Friday, September 29, 2006

What about the “Freedom Agenda”? (it had to be said): Nazarbayev’s Visit and the Contradictions of Bush’s Foreign Policy

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Recent pictures from President Nazarbayev's state visit to the U.S.

It had to be said. With the attention to the Borat stunts, the Kazakhstan boosters’ op-ed pieces, the spots on network television, the newspaper advertisements placed in the New York Times and the Washington Post, and the unveiling of the new Golden Man statue in Washington, DC, it almost seemed like the issues of democracy and human rights were going to quietly disappear during President Nazarbayev’s visit to Washington. The other side of the story, however, is starting to come to the forefront as Nazarbayev’s visit winds down. An article in the National Review lambastes the Bush administration for embracing Nazarbayev, calling the country a “façade state.” Ken Silverstein continues his string of investigative pieces on Kazakhstan’s interest peddlers in Washington (and inside the U.S. government) in an article co-written by Sebatian Sosman for Harper’s Magazine that is particularly condemning of the U.S. side. The most condemning news opinion of the day in terms of its influence, however, came from the Washington Post’s editorial page. A day after running Fred Starr’s appeal to ignore Kazakhstan’s human rights and democracy problems and on the same day that the Kazakhstan government had bought two advertisements in the paper’s first section extolling Kazakhstan’s accomplishments and its friendship with the U.S., the Washington Post’s lead editorial was a scathing condemnation of Bush’s “embrace for a strongman” (i.e. Nursultan Nazarbayev) in the context of Bush’s own second inaugural address that unveiled his “freedom agenda,” where he had pledged to “end tyranny in our world.” Aside from briefly highlighting such issues as Kazakhstan’s electoral record and the infamous “Kazakhgate” bribery case, the piece questioned the rationale of welcoming Nazarbayev while ignoring his human rights and democracy record.

Personally, I am not in total agreement with the Washington Post’s analysis that Bush should not have welcomed Nazarbayev to the White House, but it had to be said, and its points must be a part of the discourse on Kazakhstan because that is the way American democracy works. Different interest groups lobby their own special interests, and, hopefully, policy follows the rational route in between where agreement can be made. It would, of course, reflect better on the United States if the debate had taken place before President Nazarbayev’s visit so that the Bush administration could have taken the appropriate steps to engage Nazarbayev this week while simultaneously accenting the country’s dire need for political reforms.

I believe that the U.S. should engage Kazakhstan, and it would be shortsighted to ignore this country, which, in addition to its strategic position, has accomplished many great things from liberalizing its economy to voluntarily disarming itself from nuclear weapons, all in the fifteen years since its independence from the Soviet Union. Engaging Kazakhstan without a discussion of political reform, however, is equally if not more shortsighted. Kazakhstan could be on the verge of great things in the world and become a shining example of sustainability, stability, and democracy in Central Asia and the Muslim world as a whole, but it could also be on the verge of instability and dictatorship. Nursultan Nazarbayev has shown himself to be one of the great leaders of the former Soviet Union by transitioning his country from the periphery of the U.S.S.R. into a global player economically. He, however, is also a man of his time, and that time is waning. Nazarbayev is not immortal, and there will eventually be a need for a succession of leadership in Kazakhstan. His successor will not have the luxury of dealing with the low expectations that Kazakhstanis held for the future when the Soviet Union fell. The people of Kazakhstan will increasingly desire protection under a legal system they feel is not corrupt, and they will demand government services that are accountable to the public. Businessmen, big and small, will also require that its state’s legal system can protect them from hostile takeovers and intimidation by influential people in the country. Most of all, the people of Kazakhstan will eventually demand to have a say as to who runs their country and who manages their common natural resources.

In the context of Kazakhstan’s economic development, sophisticated financial sector, relatively diversified wealth, and emerging civic pride, such changes are not out of reach. At least for now, political liberalism in Kazakhstan will not lead to the victory of Muslim radicals with anti-American sentiments as might be the case in Pakistan or as was the case in Palestine this past year. Kazakhstan likes to compare itself to the “Asian Tigers” of the 1980s, but those countries have also largely changed courses over time. The question is whether Kazakhstan will follow strongman stability towards stable democracy as in South Korea or whether it will implode into power struggles as happened in the twilight of Suharto’s regime in Indonesia. If Kazakhstan chooses the right path, Nazarbayev will undoubtedly go down in history as a Central Asian Ataturk who established a western-style system from the ashes of an empire from another age. If it doesn’t, Nazarbayev may just be remembered as another post-colonial strongman who helped his country develop temporarily. Furthermore, if Kazakhstan does adopt a path of political reform, it will be better placed to play a decisive role in the development of stability in the entire Central Asian region.

In order to follow the more stable path towards political reform, however, Kazakhstan needs to begin now to undertake the difficult reforms that would allow it to be ready for a fully democratic transition of power in 2012 when Nazarbayev’s present term ends. Before having a democratic presidential election in 2012, the country needs to do serious work to ensure free and fair elections at lower levels of government, including parliament (to date, every election in Kazakhstan has been a great disappointment). It also needs now to begin reforming the court system to ensure that verdicts cannot be bought or swayed by political influence without serious consequences. Finally, Kazakhstan needs to allow for free expression and free access to information to ensure that the process of reform can involve the full range of voices and opinions in formulating the future course of the country. These were all things at least indirectly highlighted in statements by Kazakhstan’s opposition this week as a group of opposition political figures outlined a series of demands to be levied by the U.S. and other OSCE member-states on Nazarbayev in exchange for the OSCE chairmanship he covets. This week could have been the opportunity to engage these questions in a serious way as part of conversations aimed at cementing a longer-term strategic partnership between the U.S. and Kazakhstan. If that had been done, I don’t think President Nazarbayev would have dismissed the appeals for reform out of hand because it is my understanding that he hears the same pleas from a progressive segment within his own elite.

That, however, does not seem to be what is happening in the bilateral meetings that are taking place in Washington this week. Instead, most reports, including congressional testimony in the senate and the White House’s own press statement, suggest that both sides quietly talked about common strategic interests in energy security and fighting terrorism without touching the difficult question of democracy. If that is the outcome of the meetings, it will have been an opportunity missed both for the U.S. and for Kazakhstan. The problem is that the Bush administration cannot have it both ways. It cannot demand radical regime change in some authoritarian states in the name of a global “freedom agenda” while ignoring democracy in other cases for strategic reasons. A much more reasonable approach would be engagement with all countries combined with targeted pressure and encouragement for the political reforms that will make places like Kazakhstan and the world more prosperous and stable over the long term. Without a coherent and consistent policy of engagement on democracy and human rights, the vocal statements that President Bush makes about “ending tyranny in our world” end up sounding to people around the world as merely a selectively used, but insincere, instrument to justify U.S. economic and political interests.

“Great Game (Round Two)”: Kazakhstan to be Featured on “John McLaughlin’s One-on-One” show this Weekend

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John Mclaughlin, host of “John Mclaughlin’s One-on-One”

In dealing with a host of journalists in the last several days in connection with President Nazarbayev’s visit to the U.S., I have found that Kazakhstan as a news story in America’s attention deficit soundbite culture is a difficult one to sell (well, unless you are actually handing out money to do so, that is). Oil-rich, growing economy, poor democracy record, strategically important, U.S. friend in war on terror, benign but corrupt autocracy, Muslim but Soviet, Russia, China, etc., etc. It is just too much for an American audience to handle if one wants to paint an objective picture of Kazakhstan’s complexities. As I have noted elsewhere, the Borat controversy is a much easier story to package for Americans. For that reason, I was glad to be invited to a talk show hosted by John McLaughlin where a full 30 minutes of nationally televised discussion would be devoted to Kazakhstan. McLaughlin himself (whose bio can be found here) said that Central Asia, and Kazakhstan in particular, was too complex of a story for most people to really want to dig into. He, however, did a good job in trying to unpack the contradictions of the situation in a provocative manner. We will see how it looks packaged on the air. The title of the segment on “John Mclaughlin’s One-on-One” is Great Game (Round Two), and I am the featured guest (if you haven’t guessed, this post is shameless self promotion). In addition, the show features a call-in from the Democratic representative from California’s San Fernando Valley, Brad Sherman. The program airs on the NBC affiliate in Washington, DC (WRC-TV, channel 4) at 12:30 pm on Sunday October 1 right after “The McLaughlin Group.” A longer version is syndicated around the country on the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS). In Washington, DC, the longer version airs at 7:00 am and 1:00 pm on Wednesday October 4 on WETA public television. You can find the schedule for your local PBS station here. For those who do not have access to American public television, the transcript will be posted once the show has aired on Mclaughlin’s website. I hope readers have a chance to tune in!

