Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Turkmenbashi is Buried, Long Live Turkmenbashi II?

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Turkmenbashi’s casket at the state funeral

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Turkmenbashi’s image being washed off a building in Ashghabad

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Turkmenbashi's legal wife and son at the funeral

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Turkmenbashi’s likely successor Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov

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Yesterday's People’s Congress (Khalk Maslikhaty) meeting that has anointed him

The funeral of Turkmenbashi on December 24 was the last act in Saparmurat Niyazov’s ostentatious show-like life as the “Great Leader” of Turkmenistan. While the event offered much of the pomp and circumstance that characterized the life of Turkmenbashi the Great, it also provided an air of change…. sort of.

While Turkmenbashi’s legal wife and son were in attendance, they did not feature prominently. Furthermore, sources who watched the funeral carefully have told me that they had not seen Turkmenbashi’s close confident from Turkey Ahmed Chalik in attendance at all. Instead, the person who seemed to feature most prominently at the funeral was the acting president, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, who many are saying is Turkmenbashi’s illegitimate son.

Yesterday, Berdymukhammedov emerged as the favorite candidate to succeed Turkmenbashi as the president of the country. At a long awaited session of the People’s Congress, the constitution was changed in order to allow Berdymukhammedov to be eligible as a presidential candidate. Furthermore, Berdymukhammedov was unanimously nominated by the Congress to be a candidate in nationwide presidential elections that are now scheduled for February 11. While the Congress also nominated an additional five candidates, all of whom are lower level officials in government, nobody expects Berdymukhammedov to be challenged in the election. The head of the Turkmen Central Election Commission has said as much, also noting that no international observers are needed for the election. Furthermore, as if he was beginning his election campaign, Berdymukhammedov yesterday alreadypromised to continue his predecessor’s policies of state subsidies for the economy, including the provision of free gas and water.

All in all, it seems that Turkmenbashi’s alleged illegitimate son may smoothly transition into the position of Turkmenbashi II….sort of. Analysts note that Berdymukhammedov was little known prior to last week, and the real power behind him are the much more prominent and powerful heads of the power ministries, such as Agageldi Mamedgeldyev (Minister of Defense), Geldimukhammed Ashirmukhammedov (head of the KGB), and especially Akmurat Redzhepov (head of the Presidential Guards). But there is also much discussion of the competition between these various figures who control the all-important military and security organs in the country. Yesterday, for example, a rumor was spreading that Mamedgeldyev had been arrested along with over 100 lower level functionaries. While these rumors have not been entirely dismissed, people viewing yesterday’s Khalk Maslikhaty meeting noted that Mamedgeldyev was present and featured prominently. Others in Turkmenistan note that Berdymukhammedov is not completely trusted by the security organs, who distrust his past collaboration with international organizations on health projects.

As a result, many are saying that Berdymukhammedov may only be a temporary president while various interest groups continue to negotiate power, and others speculate that he will be
a weakened president that serves mostly representative duties
. The question is whether such a president can either maintain the control over his population that his predecessor did or gradually initiate the reforms needed to bring the country into the international community.

Furthermore, a smooth transition of power faces other serious obstacles. Almost immediately after Turkmenbashi’s death, for example, Deutche Bank froze his infamous bank account that was assumed to be critical to running the country. In addition, opposition parties in exile have nominated two candidates for the presidency and appear ready to challenge the legitimacy of the election, especially if they were to be backed by either internal or external forces that do not agree with Berdymukhammedov’s rise to power.

So, at present, things remain in flux in Ashghabad. On the one hand, a process is underway to legitimize Berdymukhammedov as Turkmenbashi’s successor. On the other hand, struggles within the power ministries may still be underway and various forces seem prepared to either control Berdymukhammedov from behind the scenes or to derail the entire process. With elections still one and one-half months away, much could still happen. The only thing that is clear is that despite all the talk of geopolitical battles that may be involved in Turkmenistan’s presidential succession, publicly the U.S., Russia, and all other geopolitical actors are being silent about their interests in the process.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

What are the “Wild Cards” in Turkmenistan’s Succession Struggle?

