The Gilded Cage of Asia

Why is the dictatorship of Kazakhstan getting such good PR?


In 1992, a couple of months after formally leaving the Soviet Union, the government of Kazakhstan received a remarkable offer from Muammar Qaddafi. The Libyan dictator proposed that he "keep the country’s nuclear arsenal in the capacity of, as he wrote, the first Muslim atomic bombs."

At least, that is the story as told late last year by Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, Kazakhstan’s former foreign minister and current director-general of the United Nations Office in Geneva, during a conference in Kazakhstan’s capital Astana. Qaddafi supposedly offered "many billions" in exchange for the weapons, an offer Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev rejected in the name of "global strategic order" and his own "political and moral right to head a global anti-nuclear movement."

The story is probably apocryphal: No one has publicly verified it, and Tokayev’s word is the only evidence that it happened. But it does demonstrate a particular point of pride for Kazakhstan’s government: its successful disposal of the enormous arsenal of nuclear weapons it inherited at the end of the Cold War — and Nazarbayev’s desire to capitalize on that decision politically.

That pride perhaps explains why Kazakhstan has inserted itself into the nuclear negotiations with Iran. So far, two rounds of talks between Iran and the so-called P5+1 — China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States — have taken place in the former capital of Almaty, the most recent ending just this past week. But pride does not explain why the West has bought Kazakhstan’s attempt to brand itself a nuclear mediator. Despite the glamor of Almaty and the grandiosity of Astana, Kazakhstan is not exactly Switzerland — it is a dictatorship whose glitzy new streets are a thin cover for brutal repression.

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Nazarbayev has ruled Kazakhstan as president since 1990, after advancing through the ranks of the Kazakh Communist Party. When his country became independent, it was saddled with a very big opportunity and a very big challenge. The opportunity was Kazakhstan’s vast energy wealth, which continues to enrich the government. The challenge was the vast stockpile of Soviet nuclear material (including about 1,400 warheads), an arsenal that made it the fourth-largest nuclear power in the world.

Those nuclear weapons were a headache for everyone: Post-independence Kazakhstan simply did not have the means to safeguard them responsibly, and there was a pervasive worry in the West that Kazakh nukes could leak onto the black market and sow global chaos. In 1992, Senators Sam Nunn and Dick Lugar coauthored an eponymous bill, which funded a global program to secure so-called loose nukes in the former Soviet Union. Kazakhstan was one of the first beneficiaries of the Nunn-Lugar initiative, and by 1995 it had transferred all of its weapons back to Russia.

For Kazakhstan, this was more than just a sensible precaution; it was the beginning of a strategic shift geared toward producing tremendous wealth and, just as importantly, positioning itself as a respectable member of the international community — trends that would reinforce each other. The decision to renounce nuclear weapons was the origin story of the new Kazahkstan.

In many ways that vision has come to pass. Certainly the money has flowed — almost $10 billion dollars in 2011 alone in no small part because of the country’s oil production. International companies like Exxon plan to invest more than $154 billion in petroleum development along Kazakhstan’s Caspian coast. In 2009, China also brought online a huge oil pipeline from the Caspian to feed its endless appetite for petroleum.

Kazakhstan has also marketed itself as a global powerhouse for nuclear energy. It has spent many years developing its vast uranium reserves and has tried to become a "fuel bank" for supplying uranium to civilian nuclear power stations (the proposal took form when Russia convinced the IAEA to support it). India, China, and Japan have all purchased uranium from Kazakhstan. In 2007, KazAtomProm bought a share in Westinghouse. Former U.S. President Bill Clinton even negotiated a uranium deal for Canadian mining financier Frank Giustra (who later donated $31 million to the Clinton Global Initiative).

The signs of national wealth have become increasingly and intentionally conspicuous. The recipients of Kazakhstan’s wealth spent the 1990s relying on Western intermediaries for fine goods — U.S. oilman James Giffen’s trial for bribing Kazakh officials even inspired the movie Syriana. Now, they just import their own high-end stores. Almaty just celebrated the opening of its first luxury mall, Esentai. The capital, Astana, features huge artifices — a giant pyramid, a huge inflatable yurt — built by Sir Norman Foster, the British architect.