Borat, Oil, and Democracy

Just when it looked like the Kazakhstan government had finessed the PR battle with Borat and had gained the upper hand, Mr. Sagdiyev is hitting back inside the beltway. The Kazakhstan Government’s PR firms have been working overtime. They have placed picturesque television advertising spots about Kazakhstan tourism on CNN (“Kazakhstan: Have you ever Wandered?”) and advertising spots of lesser production quality on ABC extolling the countries economic and democratic accomplishments. They have placed a four page insert in the New York Times entitled “Kazakhstan in the 21st Century: Looking Ahead.” Their allies in the U.S. academy have provided nicely timed op-ed pieces for the Washington Times (Ariel Cohen) and for the Washington Post (Fredrick Starr) . Yesterday, it was starting to look as if the Kazakhstan’s PR effort was working in its effort to put the country on the map in the minds of Americans (at least in DC) and doing so with a positive spin. Then, today after President Nazarbayev’s unveiling of DC’s Golden Man, the First and Only President of Kazkahstan’s nemesis showed up in front of the Kazakhstan Embassy in Washington – Borat Sagdiev. Giving an impromptu press conference before the Embassy, Borat suggested that President Nazarbayev was indeed happy about his film and that notions to the contrary were being spread by an Uzbek infiltrator in the Kazakhstan Embassy, spokesperson Roman Vassilenko (yes, that is an unlikely Uzbek name).

(For a fuller version – see the video on the Washington Post site)

Borat also disputed the authenticity of the advertising spots on U.S. television that had appeared in the name of Kazakhstan, stating that they were yet another disinformation ploy. While it was all very funny, it occurred to me that perhaps Borat could also be on the payroll of the firms working for the Kazakhstan government. The Borat angle, afterall, was the only aspect of Nazarbayev’s visit to the U.S. to make it on Katie Couric’s “melbatoast” CBS news, quite masterfully putting the “democracy issue” on the back burner. Maybe we have underestimated Patton Boggs. Maybe both sides of the battle are just laughing together all the way to the bank.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Golden Man in DC: President Nursultan Nazarbayev Unveils the Kazakhstan Independence Statue in Washington

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Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbayev (right) and Secretary of Energy Samuel Bodman (on left) (photo by Joshua Kucera)

In connection with the Almaty unveiling of the monument to the events of December 1986, I had noted that rumors suggested that President Nazarbayev would be unveiling a monument to Kazakhstan’s independence in Washington, DC this week. It had occurred to me that the theme of the monument (i.e. the way that Kazakhstan chose to symbolize its “independence” in Washington, DC) could be bear political symbols. Would the Kazakhs choose a theme related to the Kazakh people’s struggle against Russian colonialism like the early Kazakh nationalist Kenesary Kasymov? Or maybe a theme related to Kazakh independence from the Soviet Union, such as the December 1986 events? Instead, it seems that the Kazakhstan government decided to play things safe and chose a figure that sent no message about its relationship with Russia. Today, President Nursultan Nazarbayev unveiled in front of the Kazakhstan embassy in Washington a statue of The Golden Man, a Saka warrior (whose genetic connection to living Kazakhs could be disputed) from the 7th-8th centuries BC, whose presence on Kazakhstan’s soil is often used as a means to accent the Kazakhs’ ancient glory. When Nazarbayev visited President Putin earlier this year, he unveiled a statue of the pro-Russian Kazakh poet Abay Kunanbaev in from of the Kazakh Embassy in Moscow.
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The Abay statue in Moscow apparently cost the Kazakhstan government $1.25 million dollars. I wonder how much DC’s Golden Man set Astana back…

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

“Nomad vs. Borat”: The Next Big Battle?

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While it is still in the background of President Nazarbayev’s visit, another battle over the image of Kazakhstan is about to emerge. As with all great image battles, this one will be completely fought on the terrain of celluloid and in the halls of America’s greatest image makers—Hollywood. It was not surprising that a state like Kazakhstan, even with the help of DC beltway spin doctors, would have difficulty deflecting the power of the PR behind Sacha Cohen’s “Borat” film. Kazakhstan, however, may have already thought about that. Several years ago, the Kazakhstan government had commissioned world famous filmmaker Milos Forman to produce an epic film entitled “Nomad” about the birth of the Kazakh nation and its 18th century defeat of the Zhungars. The film, which reportedly cost an estimated 40 million dollars, has undergone a weary history as its funding fluctuated, its directors and staff changed, and its initial version was brought back for editing after its first premier in Kazakhstan last year. Such production snags, of course, can be expected when a state bureaucracy is its major financial source. Now, its final version has been released, and, as the trailer below shows, it looks to be an epic historical battle film to challenge the likes of Braveheart.

Featuring an international cast, picturesque scenery, exotic costumes, and action-packed battle scenes, the film has already been well received at several festivals. After its September 7, 2006 release in Moscow, the film also enjoyed positive critical reviews in Russia’s media, and the challenge the film may pose to “Borat” was not missed by reviewers. Its U.S. distributor will be the Weinstein Co. of former Miramax fame, but the company’s website doesn’t list it to be released in the U.S. in the near future. The only reference I saw for a release date in the U.S. was in 2007, but if the Weinstein Co. is savvy enough, they could choose to release it in November so it can meet head to head with "Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan." Miramax has, of course, upstaged big studio blockbusters before….you never know. Nobody ever thought Astana would actually be built either.

The Visit Begins and the PR War Continues (Borat may already be knocked out though)

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From The Economist, Sept. 16-22, 2006

The most publicized of Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s visits to the U.S. has begun. As the Borat controversy fades into the background of the visit (with Kazakhstani officials employing better spin on that particular issue) and the initial Kazakhstan “democracy” advertisements having already aired during ABC’s “Good Morning America” (I wish somebody would upload that to youtube!), a well-planned and orchestrated visit is unfolding which is meant to put Kazakhstan on the map in the U.S. A recent article by Joshua Kucera in Eurasianet lists a schedule of events that appear aimed at raising the profile of Kazakhstan during the visit. After a trip to the Bush family home in Kennebunkport, ME to meet with George the elder, Nazarbayev travels to Washington where he will have various meetings with officials and businessmen before unveiling a statue to Kazakhstan’s independence at the Kazakh Embassy (the theme of which could be symbolically important) and attending a dinner co-hosted by CNN founder Ted Turner, where Kazakhstan’s achievements in nuclear non-proliferation are sure to be featured.

The next day at the White House, however, will be a more interesting event as Nazarbayev runs into an entanglement that could prove much more challenging than the publicity of the Borat film. With congressional elections approaching and the Bush administration on the ropes, especially with regards to Iraq, the Nazarbayev visit is suddenly coming under intense scrutiny. Mainstream U.S. media seems ready to cover this visit as a story about the Bush administration’s hypocrisy concerning its selective implementation of the “freedom agenda” promoting democracy around the world. Already, there are rumors that the Nazarbayev meeting may be a featured aspect of the Sunday morning news talk shows this week (make sure, for example, to watch “John McLaughlin's ONE ON ONE” on PBS), and other mainstream media outlets are discovering that the Nazarbayev visit may serve as a good symbolic story of a certain “double-standard” in the policies of the Bush administration. The question is whether this situation will change the tone of the meetings as President Bush tries to deflect criticism of selectively choosing to welcome one authoritarian leader while criticizing others. Given what is at stake in U.S.-Kazakhstan relations, this probably will not happen. Instead, one would hope that it leads to frank discussion about strengthening bi-lateral relations while accenting Kazakhstan’s need for real political reforms that can guarantee a smooth and democratic transfer of power in the country once President Nazarbayev is ready to step down. Given that Eurasianet has already reported that the U.S. will not support Kazakhstan’s bid for the chairmanship of the OSCE, a discussion about human rights and political freedoms probably cannot be avoided. Regardless, the PR firms working for Kazakhstan right now better be burning the midnight oil to control the upcoming spin. One thing is for sure – this visit will put Kazakhstan on the map in the U.S. (for at least a week). The question is what vision of Kazakhstan will it leave behind in the minds of America’s short-attention populous.

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization: Is it Undermining U.S. Interests in Central Asia? (Part 2)

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Today, I partook in a public hearing for the Helsinki Commission on the impact of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) on U.S. interests in Central Asia. The Helsinki Commission staff has promised to post a webcast of the hearing on their official website, but it is not yet up. Once (and if) it does get posted, I will add it to this post (at least by link).