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While several days have past since the death of Turkmenbashi the Great, the succession situation appears no clearer. Although sources in both the U.S. and Russia stress the geopolitical significance of the country and its future, any international attempts to influence the succession process appear to be happening only behind closed doors. With the security situations in Iran and Afghanistan becoming more uncertain and the gas needs of both Russia and Europe becoming more critical, external forces have steered clear of calling for any political reform or transparent processes for succession in the totalitarian state. Instead, most international forces seem to be hoping that the elite in the country will be able to peacefully decide upon a new dictator to ensure a smooth transition and the maintenance of status quo in this small, resource-rich, and bizarre dictatorship.

That being said, the transition will not necessarily be smooth. At present, Turkmenbashi’s personal doctor, Kurbanguli Berdymukhammedov, has taken over the reins of control and has imprisoned the constitutionally decreed temporary leader, Oraz Atayev. While Berdymukhammedov is technically ineligible to participate in presidential elections according to the constitution, rumors that he is the illegitimate son of the deceased dictator raise the question of whether he will indeed make a bid to succeed Turkmenbashi the Great. At the same time, Russian analysts suggest that a power struggle may already be underway between Agageldi Mamedgeldyev (Minister of Defense), Geldimukhammed Ashirmukhammedov (head of the KGB), and Akmurat Redzhepov (head of the Presidential Guards). In the context of these assumed power plays going on within the security forces, however, there are several “wild cards” that might be exploited by either internal or external groups interested in influencing the course of events. Here are a few of them:

The Family:
In the context of Turkmenbashy’s personality cult, it is understandable why many people would believe that the next leader could be his son, Murat Niyazov. Some analysts, however, have already ruled out this variant. Aside from Murat’s general lack of interest in politics, he has a scandalous history that includes allegations of an extreme gambling habit. Furthermore, the Turkmenistan constitution stipulates that the country’s president should be 100% ethnic Turkmen, and Murat’s mother is not Turkmen at all, but is of Slavic origin. Whether or not Murat Niyazov becomes a candidate to succeed his father, his family could be utilized in a variety of ways. While she has long been isolated from international attention in an elite apartment in Moscow, Turkmenbashi’s widow Musa could be a critical source of compromising information on her deceased husband’s rule. Thus far, little if anything has been heard from either Murat or Musa, but it will be interesting to see what (if any) role they may play in Turkmenbashi’s funeral tomorrow.

The Money:
Russian sources have suggested that Turkmenbashi’s personal accountant, Alexandr Zhadan, disappeared a few days before the announcement of the dictator’s death. Furthermore, the source reporting on this has suggested that Mr. Zhadan fled Ashghabad with “important documents” that could be important tools in a succession struggle. Aside from Zhadan and any information he may be harboring, some Turkmen opposition figures have already begun bringing up the question about Turkmenbashi’s “special” bank account in Deutsche Bank. “Following the money” is certainly likely to yield some interesting facts useful to anybody trying to influence the power struggle in the country.

The Opposition:
As a recent post on neweurasia suggests, Turkmenistan’s exiled opposition has yet to play a significant role in discussions about succession. Shell-shocked from accusations of being behind “colored revolutions” in the former USSR and over-burdened with machinations involving Iraq and Iran, the U.S. appears to be going out of its way to avoid engaging the exiled opposition of Turkmenistan. Russia, however, may not be as shy about this option. Aside from publicly requesting Germany to open the books on Turkmenbashi’s bank accounts, a group of exiled Turkmen oppositionists has also recently reached out to Ukraine for support. While such a move is unlikely to yield any results, it is not out of the question that the opposition could be utilized by forces trying to influence the succession scenario and/or bring down the façade of the cult of Turkmenbashi. The real “wild card” in this equation, of course, is the imprisoned Boris Shikhmuradov, who is probably the one opposition figure most likely to garner respect within the population and among the international community. At present, however, there does not appear to be any discussion of letting Shikhmuradov out of prison and there are questions about whether he is still cognizant following the mental (and probably drug-induced) attacks he appeared to have suffered during his show trial in 2003.

