Friday, February 16, 2007

Subscribe to the Roberts Report on Central Asia and Kazakhstan!

Numerous people have requested that they be notified by email of updates to my blog. In an effort to keep people abreast of new postings via email, I have recently opened an account through FeedBlitz. This will enable me to send digests of my postings to you when I update my page. All you need to do to be included on my list of subscribers is to send me an email at requesting to be subscribed. Since my posting volume depends upon my other responsibilities in this world, subscribing will ensure that you keep up to date with analysis and information at the Roberts Report without having to constantly check back as to whether there have been updates. Hopefully you will enjoy this new feature.

NOTE: If you are more literate at these things, you can also click on the first small envelope icon on the right sidebar under "subscription services" to subscribe automatically by email.

Has the Prince Been Exiled Back to Austria?: The On-going Saga of Rakhat Aliyev, Family Quarrels, and the OSCE

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting

Rakhat Aliyev’s political and business career in Kazakhstan has been a blessed, albeit rocky, one. Marrying into the Nazarbayev family as the eldest son-in-law has obviously assisted Mr. Aliyev’s political rise and financial enrichment. He is alleged to control Nurbank, the Karavan media group, and numerous other critical assets. In addition, he has served in high-level governmental positions in the Committee for National Security (KNB) and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. His wife, Dariga Nazarbayeva, has been a media tycoon, a political party leader, and is now a Deputy in parliament. This success in business and politics, however, has also been marred by almost continual scandal.

The most prominent of these scandals took place in 2001, when Aliyev was accused of being behind a coup plot to remove his father-in-law Nursultan Nazarbayev from power. While the facts behind this alleged coup remain murky, it is well known that various members of the financial elite in Kazakhstan at the time, many of whom are friends of the president’s second son-in-law Timur Kulibayev, were upset with Aliyev’s allegedly cavalier business practices. In fact, it is often suggested that concern over the growing financial and political power of Rakhat Aliyev was the original impetus for the creation of the Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DCK) in 2001. Thus, whether or not Aliyev planned an actual coup, there was little doubt that 2001 marked the public emergence of the competition between Aliyev and Kulibayev for the most privileged position in Kazakhstan’s elite, a struggle that continues to this day.

There are fantastic stories about Aliyev’s life being threatened at this time, complete with dramatic scenes of him begging before President Nazarbayev to forgive him. While such stories cannot be confirmed, it is widely believed that Aliyev was punished for his disloyalty in 2001 by being exiled as Ambassador to Austria and the OSCE in Vienna. He remained in this position until 2005 when he returned shortly before the presidential election to take over the position of Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs.

Analysts speculated that Nazarbayev had brought Aliyev back to Kazakhstan in 2005 to access his allegedly infamous skills of intimidation during the run-up to the election. When Aliyev returned to Kazakhstan, it seemed that he and his wife Dariga were on the rise politically. Dariga’s Asar party had become a fixture in Kazakhstan’s political arena, and she had become a vocal member of parliament. She even accompanied her father on visits to important foreign states, and rumors were rampant that she was in line to be her father’s successor. But such success was not to last for long.

Scandal returned to Rakhat and Dariga in connection with the murder of Altynbek Sarsenbayev last February. Although the mystery behind Sarsenbayev’s killing remains unsolved, rumors were rampant that Rakhat was somehow involved. After a retired KNB officer went public with claims that Rakhat had been involved in the killing, Aliyev took him to court, and Dariga wrote her now infamous article Déjà vu, where she claimed that the murder of Sarsenbayev was a conspiracy of people in government to defame her and her family and an attempt to repeat efforts from 2001 to discredit her husband.

Like the previous scandal of 2001, this one was “swept under the carpet.” It is assumed by many, however, that the dissolution of the Asar party last summer was an act punishing Dariga for her “airing of dirty laundry” from the intra-elite and intra-family politics of Kazakhstan. Instead of punishing Rakhat in this instance, it seemed that the president took out his anger about the Sarsenbayev scandal on his long-time friend and crony Nurtai Abykayev, whose underling, Yerzhan Utembayev, was eventually officially convicted of organizing Sarsenbayev’s killing. Utilizing a tried and true method of removing individuals from domestic politics, Abykayev was recently removed as speaker of the Senate and sent to Moscow to become Kazakhstan’s Ambassador to Russia, a post that Sarsenbayev had ironically held before joining the opposition to Nazarbayev.