Republican Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas chaired the event and had probing questions about the nature of the SCO and its potential to be a threat to the U.S. Brownback was especially concerned about the position of the SCO vis-à-vis democratization and the question of Russia and China undertaking joint military exercises under the banner of an organization that appeared to be overwhelmingly anti-American. Among other things, Senator Brownback cited a recent statement by William Odom, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, to the effect that the SCO was the “most dangerous organization that Americans had never heard of.”

Most of the witnesses testifying at the hearing, however, were less concerned than Mr. Brownback about the challenge that the SCO poses to the U.S. in Central Asia. Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher was expectedly diplomatic in terms of his commentary, and he vacillated between assuring Senator Brownback that the State Department is watching the SCO closely and suggesting that the organization is not a major threat. In general, Assistant Secretary Boucher’s position was that the SCO is neither an immediate threat nor a very useful organization to U.S. interests in Central Asia, but he did concede that the evolving relationship between the Central Asian states and China has some real economic benefits for the region. Martha Brill Olcott of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace was the most dismissive of the power of the SCO. Olcott feels that China cares little about the internal politics of Central Asia and is mostly interested purely in its own economic interests and the stability of the region. She did note, however, that the Chinese have a different concept of stable governance that the U.S. does, which accounts for our divergent views on democracy. Steven Blank of the U.S. Army War College echoed views that he has voiced elsewhere, suggesting that the SCO is definitely glued together by a general sense of anti-Americanism, but he also noted that the dual and divergent Russian/Chinese leadership of the organization weakens the ability of the SCO to develop into a real strategic alliance that could be threatening to U.S. interests.

My own statement was less dismissive of the potential of the SCO to be a political counterbalance to the U.S., and I focused on the ways in which U.S. policy has stimulated the emerging anti-American position of the SCO as an alternative to the OSCE that does not require commitments to democratic reform. More specifically, I stressed that the U.S. is losing trust among the Central Asian nations due to a perception that the U.S. is adopting a foreign policy that initiates selected regime changes around the world in the name of democracy. The SCO member states, with the exception perhaps of Kyrgyzstan, generally adopt a belief that the so-called “colored revolutions” in Ukraine, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan (which they assume were initiated by the U.S.) along with the military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq (which obviously were initiated by the U.S.) are part and parcel of a unified American conspiracy to strengthen its geopolitical position through the rhetoric of democracy. I suggested the following steps to remedy this situation and regain the trust of the Central Asian states:

… it is vital for the U.S. and the OSCE to find new means for engaging the Central Asian states on long-term democratic reforms in a way that is not seen as threatening the sovereignty and independence of these states in the short-term. In order to do so, however, the fears of colored revolutions in these countries must be replaced by a true sense of mutually beneficial partnership that involves the collaborative efforts of the U.S. and the OSCE to build free markets and democratic governance in the region over the long-term. Such an approach should not be confused with being “soft” on democracy as Ariel Cohen seemed to recently suggest. The U.S. and the OSCE need to talk tough about democracy with Central Asian leaders, but also do so realistically, respectfully, and with assurances that they are committed to long-term engagement. It should be remembered that the fear of U.S. democracy promotion that is prevalent among Central Asia’s leaders is not as much a reaction against the idea of political reform as it is a suspicion that the “freedom agenda” presently promoted by the U.S. abroad is actually a smokescreen for alterior motives. In order to refute such ideas, the U.S. needs to demonstrate to the Central Asian leadership that its interests in promoting political reform throughout the region have nothing to do with forcing regime change in the short-term and everything to do with ensuring the long-term sustainability of the sovereignty and independence of the Central Asian states. If the U.S. can regain the trust of the Central Asian states in this regard, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization will likely cease to be a serious threat to our interests in the region.

The only thing that was evident from the hearing was that both the U.S. government and independent scholars are paying increasing attention to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization as it becomes a more active political participant in Central Asia. The form the organization takes in the future and its relations with the U.S., however, are important questions that remain unanswered.

I will post links to the full texts of the testimonies once they are posted on the website of the Helsinki committee.

Quote of the day from a U.S. official – “The interesting thing about Kazakhstan right now is that the opposition and the government both want the same thing; they just have different ideas about how to get there.”

The unofficial transcript of the hearing is now here
The webcast, which I could not get to work, should be accessible here
And, the submissions of each witness are as follows:
Senator Sam Brownback
Representative Chris Smith
Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher
Sean R. Roberts
Martha Brill Olcott
Steven Blank

Monday, September 25, 2006

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization: Is it Undermining U.S. Interests in Central Asia?

On Tuesday at 3:00 pm, the Helsinki Commission is holding a public hearing on the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. The topic of the discussion will be “The Shanghai Cooperation Organization: Is it Undermining U.S. Interests in Central Asia?” The Helsinki Commission, which is chaired by Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas and Representative Chris Smith of New Jersey, monitors implementation of the 1975 Helsinki Accords. The speakers will be Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher, Dr. Steven Blank of the U.S. Army War College, Dr. Martha Brill Olcott of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and myself. If you are in Washington on Tuesday, you may want to stop by at the hearing, which will be held in room 538 of the Dirksen Senate Office Building. For those who are not able to attend, I will provide a recap of the discussion here by Wednesday.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Why is President Nazarbayev going after “Samruk”?

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Timur Kulibayev, son-in-law of President Nazarbayev and Deputy Director of the state holding company “Samruk.”

Yesterday, it was reported that President Nazarbayev had exposed what he considered to be grossly overpaid salaries of several bureaucrats working for state enterprises under the umbrella of “Samruk.” Nazarbayev spoke sternly as he named Khirat Karibjanov, the head of Kazakhstelekom, as receiving $365,000 a month, Kambar Shalgymbayev of the Kazakhstan Development Bank as receiving $100,000 a month and the head of “Samruk,” Saut Mynbayev, as receiving $34,000 a month. While Mynbayev spoke before parliament to explain the salaries and clarified that some of the numbers were smaller than stated, there is no doubt that this information is a shock to most Kazakhstanis who make some 1000 times less per month than those who were exposed. The question, of course, is why has Nazarbayev chosen the present moment to go after “Samruk.” “Samruk” was created earlier this year as a hallmark of a new Kazakhstani “corporate state” where state enterprises were to be run as successful businesses, invest abroad, and even be traded publicly on international markets. Most importantly, the deputy director of “Samruk” is none other than Timur Kulibayev, and it has been stated that Kulibayev runs the holding company in practice. For much of the last year, there has been speculation that Kulibayev is the favored member of Nazarbayev’s family politically and that he, or his person, may take over the mantle of President once Nazarbayev steps down. Does President Nazarbayev’s attack on “Samruk” signal a warning to Kulibayev to keep his political ambitions in check? Or is this merely an attempt to highlight anti-corruption efforts in advance of Nazarbayev’s trip to the west? If it is a warning to Kulibayev, it may also signal warning signs about the favored son-in-laws’ two largest upcoming projects, one officially announced and one rumored: the IPO offering of KazMunaiGas, of which Kulibayev is Director of the Board, and the rumored initiation of a new political party supported by Kulibayev.

Where is President Karimov's nephew?

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President Karimov's nephew and independent jouranlist Jamshid Karimov

Yesterday, it was reported that a nephew of Uzbekistan’s President Karimov had disappeared. The nephew’s name is Jamshid Karimov, and his deceased father Arslan was Islam Karimov’s older brother. Jamshid Karimov, however, is not only the nephew of President Karimov; he is an independent journalist who reportedly had done work for and IWPR, both of which are critical of President Karimov’s regime. According to, Jamshid disappeared shortly after getting in an argument with a doctor at a hospital where his mother was being treated for diabetes. Jamshid’s family has told that they have heard that he is in a “sanitorium,” which they believe to be a psychiatric hospital, and they fear that he may be in danger as a potential political prisoner. According to the Russian newspaper “Novye Izvestiya,” there is reason to believe that the journalist’s disappearance may be political since Jamshid had already been essentially under house arrest since August when he reportedly sought an exit visa to leave Uzbekistan. The implication is that President Karimov,while tolerating his nephew's disloyalty at home may have feared what he could do if he was abroad.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Will Yesterday’s mining accident in Temirtau put more pressure on Mittal Steel in Kazakhstan?

