Cozying Up to Kazakhstan?

Late last month, British Prime Minister David Cameron became the first sitting Prime Minister of the UK to visit Kazakhstan.  The two-day visit by the head of a major Western power is symbolic of the outsized role the Central Asian nation plays on the world stage.  Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev has skillfully used his nation’s natural resource wealth and responsible stewardship of nuclear arms it inherited when the Soviet Union dissolved to build respect in the West for his otherwise impoverished country.

Because of the neighborhood in which it lives – between an increasingly hostile Russia to the north, a growing (and hostile) China to the east and the battlefields of Afghanistan to the south – Astana has had to strike a delicate balance between West and East.  Although it is a member of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, suggesting a growing Westward orientation, people close to Nazarbayev have waxed nostalgic for a restoration of the old Soviet system.  Unfortunately, recent events indicate that nostalgia may be winning the tug-of-war for Kazakhstan’s future.

Nazarbayev has maintained a tight grip on political power since being elected the country’s first, and still only, president since gaining independence in 1995.  When his attempt to have parliament extend his term in office to 2020 – effectively making the 73-year old president for life – was thwarted by the country’s Constitutional Court, parliament agreed to accelerate the date of the next presidential election by 18 months.  The result was an election victory with more than 90 percent of the vote against a poorly-organized token opposition.  Parliament, composed entirely of members of Nazarbayev’s party, operates as little more than a formality.

Nazarbayev has hardly been shy about wielding his powers to keep whatever domestic opposition exists from growing.  Faced with protests in the western city of Zhanaozen by workers for the state-owned oil company Kazmunaigas early in 2012, Nazarbayev ordered a crackdown. At least fifteen people were killed as troops opened fire on the strikers.  Earlier this year, as the one-year anniversary of the violence approached, Astana moved to shut down independent media outlets critical of the government accusing them of fomenting unrest and calling for Nazarbayev’s removal from office.  In all, eight newspapers and twenty-three Internet outlets linked to one of two opposition figures were targeted.

Cameron brushed aside criticism that his visit was papering over concerns about human rights, media freedom, and political participation in favor of the almighty pound.  Cameron said he would voice the UK’s concerns.  “Nothing is off the agenda, including human rights, and Britain always stands up for human rights wherever we are in the world,” he said.

But in comments that were likely received more warmly in Astana, Cameron said Kazakhstan’s economic potential necessitated his visit.  “Kazakhstan is one of the rising economic powers in the world. I think it’s very important that British business, British investment and British firms get a proper chance in Kazakhstan – they’re doing that, I want to help them to do that.  Other European leaders have been and I think it’s high time a British prime minister went.”  To further make the point, Cameron brought along the heads of more than 30 UK firms, stating that he hoped to ink deals worth more than 700 million pounds during the trip.

Cameron’s visit, on the heels of the European Union foreign policy and security cooperation chief’s visit to the region late last year, underscores the degree to which Western capitals want to cultivate ties to the energy rich region.  This would be beneficial for both parties.  But as much as European and Western capitals need the energy security Kazakh oil and gas can provide, Astana needs the development dollars more.  The EU needs to do more to make Astana earn its keep in the area of political and media freedoms before showing Nazarbayev the money.  Insisting on electoral reforms and calling for the release of jailed activists, journalists, and opposition figures by name as a condition of any future business ventures would be a good start.

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