Nazarbayev and the Making of Kazakhstan 
by Jonathan Aitken.
Continuum, 269 pp., £20, July 2009, 978 1 4411 5381 4
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At the height of the Brezhnev period, when the Soviet system seemed politically secure and economically stable, a new theory emerged to excite the hopes of Kremlinologists: that Islam would be the force that undermined the evil empire. The impetus came from two French academics, Alexandre Bennigsen and Hélène Carrère d’Encausse, archetypal representatives of a profession always given to a strong element of wishful thinking, alongside hatred and resentment, in part because it was dominated by émigrés and their children. Bennigsen’s Islam in the Soviet Union (1967) and Carrère d’Encausse’s L’Empire éclaté (1978) argued that the five Central Asian republics were the Soviet Union’s soft underbelly. Their large Muslim populations had retained a distinct political consciousness, they claimed, in spite of five decades of Sovietisation, and thanks to a high birthrate their numbers were increasing faster than those of the majority Slavs. Zbigniew Brzezinski and other US Sovietologists in the Carter administration eagerly took up the theory of a demographic time-bomb and funding was increased for Western radio broadcasts into Central Asia in the hope of exploiting Islam’s anti-Soviet potential.

The notion of a looming Muslim revolt could not have been more wrong. When the Soviet Union started to wobble in 1989, the Central Asian republics were conspicuous by their quiescence. Unlike the Baltic states or the three republics of the Caucasus, Central Asia spawned no ‘popular fronts’ demanding political freedom and national independence. The region’s Communist leaders declined to follow the example of the Party secretaries in the other Soviet republics who called for economic autonomy and later for full independence. Even after the failure of the August 1991 coup against Gorbachev which hastened the Soviet Union’s collapse, men like Nursultan Nazarbayev, the Party leader in Kazakhstan, became Gorbachev’s main allies as he tried to retain some sort of federal structure. In the end Soviet Central Asia’s leaders had independence thrust on them. It was only after the USSR had broken apart that they gradually started on the long road to nation-building. Kazakhstan was the last of the 15 republics to declare independence.

Jonathan Aitken is an unlikely candidate to write a book on this subject. Since emerging from prison after his conviction for perjury in 1999 he has written books about himself and other public figures who fell from grace: Richard Nixon, his former special counsel Charles Colson, and John Newton, the Anglican hymn-writer who once captained slave ships. Nazarbayev’s life story doesn’t have this trajectory. It is 19 years since he became his republic’s leader and his rise has not yet crested. You could say that by accepting the Kazakh president’s commission to write his story Aitken has gone back to his own prelapsarian days. As a youngish Tory minister in Thatcher’s government he enjoyed flattering and being flattered by the Saudi royal family and other Middle Eastern dictators, happily taking their hospitality and smoothing the way for British arms salesmen. This time Aitken comes clean. In his book’s acknowledgments he thanks the Kazakh foreign ministry for free hotel accommodation and Sir Richard Evans, the former chairman of BAE Systems, for several free plane rides around Kazakhstan. (Evans was hired by Nazarbayev to sort out the national airline and was later given control of Samruk, a state holding company with huge investments in non-extractive industries.)

This generosity and Aitken’s many hours of interviews with Nazarbayev and other Kazakh officials have produced, as might have been expected, a one-sided story. But even allowing for that, it is disappointing. It is a pity that Aitken didn’t dig into his own or someone else’s pocket to hire a Russian speaker to read and correct the draft as well as someone with knowledge of the Soviet system and Party officials’ titles. It might have helped him avoid the constant mangling of Russian names, and the repeated failure even to describe Soviet Kazakhstan properly (it used to be called the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic, not the Soviet Republic of Kazakhstan; nor was there ever an entity called the Russian Soviet Republic). More time and care might also have improved the prose, which often reads like a travel agent’s brochure. Aitken describes the country’s new capital as ‘a city of moods that changed with the seasons. Expectant and restless in spring. Hot and pulsating in summer … the cold starry nights gave Astana a winter wonderland feel of being the setting for a 21st-century fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen.’ The flattery meanwhile ranges from the banal to the cringing.