The Foreign “Businessmen”:
Finally, there is one more unknown that could upset what various forces seem to hope will be an orderly transfer of dictatorial rule in Turkmenistan. This is the murky group of foreign businessmen who have long been allegedly inside Turkmenbashi’s inner circle. The one person in this group who is well-known in the public sphere is the Turkish textile-baron turned energy broker, Ahmed Chalik. Having established a close relationship with Turkmenbashi in the early to mid-1990s, Chalik quickly became a critical factor in the country. With help from the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), Chalik established a textile producing factory in Turkmenistan in 1996. For his role in the development of industry in the country, Turkmenbashi subsequently bequeathed upon him awards and even a position as the “Deputy Minister of Textiles.” Most recently, Chalik has become involved in the transportation of oil and gas as one of the architects of the proposed Samsun-Ceyhan pipeline that will be interconnected with the Baku-Tblisi-Ceyhan pipeline. While Chalik is usually seen as a self-interested businessman, he is also allegedly connected to the Turkey-based Sufi Muslim missionary group led by Fathullah Gulen. Thus far, Chalik has only been cited in the Turkish press as mourning the death of his dictator friend, but Turkish analysts have also suggested that he could play a major role in determining Turkey’s future relations with Turkmenistan. Tomorrow at Turkmenbashi’s funeral, it will be interesting to see where (if anywhere) Ahmed Chalik sits and with whom.

Perhaps the gods of sustainable autocracy will look kindly upon Turkmenistan in this period of transition, but there are also many “wild cards” that could muddy the waters. Regardless, it will be very difficult for any new leader, dictator or not, to maintain the crazy cult of personality and isolation policies of the country, which have served to deliberately “dumb-down” an entire generation of Turkmen youth. Thus, if stability can be maintained in the country over the short term, it does not mean that it will last for long.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

What will be the U.S. Response to Turkmenbashi’s Death?

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There are numerous people in the U.S. government who have been following the situation in Turkmenistan closely enough to provide well-informed input on how the U.S. should react. The question is whether the U.S. will take the initiative to use such people in order to engage the situation or whether it will decide to play it safe. The safe position is to say that the U.S. regrets the passing of a world leader and hopes that Turkmenistan will adopt a non-violent and democratic means of naming a replacement to the great leader. This has essentially already been said by the State Department. But, if it is in the interest of the U.S. (which I think it should be) that next steps include a “De-Turkmenbashification” of society and a gradual introduction of democratic reforms, more needs to be done. The U.S. needs to take a strong stance now on the developing situation before a new Turkmenbashi takes shape. Not doing so will likely only strengthen the influence of Russia in the succession process. With the gas at stake in Turkmenistan, Russia is without a doubt ready to influence the course of the succession struggle.

In an attempt to be provocative, here are a few suggestions:

1) Send in a high-level envoy to Turkmenistan now to meet with various government insiders and carry a message that the madness of Turkmenbashi’s cult of personality must be reversed and that the U.S. is ready to assist with the facilitation of gradual but real political reforms. The players in a potential succession struggle need to know that they have the option to work with the west on reform before they cast their lot fully with Moscow.

2) Issue an official State Department call for the release of the many political prisoners that were incarcerated under Niyazov and encourage a mediated conference of all political forces inside and outside the country to discuss succession and the possibilities of an interim government.

3) Encourage the OSCE to be closely involved in how Turkmenistan deals with the question of succession. If Turkmenistan decides to stick to its constitutional requirements of holding a new election within two months, ensure that the OSCE has a sufficient election monitoring mission and that technical assistance is offered to Turkmenistan in the electoral process.

4) Encourage the interim government in Turkmenistan to begin discussing the excesses of Turkmenbashi’s cult of personality and to open up the media environment. This should also include assistance to the Turkmen government in tracking the present location of Turkmenbashi’s financial assets.

Unfortunately, the reality of the situation in the U.S. government is that a political crisis in a country like Turkmenistan during the holiday season is unlikely to solicit the interest needed to take such moves. By the time the holidays have ended, it is likely that Russia will already be fully engaged in Turkmenistan and any opportunity for the U.S. and the E.U. to influence the situation for the better will have been lost.

Turkmenbashi Dies at 66 (Finally)! Now what?

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News is trickling in about the death of Turkmenbashi the Great. Preliminary reports suggest that the infamous totalitarian leader of Turkmenistan died of a heart attack today and will be buried on December 24 (Christmas eve). The People's Council is scheduled to have an extraordinary meeting to discuss succession on December 26. In the meantime, opposition groups in exile are claiming they are ready to return to the country. This could be the biggest test of post-Soviet succession to date.

Many questions remain. Who in the black box of Turkmen politics will influence succession? What is Russia doing now? What will be the role of Turkmenbashi's infamous Turkish, Russian, and Isreali advisors, especially Ahmed Chalik of Turkey? What of Turkmenbashi's son? Stay tuned....this will be interesting.