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Lakshmi Mittal, CEO of Mittal steel and the 54th richest man in the world

At the Temirtau coal mine owned by Lakshmi Mittal, the world’s 54th richest person according to Forbes magazine, an accident killed at least 32 people yesterday. Mining accidents are not uncommon the world over, and there have been no accusations that negligence on the part of Mittal steel was to blame for this accident. Nonetheless, Mittal steel, like all large international investors, is in a precarious position in Kazakhstan. International companies are often attacked by both the government and the public, which harbors xenophobic attitudes (especially against foreign capitalists) from the Soviet era. Earlier this year, for example, Dariga Nazarbayeva attacked Mittal steel in the newspaper Karavan for the company’s lack of safety protections and poor pay to workers. In that article, she mentions that 31 people died working in Mittal’s Temirtau mine last year. With more than that already dead from yesterday’s accident, there is bound to be another backlash against Mittal. In fact, the comments to the news of the accident on the zonakz website suggest that in the public court of opinion Mittal is already guilty.

Will “Ak Zhol” finally decide to occupy its one seat in the Kazakhstan parliament, and does it matter?

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Will Alikhan Baimenov be the seventy-seventh deputy in the Kazakhstan lower house of parliament?

When Kazakhstan had its last parliamentary election in 2004, there were great hopes that Kazakhstan would provide an improved environment for more competitive and fair elections than it had in the past. Initially, there were signs that this might be taking place, as a variety of opposition parties with substantial funding were allowed in the week prior to the election to broadcast campaign advertising and participate in televised debates along with the numerous pro-presidential parties that participated. The opposition party that showed the most promise during the short campaign period was Ak Zhol, the leaders of which were Alikhan Baimenov, Bulat Abilov, Oraz Zhandosov, and the late Altynbek Sarsenbayev. Ak Zhol, or the “Brite Path” party, campaigned on a pro-business platform that also promised to spread the wealth of Kazakhstan’s oil revenues among the public. After the dust had settled from the elections, however, not one representative of Ak Zhol took a seat in parliament.

While the Kazakhstan government hailed the elections as great progress towards multi-party democracy, selectively citing the comments of a certain segment of the international observer community (particularly from the CIS but also including Fred Starr of Johns Hopkins University), the OSCE observer mission extensively criticized the implementation of the actual election day. Furthermore, the local Kazakhstani organization, the Republican Network of Independent Monitors conducted a parallel vote count that demonstrated, beyond the violations in the voting process, that the counting appeared to have been tampered with at higher levels in several critical races. The result was that the parliament that began its sessions after the elections did not reflect a broad spectrum of political parties and ideas. The Ak Zhol party, which had gained significant popularity in the city of Almaty, for example, won no single mandate seats and was left with one party-list seat that was supposed to be occupied by Alikhan Baimenov. In protest of the shortcomings of the election, the Ak Zhol party decided not to occupy that seat.

Since that time, the Ak Zhol party has split into two separate parties, one of its leaders has been killed, and another leader has been convicted of crimes that prevent him from running for elected office. Essentially, the Ak Zhol that ran in the 2004 parliamentary elections no longer exists. The party that ran, however, is still registered and is now led by Alikhan Baimenov without the involvement of his former partners-in-leadership. It is in this context that one party activist, Janna Nauryzbayeva, has written a public letter advocating that Ak Zhol should now occupy the seat it won in the 2004 parliamentary elections. Nauryzbayeva suggests that, given the recent merger of Dariga Nazarbayeva’s Asar party and the President’s Otan party, Ak Zhol’s participation in the parliament now is critical to preventing the parliament from being consumed by a mega-party not dissimilar from the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. She has also suggested that Baimenov occupy the seat. Without a doubt, the Kazakhstan parliament would benefit from at least one dissenting voice in its parliament, but it is also clear that Baimenov no longer represents the majority of those in the country who support opposition parties. Furthermore, can one person make a significant impact in a lower house of parliament made up of seventy-seven seats? And, given Baimenov’s ambiguous political career, would the acceptance of him into parliament merely be perceived as an attempt on the part of the Kazakhstan government to appear “more democratic” on the heels of President Nazarbayev’s trip to the United States? One thing is for sure--if Baimenov takes his seat in the parliament, he will need to work hard to earn back the respect of many of those who voted for Ak Zhol in 2004.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

What is the political significance of the twentieth Anniversary of the December 1986 student protests in Almaty?

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Photos from

On Monday, President Nazarbayev unveiled the first significant monument to the 1986 Kazakh student protests in Almaty that rocked the Soviet Union, naming the statue the "Dawn of Freedom." Twenty years later, the events of December 1986, which brought hundreds of Kazkah students into the streets in protest of Moscow’s replacement of the ethnic Kazakh Party Secretary Konayev with the ethnic Russian Kolbin, still strike passions among the people of Kazakhstan. For Russians and other minorities in Kazkahstan, the protests represent the potential for Kazkah nationalism, which has been a lingering fear hanging over their heads since the fall of the U.S.S.R. For Kazakhs, the protests represent the national aspirations of their people and the critical importance of making Kazakhstan a Kazakh nation-state. Among the more nationalist Kazakhs, remembering the protests also provides an opportunity to raise the question of whether the increasingly wealthy state of Kazakhstan is really providing for them as the bearers of the nation. President Nazarbayev himself has had an ambiguous relationship with the December 1986 protests. When appropriate, he has tried to stress the importance of these events to the history of Kazakhstan’s independence. At the same time, he has long tried to manage any remembrances of the events, attempting neither to strike fear into his own Russian population nor to send a negative message to Russia. Furthermore, while Nazarbayev suggested during the early 1990s that he had always supported the students during those tense days in December 1986, many people have questioned his role in the crackdown on the protestors given that he was the second in command of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan at the time.

By the looks of the photos from the unveiling of the monument, it appears that the event on Monday was somewhat “low-key,” keeping with the historically cautious attitude of the Kazakhstan government towards the remembrance of the 1986 protests. With December approaching as the twentieth anniversary of these events, however, the contested history of the 1986 protests will inevitably become an increasingly “hot-button” topic in Kazakhstani politics. With the competition for succession heating up in the country, it is likely that various political forces will be vying for the right to represent the ideals of the students who went to the streets in December 1986. At the same time, the same forces will need to manage how that looks to the Russians and other minorities living in Kazakhstan. It is the kind of issue that has the potential to fuel ethnic tensions in a country that has prided itself in being a land of “ethnic harmony” following the fall of the U.S.S.R. It is also the kind of issue, however, that can provide Kazakhstan with a symbolic opportunity to reinforce its independence from Moscow. There are rumors, for example, that President Nazarbayev will be unveiling a monument to Kazakh independence in Washington, DC during his trip to the U.S. later this month. Will the twentieth anniversary of the December 1986 events also be the theme of that monument? If so, the symbolism would be interesting indeed.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Kyrgyzstan Opposition "Kurultay" Takes Place in Aksy

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Photos from Edil Baisalov's blog

On Sunday, the co-leader of the Asaba party, Azimbek Beknazarov went through with his promised "Kurultay" in his home region of Aksy in the south-west of Kyrgyzstan. News reports from Kyrgyzstan provide different figures for the number of participants ranging from the 700 claimed by the oblast internal affairs section to the 2000 claimed by some opposition groups.

Reportedly, the attendees included major political figures from both the opposition and the government as well as numerous civil society leaders. The meeting’s demands that have thus far appeared in the Kyrgyz press include: 1) concluding the investigation into the Aksy incident of 2002 in which unarmed civilians were killed by security forces and convicting those at fault within one month; 2) immediately beginning the implementation of constitutional reform; and 3) conducting a full and independent investigation into the ordeal of Omurbek Tekebayev’s arrest in Warsaw. While the opposition has apparently stepped away from its previous demands for the resignations of Bakiyev and Kulov, some attendees at the “Kurlutay” reportedly carried banners calling for Bakiyev’s resignation. The real impact of the “Kurultay” may not be apparent until the various political actors involved return to Bishkek.

