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'The Nazarbayev Conundrum' -- Gedmin In 'Foreign Policy'

RFE President Jeffrey Gedmin discusses his recent trip to Kazakhstan, and the difficulties facing democracy promotion efforts there, for "Foreign Policy."

The Nazarbayev Conundrum

Jeffrey Gedmin | Foreign Policy

December 9, 2010

(ASTANA, Kazakhstan) -- When I arrived at the tail end of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Summit last week, the temperature was minus 15 degrees Fahrenheit. It would soon be minus 40 degrees, I was told. There was a dusting of snow. Streets were empty. It was pitch black at 8 a.m. Welcome to winter in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan.

Nearly all of Astana's Soviet-era architecture has been replaced by modern, glitzy buildings, many of them skyscrapers. Some are rather kitschy (think Vegas), others quite striking. You'll find the work of Norman Foster and other internationally known architects across the capital. It was Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev who moved the capital here from Almaty, the country's largest city, in 1997. Nazarbayev wanted to make a statement. And he has.

Brilliant, sparkling lights of all conceivable colors -- on buildings, trees, whereever they'll hang basically -- give the frigid city a festive air. Peter Hitchens referred to Astana in the Mail Online recently as a "curious hybrid of Pyongyang, East Berlin, and Dubai." Those ubiquitous blinking bulbs also remind the visitor that energy is in abundant supply. Kazakhstan is the world's biggest uranium producer and has generous reserves of natural gas. After Russia, it has the second-largest oil reserves of any country in the former Soviet Union. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, Kazakhstan could become, within the next decade, one of the top five oil producers in the world. Chevron, British Gas, Texaco and others have invested tens of billions of dollars in developing the country's production capacity.

Nazarbayev has grasped the strategic importance of energy; he loves playing his version of the Great Game. In a diplomatic cable released recently by WikiLeaks, a Kazakh oil administrator tells the U.S. ambassador that the Russians and Chinese will "continue to circle like vultures," ready to pick up the pieces, should attempts by Western consortia to develop Kazakh oil and gas fields fall apart. It seems to be part of the Kazakh DNA to know how to play great powers off against one another. The 18th-century leader Ablai Khan once managed to swear an oath of loyalty to both the Russian czar and the Chinese emperor in order to retain control over the vast Kazakh steppes. One Kazakh proverb says, "If you have a Russian friend, be ready to use your axe." Another: "When the Chinese arrive, the red Russian will look like your father."

But oil is an autocrat's best friend. Nazarbayev wields power like a 19th-century czar and the West makes hardly a peep. In office now for the past two decades, the president appoints mayors and judges, controls the party that controls the parliament, and personally decides the country's foreign policy. In 2007, a fawning legislature decreed that Nazarbayev would henceforth rule without term limits. Around the same time, the parliament also proposed that Astana be renamed "Nursultan" after the president. Nazarbayev modestly declined.

The president did put aside his humility in one recent notable case, though: He allowed a new university in Astana to bear his name. This new property makes an impression. The interior of the main building of Nazarbayev University looks like a cross between a cavernous Hyatt lobby and a Los Angeles shopping mall. Replete with palm trees, pools of water, and plenty of attractive light wood benches for students, children of the country's elite, to repose between classes, the voluminous space is kept toasty warm in the middle of icy winter. Why not a little indulgence? Other diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks reveal Nazarbayev's taste for the finer things in life, like a "palace" in the United Arab Emirates, a "mansion" on the Turkish coast, and private concerts by the likes of Elton John.

To give Nazarbayev his due, the country's population lives on balance better than most of its neighbors. Tajikistan is desperately poor. Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are far more repressive. Over the last two years, the government in Astana has increased social spending to stave off social unrest and impacts from global financial crisis. Yet by other measures, the country still has a long way to go. In Freedom House's most recent survey of civil liberties, political rights, and economic freedom, Kazakhstan ranks 169 out of 196 countries -- that's worse than Sudan. In 2002, the opposition newspaper Respublika had its offices burned down. A warning note left at the scene of the crime was tacked onto a decapitated dog. In 2005, a prominent critic of the president was found dead in what investigators concluded was a suicide. The dead man had somehow managed to put two bullets in his chest and a third in his head.