Anybody want to add their two-cents as to who will be Turkmenbashi II (or if one will exist)? Comments welcome!

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Controlling Kazakh Nationalism 20 Years Later: Zheltoksan, Tengiz, Norman Foster, and Russian Television

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Pictures from the December 1986 Ethnic Kazakh Student Protests in Alma-Ata

Twenty years this past weekend, an event took place in Almaty, Kazakhstan that has often been described as the beginning of the end of the Soviet Union. After Moscow had removed an ethnic Kazakh named Dinmukhamed Kunayev from the position of First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Kazakh SSR and replaced him with a Russian by the name of Gennady Kolbin, protests erupted in the capital of the republic, Alma-Ata. Thousands of ethnic Kazakh students took to the streets in an unprecedented show of ethnic nationalism and anti-Russian sentiment in Central Asia as they called for the reinstatement of an ethnic Kazakh to lead their republic. While the events that followed remain somewhat murky, the protests were forcibly suppressed, people were killed (maybe as many as 250), hundreds of protesters were arrested, and many more were expelled from University.

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Kunayev (left) and a young Nazarbayev (right)

While he was then the second in command of the Communist Party in the republic, the ruling President of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, over the last fifteen years has vacillated between claiming to have supported the students’ protests and trying to muffle discussion of the events all together. Some suggest that Nazarbayev’s reticence to celebrate the events of December 1986 (referred to locally as Zheltoksan) points to his involvement in the suppression of the protests. While this could indeed be true, President Nazarbayev also has another reason to “downplay” this part of Kazakhstan’s recent history—he wants to control the phenomenon of Kazakh nationalism. Aside from any fears that Nazarbayev may have of nationalism due to his political education in the Soviet Communist Party, he also knows that the people who have benefited the least from the economic accomplishments of post-Soviet Kazakhstan are the ethnic Kazakh working class and rural poor. This is also the population that could most easily be mobilized against him by a renaissance in Kazakh nationalism.

In the place of nationalism, Nazarbayev has tried to build a different ideology for Kazakhstan based on “international harmony” and “interfaith dialogue.” The new symbol of this vision is the grand glass Pyramid of Peace commissioned from British architect Norman Foster, which now graces the skyline of Astana. Such monuments to the peaceful co-existence of peoples and religions in Kazakhstan, however, are mostly for external consumption and represent Nazarbayev’s vision of himself as a world leader more than they reflect the realities of life in Kazakhstan. The situation on the ground is quite different.

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Norman Foster’s Pyramid of Peace in Astana

In Kazakhstan, the tensions that precipitated the events of 1986 remain, especially within the local ethnic Kazakh working class and rural poor. Two recent events highlighted this tension. The first was the outbreak of violent clashes between Kazakh and Turkish workers at the Tengiz oil fields. One only needs to look at the comments to my posts on that event (HERE and HERE)
to understand the deep-seated tensions that contributed to that violence. The second is a more recent event in the mostly Uyghur populated area of Chilik outside of Almaty. After a young Uyghur screamed “the state may be yours, but the land is ours” during a verbal conflict with a young Kazakh at a club, violence broke out between Kazakhs and Uyghurs inside the club, spreading to the streets and neighboring villages. It is exactly such Kazakhs – the workers in the Tengiz fields and the rural poor – who continue to feel the most strain in Kazakhstan’s new economy. In the meantime, they are wondering why they are on the short side of the financial stick in a country they proudly call Kazakhstan.

Most interestingly, this frustrated strata of the population has changed the focus of its nationalism since 1986. Russia is no longer seen as the external force limiting the mobility of local Kazakhs. Instead, the focus is against others who can supplant Russia as the punching bag for Kazakh nationalism. There are several reasons for this. Firstly, the Kazakhstan state has gone to great lengths to construct an ideology for its nation-state that glosses over its colonial and neo-colonial history with Russia. The government “downplays” events like last week’s 20th anniversary of Zheltoksan and limits discussion of Russian colonization of Kazakhstan. Instead of focusing on a struggle with Russian colonial rule, for example, the state-sponsored epic film “Nomad” represents the Kazakhs’ national awakening as being grounded in their battles with the Zhunggars, a now non-existent people. Secondly, Russian media has made incredible in-roads into Kazakhstan over the last fifteen years, helping to foster a general pro-Russian sentiment in the country. In addition to providing Kazakhstanis with Russian pop-stars, comedians, and sports heroes to emulate, Russian media offers a perspective on world news and geopolitics that portrays Kazakhstan, Russia, and the entire former Soviet Union as being in an unquestioned alliance against the greed and ambition of the capitalist west (sound familiar?).