Just when it seemed that Rakhat Aliyev may have escaped the scandal of Sarsenbayev’s killing and its aftermath unscathed, Mr. Aliyev was once again implicated in a murky public scandal during the last several weeks involving his role in Nurbank. A former official from Nurbank had gone missing, and his wife openly accused Aliyev of being involved in his disappearance. The scene she described was reminiscent of other accusations against Aliyev from the past and included Aliyev personally beating her husband and holding him hostage handcuffed at a “banya” in the foothills surrounding Almaty. In a series of bizarre events that followed, Nurbank was raided by the Financial Police, and the former official of Nurbank was later arrested and accused of financial misdeeds in relation to his work at the bank.

While it seemed that this scandal had also been take out of the public eye, it is interesting that Aliyev last week was suddenly sent back to his position as Ambassador to Austria and the OSCE and removed from his post at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Astana. While Aliyev’s new appointment could be a coincidence, past practice and rumors in Astana suggest that he is once again being exiled for scandalous behavior.

Aliyev’s reaction also reflects past behavior as he has begun a series of defamation lawsuits against media outlets and the wife of the former bank official who had accused him of beating and kidnapping her husband. Yesterday, Aliyev also gave an interview to Reuters apparently as part of a campaign to rehabilitate his reputation. Alas, it seems that the soap opera of Kazakhstan politics continues, and its main plot-line remains “all in the family.”

Rakhat Aliyev, however, has proven to be an extremely resilient political figure in Kazakhstan, and it is unlikely that people have seen the last of his involvement in domestic politics. Now, his biggest task is obtaining the chairmanship of the OSCE for Kazakhstan in 2009. If he succeeds, he will inevitably return as the prodigal son-in-law to domestic politics. If he doesn’t, which his many political foes inevitably hope for, he may have to wait it out in Vienna for some time to come. One has to wonder how aware the various international parties who will be making decisions in Vienna are of this domestic “subtext” to Kazakhstan’s OSCE chairmanship bid.

Monday, February 12, 2007

The Myth of the Smooth Transition: Where is Turkmenistan Going Now that Elections Have Ended?

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingPhotobucket - Video and Image Hosting

Yesterday, Turkmen citizens went to the polls to vote for a new president. For the Turkmen government, which kept foreign journalists out of the country during the polling, the election’s completion is likely a major relief. It seems, at least from the surface, that the elections mark the last stage of a calculated and orderly succession that began immediately following Saparmurat Niyazov’s death in late December. But, it may be too early to breathe a sigh of relief and declare Turkmenistan’s leadership transition a success.

Few people doubt that Gurbankuly Berdymukhammedov will win the election by a landslide, but it is less likely that Dr. Berdymukhammedov has taken over all the reins of power. Rumors still suggest, for example, that Berdymukhammedov is representing a shaky coalition of powerful people, particularly in the security organs. If this is the case, however, it begs the question of how Berdymukhammedov plans to manage his patrons once he is officially the new president of Turkmenistan. Afterall, it can be difficult for puppet masters to control their own creations as time progresses and the marionettes become empowered. In fact, with time, puppet master and puppet could easily switch roles or become enemies.

Furthermore, while Turkmenistan’s political elite under Niyazov was kept in check by the whims of the Great Turkmenbashy, who made sudden cadre changes and the arrests of officials a regular activity, the post-Niyazov thaw is already bringing the arena of Turkmen elite politics back to life. Last week, for example, it was announced that two ex-premiers who had been imprisoned under Niyazov (Yelli Gurbanmuradov and Dortkuli Aidogayev) had been released and placed under house arrest. While probably humbled by their time in jail, these two men (and especially Gurbanmuradov) are unlikely to go quietly into retirement. Gurbanmuradov, for example, is seen as the one person in Turkmenistan who can really manage the oil and gas sector. If he is brought in to do so again, it is unlikely that he will acquiesce without some assurances of a piece of the pie. The same could be said of the various Hokims who run Turkmenistan’s regional governments. The quiet and orderly way in which elections were carried out on Sunday speak to the present loyalty of regional Hokims to Berdymukhammedov, but that could quickly change if they think the president is cutting them out of the spoils of power. In short, Berdymukhammedov will need to juggle a variety of players and divide up a shrinking pie of resources if he is to maintain his power. In Turkmenistan’s present economic condition, that could be a difficult feat to manage.