The international respectability has come, too, if a little more slowly. In 2010, Kazahkstan chaired the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe — the first post-Soviet state to do so. How Almaty came to channel Vienna is a bit of a mystery. Scholars speculate that Kazakhstan’s chairmanship of the OSCE was the capstone in a long economic modernization process meant to showcase the country’s potential as an equal to the West. And Astana’s first project upon chairing the OSCE was an attempt to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

And, then, there is its steady rise as a global nuclear mediator. Kazakhstan might be
the only place where Iran and the P5+1 can disagree amicably: Kazakhstan is near Iran, and it has recognized Iran’s right to a civilian nuclear program. And the West might consider Kazakhstan’s own nuclear legacy a suggestive model for Iran — a point that President Nazarbayev made plainly in a New York Times op-ed a year ago.

The Kazakh government brags incessantly about these achievements. I attended a 20th anniversary celebration Kazakhstan threw for government officials, journalists, and pundits at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Washington in 2011. The event featured books written by Nazarbayev, eloquent speeches about the progress the government made, and of course political attachés eagerly telling reporters about Kazakhstan’s bright future (while proudly recounting their heritage all the way back to Genghis Khan). Moreover, Astana has retained the high-powered communications firm APCO Worldwide, and it gives Washington think tanks hundreds of thousands of dollars to promote its image as a modern and modernizing country. At public events, the message is consistent: Officials speak at great length of Kazakhstan’s virtues — its steady economic growth, its supposed political stability, and its bright future.

However, none of these virtues is real.

While Kazakhstan’s national wealth has certainly grown by leaps and bounds since the dark days of the early 1990s, the growth has been uneven. Oil workers in the western town of Zhanaozen spent most of 2011 protesting unfair labor practices. In December of that year, Kazakh security forces swept through the town to end the protesters, killing at least 16 people. Dozens more were beaten by police. And, while Almaty and Astana boom, the countryside languishes in abject poverty. A 2008 study found that Kazakhstan’s energy and mineral windfalls are concentrated in just a few cities and among a relatively small number of people.

Meanwhile, the "Republic" of Kazakhstan grows increasingly undemocratic. The 2011 election reminded western reporters of elections in the Soviet Union: People had been so conditioned to vote for the person already in charge that no one had to be threatened. They just knew what was expected of them. And only one person was "running" for office anyway. The 2012 parliamentary elections were a farce: The only parties allowed to run for office were pro-Nazarbayev — no opposition was allowed.

In 2011, Nazarbayev won his reelection with a jaw-dropping 95 percent of the vote. Even the candidates running against Nazarbayev said they voted for him. More worryingly: No one knows who will succeed Nazarbayev as president. He has successfully excluded, imprisoned, or exiled anyone who could possibly challenge his authority. Rumors abound that Timur Kulibayev, who is married to Nazarbayev’s daughter Dinara, will take over by running a new pro-Nazarbayev political party…but Rakhat Aliyev, who was married to Nazarbayev’s other daughter, Dariga, fell afoul of the country’s royal family and was exiled upon his 2007 divorce. There is no solid plan of succession.

The Kazakh government is also regressing on civil rights. It is systematically cracking down on journalists who report critically on the government, harassing them and labeling them as extremists. In 2009, a Kazakh court prosecuted human rights defender Yevgeny Zhovtis for a case of vehicular manslaughter in a trial Human Rights Watch called "a terrible blow for everyone promoting human rights in Kazakhstan." That same year, Mukhtar Dzhakishev, the chief of Kazakhstan’s state uranium company, KazAtomProm, was arrested on the bizarre charge that he stole half the country’s uranium.

The repression is all the more bizarre because Nazarbayev is genuinely popular — he shouldn’t need to repress anyone. But it vividly demonstrates that Kazakhstan is not a confident, growing, dynamic, modern country. It is a weak, fearful, paranoid regime that has become increasingly brutal. Hosting talks on Iran’s nuclear program will not make the government any less oppressive — and the warm glow from Kazakhstan’s denuclearization faded long ago.

Joshua Foust is a Ph.D student at the University of Colorado Boulder studying strategic communication.

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