While on the surface these efforts have helped to control Kazakh nationalism, especially as it relates to Russia and the history of Russian-Kazakh colonial relations, the issues that precipitated the events of December 1986 in Alma-Ata have not entirely disappeared. Kazakhstan continues to deal with the legacy of colonialism in the linguistic realm where Russian language still dominates the less widespread, yet national, language of Kazakh. Russia continues to try to dictate certain moves by Kazakhstan economically and politically, and ethnic Kazakhs continue to feel the wrath of Russian racism when they visit Russia.

To return to the 20th anniversary of Zheltoksan, the Kazakhstan government has obviously tried to limit the impact of this anniversary, especially on the growth of Kazakh nationalism. While Nazarbayev himself unveiled a new monument to Zheltoksan this past year, he did so quietly and several months before the actual anniversary. Furthermore, when opposition political groups tried to hold a commemorative ceremony at the monument this past weekend, security forces quickly stopped the action. In the meantime, a four day holiday has been called to commemorate the 15th anniversary of Kazakhstan’s independence, not the 20th anniversary of Zheltoksan. While opposition political parties, including the Social Democrats and the Real Ak Zhol party have issued statements this week about the 20th anniversary of Zheltoksan, the government seems to have succeeded once again in downplaying the event and encouraging a state-wide exercise in “forgetting” in lieu of remembrance.

Indeed, Nazarbayev has succeeded in controlling Kazakh nationalism during the last fifteen years, but the situation inside the country is not quite that which the government wishes to reflect in such monuments as Norman Foster’s glass pyramid in Astana. And, as questions about the succession of Nazarbayev continue to be raised over the next several years, it is very likely that there will emerge some politicians who will try to exploit the issue of Kazakh nationalism and spread the cracks that already exist on the surface of Nazarbayev’s glass pyramid of peace and harmony. The question is whether they can succeed in doing so without provoking the wrath of Russia.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Borat and Kazakhstan Nation Branding: Signs of the Apocolypse?

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This past week, the government of Kazakhstan ran yet another large infomercial in the Washington Post. This time, however, the pitch was somewhat novel. The half-page quasi-article had a catchy headline – “Who Needs Borat? Here’s the Kazakh President.” The article also begins with a catchy introduction: “In this exclusive article, Nursultan Nazarbayev presents a different picture of his homeland to the caricature of Sacha Baron Cohen’s film. It is a thriving optimistic nation. We like!” What struck me about the article, however, was not as much the novel approach, but its producers. In following a web-link at the bottom of the article, I discovered that it was produced by a company called East-West Communications, which specializes in nation branding (yes, you read correctly-nation branding) and has a wide range of nation-clients including Liberia, Cote D’Ivoire, Korea, Ukraine, Greece, and Peru. Judging from their list of placed articles in the Washington Post, however, it appears that Kazakhstan is its best client.

In my opinion, the concept of nation branding represents a significant post-Cold War shift in global politics. Aside from the United States, which appears to be only tenuously holding on to its ideological ideals of global democracy, there are few countries in the world today that base their states on ideology. The few exceptions that exist include a handful of theocracies, such as Iran, two communist dinosaurs in Cuba and North Korea, and perhaps the populist socialism developing in Venezula and Bolivia. The model for most everybody else is the corporate state. Afterall, even Khadaffi’s Lybia traded in his green revolutionary pamphlets last year for a new corporate image.

Sure, most states still employ nationalism as a vague ideology to mobilize loyalty, but that does not interfere with the ideal of the state as corporation. Anybody who has been watching Nazarbayev’s development of Kazakhstan closely can tell that the corporate state is his ideal model. In fact, I would argue that Putin’s attempts to create a Gazpromistan out of Russia owe much to watching Nazarbayev’s success in establishing NAN inc.

If the Government of Kazkahstan sees its state as a corporation, they could not have found a better marketing technique than Borat. Looking at GoogleTrends, for example, it is evident that Borat has more than doubled Kazakhstan’s usual google hits during the lead up and height of the Borat film’s PR campaign.