UPDATE: Later in the day, the full list of demands from the "Kurultay" was released. In addition to those already mentioned above, other notable demands included that President Bakiyev should remove all of his relatives who have government posts within ten days and that the Bakiyev administration implement public broadcasting reform at KTR (the state tele-radio company) as promised.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

“Borat” – 1 Nazarbayev – 0?: The PR battle continues

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In August, I had posted a brief piece on the inevitable conflict between the PR of Kazakhstan’s President Nazarbayev’s trip to the U.S. on September 29 and the upcoming “Borat” film that is scheduled to open in early November. Since that time, it seems that the publicists of “Borat” have begun to pick up on this issue and are exploiting it. Recently, a string of articles in Hollywood-style PR tabloids have spun the conflict between Nazarbayev’s trip to the U.S. and the opening of the “Borat” movie in such a way that it makes it sound as if Nazarbayev had planned his meeting with President Bush explicitly to address his concerns about “Borat.” Now, the Borat publicists have begun to sink their teeth into their competitor’s work. A new article in the U.K newspaper “The Daily Mail” mocks a recently published PR piece placed by the Kazakhstan Government in the journal Foreign Affairs. In particular, the newspaper dismisses the Foreign Affairs insert’s assertions of Kazakhstan’s “evolutionary democracy.” The other target of “The Daily Mail” is the spokesperson for the Kazkahstan embassy in the U.S., Roman Vassilenko, whose words criticizing the “Borat” character are mocked extensively in the article. Perhaps the Kazakhstan government needs to hire a Hollywood PR firm to deal with the likes of “Borat”; not a beltway consulting group. I would have to say, however, that Mr. Vassilenko from the Kazakhstan Embassy in Washington is starting to understand what he is up against a little better. One of his replies to the “Borat” image of Kazakhstan that is cited by the Daily Mail is allegedly the following media soundbite.

"Kazakhstan really is a special kind of 'stan and people need to know that; It's a different 'stan." That might not beat the publicists of “Borat,” but it is a start.

Friday, September 15, 2006

An International Financial Figure in King Nursultan’s court?: James Wolfensohn may take a position as advisor to the President of Kazakhstan

It is not as shocking as when Gerhard Schroeder decided to join Gazprom, but the project to which Paul Wolfensohn is signing on to is also not as well established. According to the Russian news agency “Ria Novosti”, President Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan has offered an advisory position to the ex-World Bank head, James Wolfensohn, in connection with developing Almaty into a regional financial center.

Whatever one thinks of Wolfensohn, he would certainly bring attention to the project, which intends to provide special conditions for international financial activities in the city of Almaty, making it a special economic zone. As Ria Novosti states, “Unlike elsewhere in Kazakhstan, 100% foreign ownership of financial institutions and the repatriation of profits and capital will be allowed in the zone.” While this plan has been discussed for awhile, the offer to Wolfensohn suggests that Kazakhstan is at least very serious about the project.

What’s next? Will Karimov offer a security position to Donald Rumsfield?

The Political Bazaar in Kyrgystan is Open Again: regardless of who framed whom, there are bound to be some new deals on the horizon

President Bakiyev seems to bargaining with his opposition again

Yesterday, the Kyrgyzstan parliament stepped back from its initial demands on Bakiyev and his administration with regards to the Omurbek Tekebayev scandal. At present, the parliament says it will consider a new resolution with demands from the government to be voted on Friday September 15. Among other things, the new resolution has taken the issue of presidential resignation off the table, but it still demands for the establishment of a new coalition government. Given the history of political horse-trading in Kyrgyzstan, this was not a surprising move, but if history is any indication, this only means that the bazaar has only opened, and the deals are only just beginning.

Interestingly, the political horse-trading is taking place in the context of an interesting information war. The internet is full of theories that implicate everybody from the United States (as the perennial enemy of the former Soviet Union) to Kazakhstan (for its still unclear involvement in sending Interpol to apprehend Tekebayev. Furthermore, comments to Kyrgyzstan’s news websites have become a battleground of disinformation and conspiracy theories. Bakiyev has not helped by the adding vaguely that he did not rule out the involvement of foreign governments in this scandal.

Like the Altynbek Sarsenbayev murder in Kazakhstan, therefore, the “matryoshkagate” scandal involving Tekebayev may never be solved in a manner that inspires confidence in the public that justice has been done. As the political horse trading continues, however, the re-ordering of political forces in the country could offer some hints as to who really set up whom and why.

Nazarbayev’s trip to the U.S.: Another Agenda? (15 days and counting)

President Nazarbayev's son-law and Chairman of KazMunaiGas, Timur Kulibayev

Nazarbayev’s trip to Washington in two weeks will have various agendas, and regardless of what the publicists of Sacha Baron Cohen try to suggest, the issue of Kazakhstan’s image in the upcoming “Borat” film is low on the list. As I posted yesterday, politics and respect are high on the list of topics that will likely come up, including President Nazarbayev’s hopes of getting U.S. support for Kazakhstan’s bid for the Presidency of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). But politics and respect, of course, are not everything.

When China’s President Hu Jintao visited the U.S. in April, it was highly publicized that the Chinese envoy had chosen to start his trip with a visit to Bill Gates in the “House of Microsoft” long before he reached the White House of George Bush. While there are no rumors that Nazarbayev intends to visit the headquarters of Chevron or Halliburton before he steps into the White House, it has been noted that he will visit George Bush the elder in Kennebunkport, Maine after his meetings in the White House. While people close to ex-President Bush had said that this was merely an invitation from an old friend, it is not unlikely that issues related to the business of oil will also be discussed at the Bush retreat by the sea.

A major outstanding question, however, is to what extent the Kazakhstani elite will use its official visit to Washington to pursue business alliances with the U.S. When Nazarbayev visited Putin in Moscow with a large delegation earlier this year, Nazarbayev’s son-in-law and chairman of the state oil and gas company KazMunaiGas (KMG), Timur Kulibayev, was hand in hand with his father-in-law at the Kremlin. The presence of the representative of the Nazarbayev extended family who is most closely associated with the financial and business elite (as well as with the oil industry) at meetings in the Kremlin sent a clear sign about Kazakhstan’s interests in working with Russian businesses, and Lukoil in particular. It is unclear whether the Kazakh financial elite see U.S. businesses as presenting the same opportunities for partnerships. Kulibayev would not likely accompany Nazarbayev on the trip to DC since it would only raise more speculation about Nazarbayev’s desire to manage his succession through members of his own family (the Azeri example). Kulibayev’s representatives, however, could certainly be in the entourage that heads to Washington in the upcoming weeks. And, if they are, it would be a telling sign of the intentions of Kazakhstani businesses (and oil companies in particular) to work closely with counterparts in the U.S.

One reason that this could happen is that Kazakhstan is readying itself for a major public offering of its state oil and gas company, KazMunaiGas, of which Kulibayev is now chairman, on the London stock exchange. Rumors even suggest that the date of the IPO offering could come within a week of Nazarbayev’s arrival in the U.S. While there does not appear to be any need to attract new investors immediately to the KMG IPO (it is expected to be oversubscribed), a positive early showing of the stock would be yet another feather in the cap of Kazakhstan and President Nazarbayev. A good showing by KMG’s IPO could also send a message to Russia, which recently established an IPO of its state oil company, Rosneft, a venture of which many analysts are still skeptical. Incidentally, some of the criticism of the Rosneft IPO has related to its lack of strong established international investors. Some well established U.S. investors in the KMG IPO certainly would not hurt, and it would definitely be more important than achieving concessions on the new “Borat” film.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

The Countdown Begins: Presidents Nazarbayev and Bush to meet in Washington’s White House on September 29, 2006 (16 days and counting)

On Tuesday, the White House Press Secretary announced officially that President Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan will meet with President Bush in Washington on September 29, 2006. While it seems that the synergy between the hype of the new “Borat” film and the preparations for President Nazarbayev’s visit is stealing all of the media attention in the west, this trip is much more important to the future of Kazakhstan than the humorous diversion of the “Borat” satire would suggest.

In many ways, Kazakhstan is at a crossroads in its development. The country has made some important strides in instituting a market economy with a modicum of liberalism in everyday life. While the quality of life in most of the former Soviet states surrounding Kazakhstan has likely declined since the fall of the U.S.S.R., in Kazakhstan most citizens would agree that the standard of living in their country has been gradually improving, at least in the last five years. Much of Kazakhstan’s development has depended upon the political prowess of its leader President Nursultan Nazarbayev and his relatively wise use of the country’s vast natural resources. As an observer who has watched Nazarbayev’s post-Soviet career, it appears to me that President Nazarbayev now badly wants significant recognition for the strides that he and his country have made in the last fifteen years. In order to receive the praise that Nazarbayev feels that Kazakhstan deserves, he continues to seek ways to visibly demonstrate the country’s successes. He is passionate about his country’s bid to head up the multi-national Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), and he has a grand plan to make his country one of the “50 most developed countries in the world” by 2010. As Nazarbayev is developing these plans, however, it is also apparent that he is getting closer everyday to eventually giving over the reigns of his country to a successor. Having been ruled for some 15 years through a closely managed form of “enlightened autocracy,” the country awaits a period of uncertainty as everybody hopes for a leader who can demonstrate the political prowess of Nazarbayev. It is another question whether such a successor exists who can follow Nazarbayev’s lead and effectively run the country virtually single handed. It is in this context of transition that Nazarbayev is visiting Washington. The aging leader has high hopes for the recognition that Kazakhstan will gain through his visit to the White House, and some of these lofty expectations were outlined in a recent rare press conference that the President gave in Astana. It is not all that unlikely that this could be Nazarbayev’s last high-profile official visit to the United States and his last chance to showcase to the "leader of the free world" the country he "made." President Nazarbayev’s pride in his achievements and his desire for recognition also explains why the “Borat” controversy is such a sensitive issue for the Kazakhstan government during this visit.

