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Tony Blair's Kazakh Links Under Greater Scrutiny

Eyebrows have previously been raised about former U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair's dealings in Kazakhstan, but journalist Nick Cohen has upped the ante with a piece in "The Observer" saying that Blair's "moral decline and fall is now complete."

Blair's consulting firm reportedly signed a $13 million agreement to work with Kazakhstan in 2011, although a statement from Blair's office said that the former prime minister had just "helped put together a team of international advisers and consultants" and hadn't profited directly.

In October 2011, Altai Abibbulaev, a Kazakh Foreign Ministry spokesman, said that Blair was one of several foreign officials who had "responded to the invitation of the government of Kazakhstan to provide advice on economic policy, on issues of public administration, and international politics."

Why Cohen finds Blair's dealings with Kazakhstan so disappointing was that previously in Blair he saw a leader who took a clear line on democracy, without any "weasel words," or cultural relativism, or "theocrats having their 'own' version of democracy." (Critics of the Iraq War, of course, were disappointed with Blair a long time ago.)
He won't explain why he's helping the Kazakh dictator present a better face to the west. Apparently, he has said that he is not personally profiting from appearing in a propaganda video praising the dictatorship's "progress" and hymning its "extraordinary economic potential". (I say apparently because his office would not respond to my repeated inquiries.) But it is beyond doubt that his commitment to democracy is now as flimsy as any relativist's: free elections may be good enough for the people of Britain, but the Kazakhs cannot expect to enjoy the same privileges.

The "propaganda video" Cohen is referring to is "In The Stirrups of Time," a 67-minute-long feature on modern Kazakhstan. Framed by shots of galloping horses and pristine skyscrapers, and glowing tributes from Western oil executives, the film begins with Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev lauding the country's achievements.

It then segues into Blair -- who undoubtedly plays a starring role -- saying that Kazakhstan is unique in its "cultural diversity" and in the way it has brought different faiths together. He also says the people are "smart," "determined," and "proud of their country."

But there are more than just platitudes. "The important thing about President Nazarbaev is that he had a combination of the toughness necessary to take the decisions to put the country on the right path. But also a certain degree of subtly and ingenuity that allowed him to maneuver in a region which is fraught with difficulties," Blair says.

As RFE/RL reported in April, a spokesman for Blair said that he had also made clear in his interview for the video that there had to be human rights reform, but that part didn't make the final cut. With more jump cuts than a Jean-Luc Godard film it's clear that Blair's interview has been heavily edited. For example: "If you look back over 20 years [BIG CUT] I think the progress is remarkable."

Indeed, in a speech he gave to Astana university students last week, while noting Kazakhstan's achievements, Blair did urge the country to reform:
There has to be the development of proper systems of democratic participation, with competitive political parties; a responsible but free press; adherence to its hard-won reputation for religious tolerance; judicial and other reforms to enhance the rule of law; and an attack not just on corruption but on the systems in areas like public procurement that sustain it.

Even so, as Cohen points out in his opinion piece, "The regime is grateful and not just for the uses the Blairites' support can be put to abroad."
Like every other dictatorship, Kazakhstan wants to show its subjects that foreigners, who have no reason to fear the secret police, endorse the regime of their own free will. The backing of outsiders makes them seem more powerful and their propaganda sound more plausible. (It is for this reason that George Galloway has been such a popular figure in the presidential palaces of the Middle East.)


His love of money has brought down the worst fate that could have befallen him. He now has the manners and morals of his opponents. He has become a George Galloway with a Learjet at his disposal.

Blair's office has responded to Cohen's widely shared piece, saying "the work we are doing is precisely to boost the reform program which is already under way and is consistent with the demands made of President Nazarbaev by the international community."

About This Blog

Written by RFE/RL editors and correspondents, Transmission serves up news, comment, and the odd silly dictator story. While our primary concern is with foreign policy, Transmission is also a place for the ideas -- some serious, some irreverent -- that bubble up from our bureaus. The name recognizes RFE/RL's role as a surrogate broadcaster to places without free media. You can write us at

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