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Borat’s impact on Kazakhstan’s google hits in 2006

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…and in relation to the last three years

If Borat is good marketing in terms of exposure, he might not be the best choice for Kazakhstan’s brand. Aside from the issue of whether his face is appropriate as a trade mark for Kazakhstan’s corporate image, many branding specialists apparently disagree on whether Borat helps Kazakhstan’s branding or not. In fact,, a site devoted to branding, has an entire debate on subject! In general, I am somewhat skeptical of the whole idea that states can survive and market themselves as merely corporations. What is next? Corporate name sponsorship of states on the model of stadiums? Corporate logos on flags? Maybe Lenin was wrong… perhaps imperialism was not the highest and last stage of capitalism... maybe nation branding is. Or do we need to wait for nation product placement before the revolution is due?

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Dangerous Clan Conflict or Muslim Civil Society?: Towards an Alternative Understanding of Central Asia's Democratic Development

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On November 30th, I gave the seventeenth annual Nav’ai Lecture in Central Asian Studies at Georgetown University. The title of my talk was the same as that which is featured above. I was inspired to speak on this topic by the recent glut of literature on “clan politics” in Central Asia. This recent literature includes Oliver Roy’s influential introduction to Central Asia, The New Central Asia, Kathleen Collins new book, Clan Politics and Regime Transition in Central Asia, Edward Schatz’s book Modern Clan Politics: The Power of “Blood” in Kazakhstan and Beyond, and Fredrick Starr’s policy paper Clans, Authoritarian Rulers, and Parliaments in Central Asia. While this literature is increasingly providing a new paradigm for analyzing political actions in Central Asia, it is also, with the exception of Schatz’s more grounded research, characterizing the Central Asian political context as somehow more tribal or clan-based than that of any other former Soviet regions. Such a characterization, I believe, is symptomatic of a certain “orientalism” in Central Asian studies that seeks to portray the region as still on the margins of modern civilization and plagued by Asian “primordial attachments.” In my talk, I challenged such perspectives noting that the patron-client relations at the higher levels of politics in Central Asia are more Soviet-based than they are grounded in Central Asian traditions. If anything, I argue that the “solidarity groups,” as Roy calls them, of local Central Asian communities may provide the basis for indigenous civil society in the region rather than reflect the roots of anti-democratic clans or tribes. Most of all, however, I intended the talk to make us all think more critically about the concept of clanism in Central Asia, which remains poorly understood. Thus, I wanted to post my talk HERE so that I might generate some discussion about the topic in the comment section. Your thoughts on the topic would be most welcome!

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Borat Kazakhstan - Is it just a funny movie? // Kazakhstan – Is it really the home to religious tolerance and freedom?

An international Hare Krishna group called the Isvara Network has released an interesting video on You Tube. The video features the comments of Borat (Sacha Baron Cohen) about Kazakhstan’s religious tolerance during his mock press conference in front of the Kazakhstani embassy in September juxtaposed with footage of the recent brutal destruction of a Hare Krishna settlement near Almaty. While the English language spelling in the short film is somewhat flawed, it is overall a quite effective example of guerilla video advocacy. One has to hand it to the international Hare Krishna movement for its creative use of pop culture and new media to make a point. My first post on the Borat film back in August had suggested that the film could do no harm to Kazakhstan since “there is no such thing as bad publicity.” That being said, that rule probably has a corollary somewhere about a point of diminishing returns – and the following piece from You Tube might have brought the Borat film’s reflection on Kazakhstan to that point….

Monday, December 04, 2006

Samruk, the U.K., and Kazakhstan’s Search for State Capitalism

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President Nazarbayev and Queen Elizabeth II in London last month

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Sir Richard Evans, the new Chairman of Samruk

This past summer, an acquaintance in Kazakhstan’s financial sector told me that his country was most likely to become a corporate state devoid of any ideology beyond a drive for economic development. In many ways, this has been the image that President Nazarbayev has been cultivating for his country ever since his first trips to Singapore, Malaysia, and South Korea in the early 1990s. While the strength of the “Asian Tigers” has waned some since that time, Nazarbayev still has intense admiration for their model of development. When asked by a citizen on a recent call-in show about what books he reads, President Nazarbayev noted, Recently I have read ‘Singapore history: from third world to the first one’ –memoirs of famous Singapore leader Lee Kuan Yu, who has been President during 33 years. Brilliant book…..This small provincial and multi-national town has developed into one of the richest states in the world.