The United States is also eager to court Nazarbayev and Kazakhstan as a partner. Having seen its post-September 11 “strategic partnership” with Uzbekistan virtually self-destruct over the last two years, the U.S. would like to work more closely with Kazakhstan on a myriad of issues from anti-terrorism and the reconstruction of Afghanistan’s economy to energy security and a diversification of oil and gas pipelines coming out of Central Asia. Furthermore, one would hope that the U.S. understands that Kazakhstan is not only critical to providing a balance to Russia’s economic and political dominance in the region, but it may be critical to preventing a renewal of economic and political dependency on Russia throughout the former Soviet states outside the Baltics. It is significant, for example, that Kazakhstan has become the largest investor in Georgia following the Rose revolution and that Kazakh investment has also been on the rise in the Ukraine since the Orange revolution. In those countries that are snubbed by Russia for political reasons, Kazakhstan is the only local economic power that has the capacity to “take up the slack.” The U.S., therefore, wants to be friends with Kazakhstan in the same way that Kazakhstan wants recognition from the United States. The problem is that beyond the mutual desire of establishing a long and lasting partnership of respect, there are fundamental divergences in the two countries’ attitudes towards human rights and democracy.

As a veteran of the Soviet nomenklatura, Nazarbayev does not believe in democracy, at least as it is understood in the U.S. He sees democracy, like socialism before it, as a formal construct to explain the ways in which a state enforces stability and provides for its people. It is a model of democracy that President Putin of Russia has termed “managed democracy,” but it is the former politburo member Nazarbayev who is its most adept living practitioner. President Bush, on the other hand, believes that democracy entails a system of governance where leadership regularly changes and where elections appear even to outside observers to be free and fair within a certain pool of candidates. Bush has made democracy the centerpiece of his crusade to defeat terrorism and reignite a sense of American manifest destiny. While Vice President Cheney made it clear when he visited Nazarbayev last year in Kazakhstan’s own White House (or Ak Orda) in Astana that Kazakhstan is not a central focus (or target) of America’s global democracy campaign, Nazarbayev desires more than a “pass” on democracy. He wants recognition. This is a tall order given that Nazarbayev is haunted by numerous scandals that betray the actual character of the operations of the state in Kazakhstan. Among the most prominent of these are the recent suspicious murder of opposition politician Altynbek Sarsenbayev and the infamous “Kazakhgate” oil bribery case involving President Nazarbayev and the American James Giffen, who is presently under indictment and awaiting trial in the State of New York.

It is against this backdrop that neither side is likely to get what it really wants out of Nazarbayev’s visit to Washington. This is unfortunate since many among the younger generation in the Kazakhstani elite who want to see real political reforms in the country could benefit from the establishment of strong partnership between Washington and Astana. But, they would only benefit from such a partnership if it was also clear to Nazarbayev that the relationship depends upon serious steps towards political reforms that could ensure a democratic succession in the country and a transition to a system of governance founded on checks and balances rather than on a single strong leader. As Kazakhstan faces the uncertainty connected to the succession of its first president, only such a system will likely ensure stability and continued economic prosperity. Otherwise, the last years of the Nazarbayev regime might gradually look more like the last years of Suharto’s regime in Indonesia. Such a scenario would not prevent short-term U.S. engagement of Kazakhstan (especially in the oil sector), but it would make the development of a real long-term partnership between the two countries unlikely.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Bakiyev’s brother allegedly behind provocation against Tekebayev: Will Bakiyev save himself again or will the Tulip Revolution turn into poppy dust?

Janysh Bakiyev--brother of President Bakiyev and now implicated in the Tekebayev scandal

The scandal surrounding the arrest and release of Omurbek Tekebayev in Warsaw continues to trouble internal politics in Kyrgyzstan. Yesterday, some one hundred Tekebayev supporters turned out to protest what they considered to be a political provocation against their patron. According to one source in Bishkek who has been following events over the last year, it was the first time he saw signs bearing the slogan “Bakiyev Ketsin!” (Bakiyev Leave!), mirroring the slogans of protesters that eventually forced former President Akayev to leave the country in March of 2005. The parliament, in turn is considering adopting a resolution that would ask President Bakiyev and Prime Minister Kulov to step down from power, call for the formation of a new coalition government, re-open the process of constitutional reform, and call for the resignation of various government bureaucrats, including the brothers of President Bakiyev. Furthermore, the resolution states that if President Bakiyev does not accept these terms, the parliament will call for mass protests throughout the country this Friday September 15. On the evening of September 11th, the parliament stayed late to discuss the resolution, but they could not come to a final decision except to resume discussions tomorrow on September 12.

This has all been in reaction to news that President Bakiyev’s brother Janysh Bakiyev, who just stepped down yesterday as the first vice-representative of the SNB (National Security Service), may be directly involved in planting heroin in the luggage of opposition leader Omurbek Tekebayev late last week. As Edil Baisalov’s excellent still-frame break down of the video tape from Manas airport points out, the vice-president of the airport, Nadyr Mamyrov, appears to have temporarily moved Tekebayev’s luggage from the view of cameras before his bags were put on board the plane to Istanbul. According to parliamentarian Melis Eshimkanov and the website, Mamyrov has already written a letter to President Bakiyev stating that he was ordered to place the heroin in Tekebayev’s luggage by none other than the president’s brother, Janysh Bakiyev. While both Janysh Bakiyev and Nadir Mamyrov deny that such a letter was sent to the president, it is widely assumed that Janysh stepped down from his position at the SNB due to his obvious implication in this scandal. Furthermore, Bakiyev’s most trusted (and infamous) advisor, Usen Sadykov is already speaking as if Mamyrov is guilty by denying that he has any links to the vice-president of the airport, save being from the same “kolkhoz” or collective farm.

It is still difficult to determine how this scandal will play out. As noted in an earlier post on the developing political crisis in Kyrgyzstan, the country has significant “protest fatigue,” and it will be difficult to muster mass public support for yet another political change when people want to return to stability as soon as possible. Much will depend upon whether Bakiyev can once again make the concessions he needs to in order to retain power. In this case, however, those concessions may require selling out his own brother.

Monday, September 11, 2006

What would Central Asia be like today if the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 never had took place?

As I watch on television the commemorative events taking place in the U.S. in memory of the fifth anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, I cannot help but think….what would be different in Central Asia if 9/11 never had happened? It is, of course, impossible to answer such a question with any accuracy, but it is provocative to try to do so.

There are many questions to consider, and the easiest to answer might be related to global economic trends.

The Price of Oil and other minerals – Presumably without 9/11, there would be no Iraq war and no huge spike in the price of oil (or in the price of copper, gold, and other natural resources). The high price of oil and other minerals in the last several years has done wonders to generate huge amounts of capital for both Kazakhstan and Russia. It has made these two states the lead players in Central Asia. The price of oil has also probably accelerated thirst for oil in China and India, which results in increased Chinese and Indian engagement in the region. These all may be processes that were underway before 9/11, but the events unfolding from the terrorist attacks of September 11th probably accelerated them.

The Heroin Trade – If there had been no 9/11, there would have been no war in Afghanistan. The Taliban had been on the verge of significantly curtailing the production of heroin in Afghanistan before the U.S. invasion of the country. Now, heroin production in Afghanistan by most accounts is at a record high level. This has enormous ramifications for Central Asia, and for the economies of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan in particular. Among other things, a dependency on the heroin trade in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan provides incentive not to initiate reforms related to the rule of law and offers no impetus for serious sustainable economic development in those countries. As we have seen recently in Kyrgyzstan, it also has led to the more visible participation of criminal elements in governance.

There are also some political transformations in Central Asia that appear to be visibly related to the events of September 11, 2001.

