Mikhail Suslov, personally received him. When he became the Prime Minister of the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic in 1984, the apparatchik still pretended to be a gritty steel worker publishing a book about the industry, The Steel Profile of Kazakhstan. As a rule, Russian and, of course, local media have carefully guarded his business-like image, suppressing information about his involvement in the crushing of a popular riot in Almaty, 1986 and inter-ethnic violence in Zhanaozen, 1989.

Nevertheless, they kept an eye even on the reliable employee. A legendary Russian saboteur Viktor Karpukhin, who participated in the assassination of the Afghan President Hafizullah Amin in 1979, founded Mr. Nazarbayev’s bodyguard service in 1991. The next year, another Russian officer, Sergei Sinitsin, superseded Mr. Karpukhin. Therefore, ethnic Kazakh officers were not allowed to head the presidential bodyguard service until 1996. Because, transfer of atomic bombs and strategic bombers back to Russia, securing lease agreements concerning the Baikonur Cosmodrome and military test sites required the supervision of trusted KGB henchmen. Overall, Russian agents astonishingly infiltrated the Government of the Republic of Kazakhstan at the beginning of nineties. For example, Oleg Soskovets was appointed the First Deputy Prime Minister of Kazakhstan in 1992. Although, the next year Mr. Soskovets was promoted to the exactly the same position in the Russian Government. Vladimir Shumov, the Kazakh Interior Minister in 1992-1994, was promoted to the position of the Deputy Interior Minister of Russia and Acting Interior Minister of Chechnya in 1995. Can you imagine, say, a high-ranking Canadian official, promoted immediately to the analogous position in the US Government?

As time went by, Mr. Nazarbayev started to search for additional patrons. You know, it is unwise to put all eggs in one basket. Former KGB officer, an ethnic Uighur Karim Massimov is the Prime Minister of Kazakhstan. Mr. Massimov speaks Kazakh poorly, but his Chinese is quite good, because he received a diploma in the mainland China. Kassym-Zhomart Tokayev, former KGB officer who was a high-ranking Soviet diplomat in Beijing, is the Chairman of Senate in the Parliament of Kazakhstan. Mr. Tokayev speaks colloquial Kazakh, but his Chinese is better anyway. The both sinologists have distinguished themselves before the People’s Republic of China. Mr. Tokayev as the Foreign Minister of Kazakhstan contributed greatly to the transfer of at least 407 square kilometers of Kazakh territory to China in 1998. Mr. Massimov as the head of government has made his best to get multibillion Chinese loans, thus condemning the Kazakhs to dependence on China for decades to come.

Certainly, it would be unreasonable to blame only local corruption, sponsored by Russian and Chinese superiors. Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, former President of Poland Alexander Kwasniewski, and former Prime Minister of Italy Romano Prodi are among those, who have received hefty consulting fees from Mr. Nazarbayev. Of course, energetic activities of such powerful lobbyists partially explain the reluctance of Western establishment to impose sanctions on the Kazakh leadership, which is guilty of the Zhanaozen massacre of protesting oilmen in 2011 and the bloody persecution of political opponents. The oppressive regime in Russia has also learned a lesson or two from its junior partner. In February 2006, Kazakh opposition leader Altynbek Sarsenbayuly and two of his associates were murdered. Public outrage caused by this brutal crime forced Kazakh authorities to punish perpetrators, who ostensibly had acted out of personal grudge. However, big politicians, who had hired the assassins, have remained unpunished. Russian authorities have actually copycatted the Kazakh style of superficial investigation, when Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was assassinated in February 2015. Once again, they have not searched for influential customers, who had ordered this crime. They made scapegoats out of the Chechen assassins, who allegedly bore a personal grudge against the victim. Surely, capitalism is inherently conducive to organized crime, but I cannot imagine Barack Obama ordering the assassination of Mitt Romney or Al Capone running for US presidency.

Today, three dictators — the leaders of Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Russia — integrate the countries into some reincarnation of the Soviet Union. No popular votes have been held. Completely different nations have been forced to form a mésalliance. However, while the West has sanctioned certain Byelorussian and Russian politicians, state enterprises, their Kazakh counterparts have miraculously escaped such penalties. Mr. Nazarbayev quietly carries out his authoritarian agenda. Kazakh petrodollars are more convincing argument than abstract human rights. Instead of supporting the dwindling pro-Western elite of Kazakhstan, the EU and USA actually approve the repressive policy of the Kazakh regime. In February 2015, Austrian authorities were accomplices in the tragic death of Mr. Aliyev in a Viennese prison. A fugitive banker Mukhtar Ablyazov, a staunch opponent of Mr. Nazarbayev, is imprisoned in France. True, Kazakh opposition leaders engaged once in questionable practices, but today they present a somewhat democratic alternative to the hardened autocrat.

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