While Kazakhstan differs from the “Asian Tigers” of East Asia in many ways, it does share with them a certain interest in the idea of the corporate state. It is not so surprising, therefore, that Nazarbayev modeled his idea for the state holding company Samruk on Singapore’s Temasek Holdings. If the idea for Samruk came from Singapore, the company appears to be aligning itself primarily with the United Kingdom. While Great Britain is presently only the third largest investor in Kazakhstan, the London Stock Exchange has become the favored site in the attempts of Kazakhstan’s ruling elite to consolidate their largest assets into public offerings. It is not surprising, therefore, that President Nazarbayev’s recent trip to London was mostly focused on business relations and even included an opportunity for the President to open trading at the exchange.

With Kazakhmys and sections of KazMunaiGaz and Kazkommertzbank already on the London Stock Exchange, it has already been announced that there are intentions to open IPOs for the majority of Samruk’s state holdings on the LSE. It would seem that this is one reason that Kazakhstan recently announced the hiring of British citizen Sir Richard Evans to lead Samruk. Evans formerly ran Britain’s largest arms manufacturer, BAE Systems, which under Evans began a joint venture with Kazakhstani partners to establish the present domestic airline monopoly in Kazakhstan, Air Astana.

Sir Richard Evans, however, is not an uncontroversial figure in the U.K. While under his control, BAE systems was embroiled in a corruption scandal concerning an alleged slush fund intended for bribing Saudi government officials. It is for this reason that the Guardian slyly suggested a comparison between Evans and the well-known American ex-advisor to Nazarbayev, James Giffen in its article about Sir Richard’s appointment to Samruk. In this context, it is difficult to know whether Evans’ association with Samruk will help or hurt the state holding company in its attempts to establish IPOs on the London Stock Exchange. One thing, however, is for sure – Kazakhstan is moving ahead with its vision of a corporate capitalist state, and it hopes that London will be an important financial hub for the operations of the future “Kazakhstan Inc.”

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Is Bakiyev Renewing Attacks on the Opposition?

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Almost a month since opposition protests prompted a political crisis in Kyrgyzstan, it appears that president Bakiyev may be launching renewed attacks on the country’s opposition. These renewed attacks began about a week ago when Bakyt Kalpetov of Omurbek Tekebayev’s “Ata-Meken” party was arrested under accusations that he had attacked the General Director of Kyrgyz State Television during the events of early November. While Kalpetov was released from custody earlier this week, he was again incarcerated on Friday. Meanwhile, the General Director of Bishkek’s pro-opposition television station, NTS, has also been brought into the offices of the local SNB for questioning concerning some unspecified charges against unnamed people being accused of trying to forcibly overthrow the government early this November. In addition to these events, there are reports that Edil Baisalov, Director of the Coalition of NGOs for Democracy and Civil Society, has once again been physically attacked by unknown assailants, this time in the Osh airport on Thursday evening. While it appears that the attack did not cause severe injury, the assailant made away with Edil’s suitcase, the contents of which included one of the drafts of the new constitution. Finally, on Friday, the wife of Omurbek Abdurakhmanov, coordinator of the “For Reform” coalition that organized protests in early November, was detained briefly by the financial police, which appeared ready to arrest her. In addition to all of these specific incidents, the Ata-Meken party has suggested that its supporters who work for government organs are the target of unspecified harassment by the presidential administration.

The simultaneous nature of all of these events suggests that some people in the presidential administration, or perhaps President Bakiyev himself, may be trying to send a message to the opposition. If this is the case, it may be a very dangerous tactic for Bakiyev, whose alleged implication in Omurbek Tekebayev’s detainment in Warsaw resulted in the intense protests of early November. If this is the hand of the state, it is unlikely to have its desired effect of disempowering the opposition. Rather, it would be most likely to intensify the opposition’s position that Bakiyev must be removed. Despite the lessons of March 2005 when Akayev was deposed or those from this past November when it seemed that only political compromise could prevent crisis, it seems that the Kyrgyzstan leadership is resorting to old tactics that have mostly proven disastrous. Maybe it is true what they say about teaching old dogs new tricks.

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