U.S. Military in Central Asia –
The most vivid geopolitical transformation in Central Asia as a result of 9/11 has been the introduction of U.S. military bases and re-fueling stations in the region. Without 9/11, it is difficult to imagine that the U.S. would have been able to establish such a military presence in the region. People who have spent significant time in Central Asia know that this U.S. military presence is not readily visible in daily life. Unless one is hanging around the lobby of the Meridian Hotel in Tashkent, buying bootleg DVDs at the Tsum department store in Bishkek, or drinking at the bar at the Nissa Hotel in Ashghabat, one might never know of the U.S. military presence. The geopolitical ramifications of this presence, however, have been significant. It is at the root of the developing mistrust concerning U.S. intentions in the region that is presently held by Russia and China. It is also the primary impetus for the increase in U.S. engagement and US assistance money in the region. If in 2000, the U.S. government was thinking about gradually phasing out its assistance to the Central Asian states, post-2001 brought significant money into these countries, who had suddenly become major allies in the war on terror. Finally, one must assume that without the establishment of a significant U.S. military presence, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) would not be nearly as strong and important as it has become in the last several years.

The Complete Alienation of the Uyghur and Chechen Separatism Movements – While the Chechen and Uyghur separatist movements were already significantly marginalized in international politics by 2000, there was a certain constituency in the international community that had at least some sympathy for these movements (especially as they were articulated in peaceful terms). Part of engaging Russia and China in the Global War on Terror (GWOT) for the U.S. and Europe was a more explicit recognition that the Chechens and Uyghurs had no right to sovereignty in Russia and China respectively. While a denial of the rights of these groups to self-determination has not become official policy, recognizing both real and imagined terrorist groups among them has become official policy and tacitly ignoring their right to sovereignty has become more or less unofficial policy, in the United States at least.

The Increased Profile of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan – Starting with the first state-of-the-union address after 9/11 when U.S. President George Bush highlighted the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) as part of the enemy in the GWOT, this apparently ill-organized rag-tag group of Uzbek rebels in Afghanistan became a global player that boosted the careers of scholars and analysts in the U.S. and drew the U.S. increasingly into the orbit of the domestic politics of Uzbekistan’s President Islam Karimov. Incidently, the legacy of September 11th has also all but destroyed what had existed of the IMU.

The Establishment of U.S. Foreign Policy Focused on “South and Central Asia”—This policy has been evolving since September 11, 2001, but it has become a critical part of the U.S. engagement of both regions only recently with the establishment of a new bureau in the U.S. State Department focused on South and Central Asia as a unified region of the world. This will likely have major ramifications for Central Asia as the U.S. continues to see the former Soviet Republics of the region as critical to saving Afghanistan from itself and to saving the rest of the world from Afghanistan.

There are also some questions that remain unanswerable but are still provocative to consider nonetheless.

Would the events of Andijon ever have happened without 9/11?
Would the Tulip Revolution ever have happened without 9/11?
Would Nazarbayev, Niyazov, Karimov, and Rakhmanov still be in power if 9/11 had never happened?

Russian analysts who specialize in fueling the politics of a “new great game” and in demonizing U.S. policy in Central Asia as neo-imperialist would answer that Andijon and the Tulip revolution would never have happened and that all five Central Asian leaders who held power before 9/11 would continue to do so. They would argue that 9/11 began a U.S. policy of aggressive democracy promotion that facilitated the overthrow of President Akayev of Kyrgyzstan in March of 2005 and aided the protests in Andijon during May of 2005. Real figures for the U.S. assistance to the Central Asian states since September 11, 2001, however, would bring such analysis into question. The assistance to the Central Asian states for border security, anti-terrorist technology, and law enforcement since September 11, 2001 has been far more than that provided for the development of indigenous civil society organizations, independent media outlets, or electoral transparency. If one looks at these various assistance programs from this perspective, one wonders if the increased engagement by the U.S. in Central Asia since 2001 has served more to promote the status quo than to foster changes.

Why would Astana request that Interpol search Tekebayev?

The scandal around the arrest of Omurbek Tekebayev in Poland continues to have repercussions in Central Asia. The most recent news from suggests that Interpol received the tip about Tekebayev from Astana, not from Bishkek. It will be interesting to see if this information is further confirmed and if it unearths anything about the evolving relationship between Kazakhstan and the internal politics of Kyrgyzstan. It may be that Kazakhstan was merely used by Kyrgyz authorities as a smokescreen, but the truth may also be much more complex. Obviously, at this point more information is needed before opinions can be drawn.

In the meantime, rumors from Bishkek suggest that there will be an attempt to organize a fairly large demonstration outside the parliament building demanding the truth about what happened with Tekebayev. Given that Bishkek has some “protest fatigue” from the last year, a large turn out in support of Tekebayev tomorrow could be an indication of the severity of this latest scandal to hit the Tulip revolutionaries in power.

What is the response of Kazakhstan as the Borat hype increases?

On August 22, I wrote about the potential tension between the PR related to President Nazarbayev’s trip to the U.S. this autumn and the simultaneous “hype” around the new “Borat” film.
While there has not yet been significant PR about Kazakhstan related to President Nazarbayev’s visit, the “hype” surrounding the Borat film is increasingly daily. Most recently, Borat made a shocking entrance to the red carpet for the Toronto Film Festival where the new film is being premièred.

As the cheers of “Borat!!! Borat!!!” from the video indicate, this fictional character has gained a large following and has in a strange way increased the profile of Kazakhstan. In fact, when I was buying car insurance last week, the salesperson on the phone became especially attentive once he had learned that I had just returned from the home of Borat. He confided in me that he was a huge fan and was now particularly curious about Kazakhstan.

At least one well-traveled Kazakh political website,, has taken notice of the hype and has republished articles about the Borat film this week from The New York Times, the Hollywood tabloid Entertainment Weekly, and Canadian television CTV. Perhaps has a soft spot for the Borat satire given that the site is run by the well-known Kazakh filmmaker Rachid Nugmanov. Regardless of the opinions of Nugmanov or his site concerning Borat, the administrators of at least acknowledge that Borat is an issue of political importance to Kazakhstan. While many people in Kazakhstan still are strongly insulted by the satire, including one of the anonymous commenters to my article from several weeks ago, others seem to get the joke. One commenter to the CTV article republished on provided a link to the following video tape of Borat’s impromptu Q&A session at the Toronto film festival after the projector malfunctioned ten minutes into the film.

The commenter noted that Kazakh diplomats might want to consider adopting some of Borat’s snappy answers to difficult questions. The example that the commenter offers is as follows:

Question: It's been said that your country is repressive. What do you say about that?

Borat: Yeah... (pause) Yes! (laughter) Thank you very much! (cheering)

If President Nazarbayev dares to have an open press conference while he is in the U.S., he will likely face the same question. If he does, will he be able to answer so quickly and smoothly or, even more importantly, will he receive a loud cheer from the crowd for his response?

NOTE: In my last post about Borat, I noted that I had sent his myspace page a letter requesting an interview. Sadly, I still have not heard a response, but I reiterate my offer to Borat. I would seriously like to hear what he thinks about his role in promoting Kazakhstan around the world.

Friday, September 08, 2006

The Tekebayev video from Manas airport in Bishkek

Here is the video referred to below. I found it on the blog of my friend in Kyrgyzstan Edil Baisalov, who got it from It seems to show that Tekebayev’s baggage may have been tampered with at Manas Airport in Bishkek before he left for Turkey and then Poland. Sources say that Tekebayev has been released and is on his return to Bishkek. The Polish security forces that made the arrest reportedly are saying that it was a political (not criminal incident) , but the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Poland plan to provide more information at a press conference scheduled for 3:00 pm. In the meantime, evidence is mounting that Tekebayev was framed. Aside from the videotape, it has been reported that Interpol was “tipped off” about Tekebayev as an alleged member of “Hizb-ut-tahrir,” who might be carrying narcotics and/or explosives. Furthermore, the court found no evidence (such as fingerprints) to suggest that this incident was anything other than a political provocation. Somebody’s head in the administration may need to roll for this one.

Update on the Tekebayev incident and Events in Kyrgyzstan

The response to the arrest of Omurbek Tekebayev in Kyrgyzstan has already been fairly strong, a day after it initially took place. According to Akipress, approximately 100 supporters of Tekebayev already had blocked the Osh-Bishkek road by mid-morning. In addition, several parliamentarians claim that they have already attained had a videotape from the Manas airport in Bishkek showing that Tekebayev’s baggage had been removed and brought to another room for some 14 minutes before it was loaded on the plane bringing the delegation to Poland via Turkey. It appears that this incident could very definitely have fairly serious repercussions in Kyrgyzstan, depending upon what evidence is unearthed. Given the many “crises” in Kyrgyzstan over the last year, however, it is difficult to determine how long lasting and important those repercussions will be. Furthermore, if this incident becomes a determining factor in the course of Kyrgyzstan's politics, will it lead to Bakiyev's fall or to the futher consolidation of his power?