These factors, however, remain theoretical problems for Berdymukhammedov today. He has succeeded in orchestrating a typical Central Asian election, which he will undoubtedly win. While some observers on the ground question official figures, the Turkmen government claims that over 98% of voters cast their votes on Sunday. While six candidates did run on at least nominally different platforms, the atmosphere of the elections appears to have remained one of complete control. And while Berdymukhammedov has pledged to change his country, at the moment things appear to be little different from life under Niyazov. In fact, as the segment from Turkmen television featured below demonstrates even to those who cannot understand the Turkmen language, it looks like little has changed (with the exceptions of the actors and the monuments) in Turkmenistan since about 1950.

But, if Berdymukhammedov does not deliver change soon after the election, he may be faced with a shaky foundation for his power. Today, he will celebrate, but tomorrow he better begin working hard to steer Turkmenistan’s economy away from likely disaster. And, in the process, he should begin thinking about how to balance the various political and economic forces in the country which will also be asserting themselves in the construction of a new government. I think it is fair to say that the smooth transition can expect some more bumps on the road for the near future. Let's hope that in the process all those promises of reform from the election campaign are not forgotten.

NOTE: Unfortunately, the person who had placed the broadcast from Turkmen TV on youtube has since removed it. Thus, you will not be able to view it anymore. Here, however, is a very interesting piece from Russia's NTV that discusses some of the challenges facing Berdymukhammedov's new government...enjoy!

Saturday, February 03, 2007

To “Pull a Kazakhstan”: Is Kazakhstan Taking the Dubious Honor of "The Example" of Sloppy, but Successful, “Nation-Branding”?

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting

There is a Simpson’s episode entitled “Homer Defined” where Homer saves the Springfield nuclear plant from a disaster of his own jelly donut’s making by randomly picking a button to press. Without going further into the plot, Homer eventually becomes a world-renown example of the lucky klutz, and people all over the world adopt the saying “to pull a Homer” to characterize any klutzy act that ends up with a lucky result.

The coincidence of the release of the now infamous “Borat” film and Kazakhstan’s U.S. PR campaign surrounding President Nazarbayev’s visit to Washington last fall has suddenly brought Kazakhstan into the international limelight, but not exactly in the way its public relations’ consultants had originally intended. According to recent articles, the attention that Borat has brought the country has indeed had a positive affect on Kazakhstan’s tourism industry. But, it has also had some unintended consequences. Kazakhstan has suddenly become the brunt of many jokes, and its PR campaign around Nazarbayev’s visit to the U.S. has become “the example” of a laughable (but well recognized – and, hence, successful) “nation-branding” effort. In fact, before too soon, the term “pulling a Kazakhstan” could become synonymous with such campaigns

An example of this tendency comes from Montreal this week. Exasperated at the lack of the city’s efforts to present itself as a desirable destination, the head of the city’s tourism board derided Montreal for being like Kazakhstan. Showing his great respect for Kazakhstan, the Mayor publicly criticized the tourism board for daring to say that his city was like Kazakhstan.

But the fun does not end there. On Wednesday and Thursday this week, I noticed an unprecedented spike in my readership on the Roberts Report. While I wanted to assume that it was in reaction to my keen political insights on Uzbekistan, I somehow doubted that was the reason behind an 800% spike in my average statistics. At closer examination, I realized that another tourism mishap in Serbia had attracted scores of visitors to my piece written in October about Kazakhstan’s tourism commercial on CNN.

The reason for this attention was that Serbia had also taken out an advertisement for tourism on CNN, and CNN International decided to use the same Kazakh folk music they had employed for Kazakhstan’s campaign. Having noticed this, the Serbian newspaper “Blic” broke the story, criticizing CNN for their sloppy replication when Serbia had sunk over 500,000 Euro into the adverts. Serbian patriots seemed to be quite upset that their country’s government had “pulled a Kazakhstan,” and various Serbian language internet forums sent visitors to my site to view the Kazakhstan advert. CNN, however, did apologize and offered to extend the advertisement’s run and remove the Kazakh folk muic…..”DOH!”

Maybe it is time for Kazakhstan (and Serbia) to hire a new PR firm in order to spin this one….

Below, you can compare the two CNN pieces:


Serbia (The Original Version)

View My Stats