Not surprisingly, most human rights activists were dismayed when Kazakhstan was awarded the rotating chairmanship of the OSCE. During its one-year stint as chair, which wraps up this month, the country has not shown any indication that it wants to improve its human rights situation. Which begs the question: If a country has plentiful supplies of oil and a ruler who has near complete control of power, what's a democracy promoter to do?

For one thing: Believe in American exceptionalism. Over coffee in a hotel lobby -- an actual Hyatt Regency in Astana -- I pressed a local journalist to explain why Americans should care about human rights and democracy in his country, when he had made plain that it would be a daunting task. His answer in the end was a simple one. "You're Americans!" he exclaimed.

In this vein, many ordinary Kazakhs were apparently deeply disappointed that James Giffen, an American oil lobbyist, got off last month with a slap on the wrist, after making a plea deal that led to his conviction on a misdemeanor tax charge. Giffen, a former oil advisor to Nazarbayev, was accused of having diverted $78 million in bribes from oil companies to the Kazakh government. It was the biggest foreign bribery case in U.S. history. Kazakhs wanted their president to get his comeuppance, but they also wanted to know that America would do the right thing.

At an American Enterprise Institute dinner in the early 1990s, someone asked the late Amb. Jeane Kirkpatrick, whether the United States should send troops to help feed starving Somalis. Kirkpatrick, hardly a starry-eyed idealist, paused, deliberated for a few moments, and finally answered yes, "because it's the right thing to do." It still holds true today: If you're American, there's always value in promoting values. But there's more than moral rectitude in democracy promotion -- there's also strategic value. The case of Kazakhstan is no exception.

Simply ask the question: What happens when the 70-year-old Nazarbayev is gone? The short answer is, nobody knows. Analysts say there's no heir apparent in or outside the president's family. There are, however, at least a half-dozen powerful groups, led by business rather than ideological or clan interest, waiting in the wings, ready to fight for power. Whether this struggle will be violent or peaceful, whether protagonists will clash behind the scenes or call people to the streets, is anybody's guess. In the short term, lucrative energy deals done by Western companies and very much tied to the person of Nazarbayev may well be subject to renegotiation once a new government emerges.

Nazarbayev's rule is safe for now. Like all dictatorships, though, the regime is inherently unstable. For one thing, until now, Islamic extremists have been quiet in Kazakhstan. It is a Muslim-majority country, but traditionally secular in orientation. Nazarbayev has kept it this way. What's more, his general ruthlessness seems to have acted as a deterrent. Islamists may see an opening if the political situation becomes shaky.

Looking forward, it could make sense for the West to diversify and invest in political alternatives. Others would place all bets on the next Kazakh strong man. Of course, it makes sense to track incipient internal maneuverings and try to develop ties to potential successors. The recently released WikiLeaks cables suggest America is doing just that. But Washington needs to move beyond the short-term inside game and develop a serious long-term strategy to support the Kazakh people. This means more robust support, rhetorically and materially, for NGOs, independent media, and Kazakh opposition leaders who can demonstrate that they believe in pluralism and tolerance. It would mean bringing far more pressure to bear on the Kazakh government to release political prisoners, end censorship of Internet content and restrictions on mass media, and decriminalize libel -- a favored method of quelling dissent. Washington ought to toe a tougher line on Nazarbayev as well. He craves attention and legitimacy; that's what getting the OSCE chairmanship was all about. It's far less certain what the West received in return.

Democracy promotion is an untidy, frustrating business. It takes time and involves risk. If Washington ramps up its support for democracy and human rights, expect a cold wind gusting its way from Astana. It may well mean jeopardizing a commercial contract or two. And, even if measured success is achieved, don't expect Kazakhstan to look like a Western democracy anytime soon. But there are long-term interests -- among them energy and security -- that will require constructive engagement in Central Asia for the next couple decades. That's why it's time to invest in a long-term strategy that fuses business and security interests with U.S. values.