Will Uzbekistan reinitiate privatization efforts on a large scale?

A comment to an earlier piece on Alisher Usmanov and his purchase of the Russian newspaper “Kommersant” mentioned an interesting tidbit about the appointment of a new head of the state privatization committee (GosKomImushestva) in Uzbekistan. While the person leaving the comment had suggested that this new appointee is only 35 years old, another contact has told me that he is only 29 and that he was chosen by Gulnara Karimova, the daughter of President Karimov and, more recently, a pop music star. Regardless of whoever backed this appointment and whether the new head of the committee is 29 or 35, does the appointment of somebody from the post-Soviet generation to this position suggest that Uzbekistan will reinitiate the privatization process, which had never been completed to the same extent as in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan?

There are reasons to believe that Uzbekistan may be thinking again about privatization. Afterall, there eventually will be a presidential succession in Uzbekistan. If various people control certain sectors of state property now, it is likely they might lose that control once a succession takes place. If the property is at least privatized, it makes the redistribution of assets more difficult in such a succession scenario. The Kazakhs, of course, are far beyond this logic. They are now trying to put various large assets that had been privatized in the 1990s on international stock markets so as to make re-privatization difficult during a succession. If that were to ever happen in Uzbekistan, a lot still needs to be privatized and a lot needs to be done to ensure that privatized assets can meet the international standards demanded of stock markets in the U.S., Canada, Europe, and Japan.

It would be quite ironic if that, after 15 years of the United States’ urging to privatize, the Uzbeks started their big drive now, when U.S. engagement and the presence of USAID and other international donors are at an all time low.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

More Trouble with the Tulip Revolution: Kyrgyz Oppositionist Omurbek Tekebayev arrested in Warsaw

Today, there was shocking news that Kyrgyz parliamentarian and leading opposition politician Omurbek Tekebayev had been detained at the Warsaw airport en route to an economic forum in Poland with 600 grams of heroin . While the two others accompanying Tekebayev on the trip, which was reportedly funded by the Soros Foundation of Kyrgyzstan, were briefly detained in connection with the heroin found in Tekebayev’s baggage, they were quickly released. When this was posted, Tekebayev appeared to still be in custody, and he reportedly denied that he had anything to do with the heroin found in his baggage. Tekebayev, instead, has insisted that this was a provocation engineered by his political enemies in Kyrgyzstan. Furthermore, various political figures in Kyrgyzstan have backed Tekebayev’s assertion that the entire incident must have been a “set-up,” including Edil Baisalov (leader of the Coalition of NGOs for Democracy and Civil Society), Roza Otunbayeva (former Foreign Minister and co-leader of the Asaba party), and parliamentarian Temur Sariyev. Presently, a group of deputies from the Kyrgyz parliament intend to travel to Warsaw to learn more about the situtaion

Tekebayev is one of the leaders of the opposition to President Bakiyev in Kyrgyzstan, and he was also one of the leaders of the opposition to President Akayev before him. Mr. Tekebayev has long been known as a slippery political deal-maker, who, like most Kyrgyz politicians, has less-than-transparent business interests. Regardless of what one thinks of Mr. Tekebayev, however, it is still difficult to imagine that a politician of this stature would be bringing narcotics to Poland to sell. Furthermore, it would seem that there are plenty of political reasons for somebody to set him up for a fall, especially in the lead up to the constitutional reform that President Bakiyev had promised to undertake during the last quarter of 2006.

That being said, it is not beyond the stretch of imagination that a politician in Central Asia could be involved in the trafficking of heroin. In May of 2000, for example, the Tajikistan Ambassador to Kazakhstan was arrested for possession of 62 kilograms of heroin, with a street value in excess of one million U.S. dollars. If somebody of Tekebayev’s public profile wanted to traffic heroin, however, one would think it would be done more discretely, or at least for more profits. As it stands, Tekebayev is being accused of smuggling only 600 grams of heroin with a street value of $40,000-$60,000 in Europe. That is hardly the kind of money on which to risk one’s political career.

Mr. Tekebayev’s primary political rival is, of course, President Bakiyev. If it is proven that people close to the president were involved in setting Tekebayev up for a fall, it would once again raise skepticism that Bakiyev really wants to uphold the reforms that he promised when he took over the helm of the country in the aftermath of the March 2005 “Tulip Revolution.” Among those promises, Bakiyev had pledged to end corruption and to create a real rule of law in the country. Planting drugs on one’s political rival is obviously not an indication of one’s commitment to the rule of law. With Bakiyev’s recent veto of the law on public television and the Kyrgyzstan Government’s expulsion of U.S. diplomats earlier this summer, any indication of Tekebayev’s heroin being planted for political reasons would also likely bring up serious questions about Kyrgyzstan’s current bid for U.S. Government money from the Millenium Challenge Account.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Craig Murray and the West's Re-engagement of Uzbekistan

Craig Murray, the former British ambassador to Uzbekistan, is a controversial figure. People either see him as adefender of democracy and human rights in the face of the hypocrisy of the Global War on Terror (GWOT) or as a self-promoting trouble maker with an axe to grind who is loose with the truth. In fact, on the Wikipedia page devoted to him, there is even a special warning disputing the neutral point of view (NPOV) of the page’s content. He ran for parliament last year, he continues to promote himself through his own website, and he has recently published a book about his work in Uzbekistan entitled “Murder in Samarkand.” With such a public profile, Craig Murray undoubtedly will continue to be a controversial figure.

For watchers of Central Asia, however, the most important accomplishment of Craig Murray is that he has made the foreign policy of the U.K. towards Uzbekistan a matter of public importance, and to some degree, an issue in Britain’s domestic politics. Furthermore, he seems to seek to accomplish the same in the United States. His large article in Sunday’s Washington Post, in addition to being an obvious part of his book’s promotion, was one step further towards making Americans aware of Uzbekistan and its position in U.S. foreign policy.

No matter what one thinks of Mr. Murray, his opinions, or his tastes in “women and whiskey,” he is an important addition to public debates on Central Asia. With more established scholars such as Fred Starr and Shirin Akinermore or less condoning the March 2005 killing of civilians in Andijan and Martha Brill Olcott trying neither to condemn nor to condone the bloody events of Andijan, Mr. Murray’s uncompromised outrage at the policies of the Uzbek Government (in Andijan and elsewhere) is critical in providing everybody with a reality check. No matter what one thinks of the messenger, his message is important. Furthermore, his book’s release is timely in that it will undoubtedly play a role in the ongoing debates of how (and if) the west should try to re-engage Uzbekistan once again.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Tajik Elections Announced while the Government tries to Destroy Imaginary Enemies

Now that Tajikistan has announced its presidential elections for November 6 of this year, the campaigning can begin, if there is anybody left to campaign against that is. For almost a year now, it seems that President Rakhmanov has been clearing the ground for his next re-election. The leader of one opposition political party (Mahmudruzi Iskandarov of the Democratic Party) is in prison. Independent media has been muffled, and the BBC’s local service has been closed. International Aid Organizations promoting democracy have been warned, harassed, or closed. But the most recent developments are the most shocking--the leader of another opposition party may have been poisoned

Rahmatullo Zoirov, who recently claimed to have discovered he was poisoned, is the head of the Social Democratic Party, a party that, while lacking any real popular support, is the only political force in the country that is visibly outspoken against the President Rakhmanov, especially in the run-up to November’s election. While there is no confirmation of Zoirov’s claims that he was poisoned, and he himself does not directly accuse the government of the poisoning, one cannot help but to think of the parallels to the poisoning of Victor Yushenko in Ukraine. Tajikistan, of course, is not Ukraine. There is presently no serious opposition to President Rakhmanov in his bid to once again become the leader of the country, and Tajikistan does not have a huge diaspora in the Americas and Europe (like Ukraine) to lobby for international involvement in the election. With the exception of Zoirov and Iskandarov, it seems that all other opposition forces are presently content to make deals with Rakhmanov in order to retain their small slices of the pie. In other words, November’s presidential election have no chance of being seriously contested.

However, even if the Government of Tajikistan did not have anything to do with Zoirov’s poisoning, it has done enough over the past year to demonstrate its “orangephobic” paranoia about the upcoming Tajik elections. But why? Who are the imaginary enemies they are fighting, and who is advising the President that such enemies are real? Is it overzealous advisors who can use the President’s paranoia to their advantage, or is it international players hoping to do the same thing?

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