Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Kazakh Crimes or Borat's Chimes?

As Kazakhstan's president Nursultan Nazarbayev visited Washington last week, his meetings with top US officials - including president Bush - was overshadowed by the launch of British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen's upcoming movie: "Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan."

The British comedian - depicting the fictional Kazakh journalist Borat - has long been a nail in the eye for Kazakhstan's efforts to create a positive international image for the country. Cohen's character instead produces an image of a backward country on the verge of civilisation run by a comic dictator. Over the past years, Kazakh authorities have gone to great lengths to counter the "Borat image" of the country, and its foreign minister has even threatened to sue Cohen in Britain for smearing Kazakhstan. Also, Borat's official website in Kazakhstan has been closed down by authorities, provoking widespread protests internationally, from among others Reporters Without Borders. The issue has grown to such proportions that Kazakhstan chose to publish a four page ad in both The New York Times and Washington Post for Nazarbayev's visit in the US. The only problem was that the ads only served to emphasise the comic image of Kazakhstan by attributing the country's successes to Nazarbayev himself.

Still, the question is if Borat's image of Kazakhstan is the one that an initiated Western audience would like to get across to the general public. It would seem that greater issues are at stake such as human rights and democracy. Several critical voices were raised before Nazarbayev's visit to the US, but they were later largely overshadowed by on the one hand the message the Bush administration wanted to send and on the other by Sascha "Borat" Cohen's media coup. Critical issues were thus largely left out.

One leading analyst, S. Frederick Starr of Johns Hopkins, though succeded in getting access to the media by a column in the Washington Post. The only problem was that Starr joined the crowd of those paying tribute to Kazakhstan's progress in recent years, thus furhter defusing a potentially embarassing situation for the White House wanting to avoid questions on the human rights and democracy situation. It is true that Starr was right in pointing to improvements on many levels, in contrast to a generally dark depiction in the West of post-soviet republics. However, this does not warrant leaving the difficult issues out. Also, Starr's article in the post stands in contrast to the negative story the Post published but little over a month ago.

Kazakhstan is, essentially, a country run as a corrupt company by one family, namely that of president Nazarbayev himself. In June, Nazarbayev's son-in-law became chief of the country's gas and oil company, whereas the presidential daughter is a key stake-holder in one of Kazakstan's largest banks. Another daughter is party leader and MP, with a husband serving as deputy foreign minister. It is in this autocratic climate that little room is left for democracy and human rights, and magnanimous ideas - such as turning the flow of Siberian rivers - are increasingly coming into vogue. This is perhaps no wonder as Nursultan Nazarbayev received 91% of votes in the rigged December 2005 presidential elections.

Human Rights Watch has repeatedly criticised Kazakhstan for severe human rights violations, lack of democracy and persecution of political opposition groups and independent media. Furthermore, authorities keep a close check on all NGOs and registration is mandatory. The freedom of organisation is thus legally circumscribed. Moreover, Kazakshtan was rated one of the most corrupt countries in the world by Transparency International in its 2004 report. It is with such a country that the US has so cordial relations.

Then, what is the White House position on these issues? Meeting Nazarbayev last Friday, president Bush praised Kazakhstan for its "commitment to institutions that will enable liberty to flourish." Also, during his visit to Astana in May, vice-president Dick Cheney declared the country a "key strategic partner of the United States” in its war on terror. Besides the war on terror, oil is the main reason for the Bush administration's cordial relations with Kazakhstan. The Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline (BTC) is a key strategic asset for the West in the future access to oil from Central Asia and the Caucasus, and the BTC is dependent on the inflow of Kazakh oil for long-term profitability.

Therefore, a new Great Game between Russia and the West over the energy resources of Central Asia is played by mighty international commercial interests, in which US companies have a high stake. Earlier this year, Russia won a small victory in this new Great Game over Central Asian resources by being promised increased oil exports by Nazarbayev. This poses a threat to the BTC pipeline, as the very same oil that was intended to flow westwards now instead may go to Russia. With increasingly scarce international oil reserves in the future, now is the time of determination of who will control what resources are left. Here, Kazakhstan plays a key role in Central Asia in view of political stability combined with relative accessability to resources. Consequently, it is very important for the Bush administration to get relations between the US and Kazakhstan back on track.

Then, does Kazakhstan matter? Is it not yet another far away country of which we know nothing? For now, the paradox remains that Kazakhstan matters greatly to the US provided that it stays such a far away country, which the US public cares little about in terms of the basic values forming the basis of American society. In the long run though, the question is if it is in the best interest of the US to end up on the side of the rats of international politics in contrast to supporting the people in its strive for democracy and human rights? As the story goes, "Qui vivra verra" - Who lives shall see. In the meantime, the comedian Sascha "Borat" Cohen may paradoxically be doing Nazarbayev a favour by distracting the American public from the real issues at stake. Following Borat's chimes hides Kazakh crimes.


Megan Case said...

Really good post, Vilhelm!

W. Shedd said...

I suppose with all that nepotism in Kazakhstan, we shouldn't be too surprised that George Bush would be fond of him. The Nazarbayev and Bush families sound like mirror images of each other.

Kazakhstan has all the earmarks of being one of those dime-store dictators that the US government supports when it suits our purposes - and later comes back to haunt us.

Anonymous said...

The report from Transparancy International is from 2004. The 2005 report is here:

According to this report, Kazakhstan has place #107 and Russia has place #126. So Russia is significantly more corrupt than Kazakhstan, yet Russia sits on the G-8. If you think the US shouldn't have friendly relations with Kazakhstan, do you think Russia should be ejected from the G-8?

Another reason for the US to have less friendly relations with Russia than with Kazakhstan is that Russia is making a lot of challenges to US national security (Iran, Iraq, Venezuela, Georgia, Israel) and Kazakhstan isn't. Doesn't the US have the right to be friendly with Kazakhstan to bolster its national security?

And some people argue that the US should be friends with all countries that are not directly attacking it and try to win influence with them to make negotiated changes rather than confronting them. Do you accept this view, or do you think the US should confront all anti-democratic regimes as an international policeman?

Vilhelm Konnander said...

Thank you for bringing the 2005 report to my attention. Nobody is happier than I am if the situation in Kazakhstan has improved.

The question of Russia's G-8 membership is relevant. By what objective criteria did Russia become a member of this group of the biggest industrial nations. By GDP? Per capita income? Population? Industrial production? Although I would not want to bar Russia from the G-8, one should not defer from asking these and similar questions.

As for your realist vs idealist perspectives, I am a strong believer in the values forming the basis of American society, as expressed by the US constitution and bill of rights. I would hope that current US foreign policy could take greater heed to these values, rather than the narrowly realist national interests the Bush administration are currently pursuing. This has nothing to do with being an international policeman or an inward-looking isolationist. That issue is endemic to the US alone. It simply has to do with one's moral standing.

Would you be ready to compromise the fundamental rights and freedoms that form the basis of American society in the pursuit of narrow national interests? Is Kazakhstan's oil or countervailing Russia really so important in this perspective?

Vilhelm Konnander said...

Megan: Thank you for your words of praise!
Wally: Cannot agree more with you, although my knowledge of US politics is not as good as that of the "CIS".