Kazakhstan is by far the largest and most important of the Central Asian states, with a landmass greater than that of the other four combined. It has borders with both Russia and China, and huge reserves of oil and gas, as well as deposits of almost every valuable mineral, from gold to uranium. Nazarbayev, unsurprisingly, is courted by multinational corporations and Western leaders; Tony Blair fêted him in Downing Street in 2006 and Nicolas Sarkozy visited him with a group of French tycoons in September. Their advisers argue that Nazarbayev is more ‘modern and responsible’ than any other Central Asian leader, and it’s true that he isn’t on a par with such neighbours as Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan, whose critics have died in vats of boiling water, or Turkmenistan’s eccentric first post-independence ruler, Saparmurat Niyazov, who ran a personality cult of North Korean proportions and erected golden statues of himself all over the country. Unlike Tajikistan, which wasted the immediate post-independence period with a five-year civil war, or Kyrgyzstan, where street demonstrations toppled one ruler only to install a successor who lost popularity in an even shorter time, Kazakhstan under Nazarbayev has avoided political instability. But Nazarbayev’s record still places him firmly in the mythic tradition of the Oriental potentate, ruling with an iron fist, enriching his family and friends, and blocking all institutions which could threaten his ambition to remain in power for life.

Aitken – who skates over all this – builds his book around three theses. The first is that during the Soviet period Nazarbayev was a reformer. Within a party system which rewarded loyalty and submission he often dared to speak out. The second is that he was always a fighter for Kazakh rather than Soviet or Russian interests, and that with independence he was finally able to release the country’s national pride and energy. The third is that he had no choice but to adopt a strongman style of leadership in seeking to develop a vast and empty country. The first thesis is true, the second doubtful and the third wrong. Aitken reports with delight that his former Downing Street boss shared his favourable reaction to Nazarbayev when she passed through Almaty in August 1991. Briefed on his privatisation programme, she beamed: ‘Mr President, you seem to be moving from Communism to Thatcherism.’ Aitken repeats the phrase more than once.

He also consistently downplays the positive legacy of Soviet rule. His central assumption is that Kazakhstan suffered more than it gained by being governed from Moscow. Under Stalin, life in Kazakhstan was certainly hard. More than a million peasants were driven off their land during collectivisation and thousands starved to death. Nomads were forced to settle in defined areas of the steppe. The republic became a dumping ground for half a million deportees from the Soviet Far East, the Volga region and particularly the North Caucasus: the entire Chechen and Ingush populations were sent into exile there. Many leading intellectuals were detained and murdered. But after Stalin’s death Kazakhstan enjoyed almost 40 years of slow but steady economic development. To understand the benefits of Central Asia’s Soviet experience, you have only to look south to Afghanistan, which was not under Moscow’s control (until 1979) and remained mired in poverty, misery and lawlessness. Indeed, it was precisely the Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Tajik, Turkmen and Uzbek peoples’ recognition of the benefits in investment, social mobility, health and education which the Russians had brought that made Sovietologists’ hopes of a Muslim revolt against atheist colonialism so absurd.

In some respects it might seem anomalous that no anti-imperialist leaders emerged in Soviet Central Asia. The history of anti-colonial movements in Africa and Asia in the 20th century is full of angry young men, and a few women, who studied in London, Paris or Lisbon and went home to free their countries. Where were their equivalents among the graduates of Moscow’s and Leningrad’s universities? They too read Marx and Lenin, after all. Can one explain their absence by the efficiency of the NKVD or KGB? Unlikely. Even after Stalin’s death, when the Soviet leadership reduced the level of internal repression, radicals and Guevarists did not emerge in Central Asia, although Africa, Asia and Latin America were alive with anti-imperialist fervour. Central Asians cannot have been unaware of these trends: after all the Kremlin enthusiastically publicised them. But among Central Asia’s varied but mainly nomadic peoples there was no culture of independence, no memory of past heroes resisting conquest, no sense that land had been stolen. An individual might well experience moments of anger or hostility towards the Russian overlords, but he or she had no easy way of locating like-minded comrades. There was no subterranean spirit of revolt. And the style and substance of Soviet colonialism were different from those of the British, French and Portuguese. Bright locals were educated, invited to assimilate and rewarded with good jobs. This was not tokenism: tens of thousands benefited.

Nor did Russian settlers in Central Asia live on a scale conspicuously above that of the natives, causing popular resentment, as was the case in the colonies under French or British rule. Most settlers were modestly paid urban administrators: they did not occupy large farms or comfortable villas with fleets of servants. I remember being struck on my first visit to the region by the fact that most of the Russians lived in cramped high-rise flats while the better-off Kazakhs had walled family compounds which provided a style of communal three-generation life that Russians rarely enjoyed.

Nazarbayev is a perfect example of the assimilated homo Sovieticus. The eldest son of a collective farmer, he was brought up in a village 25 miles from the republic’s capital, Almaty (then called Alma Ata), in which Kazakhs were outnumbered by other nationalities three to one, but there was little ethnic tension. Nazarbayev’s parents, illiterate themselves, took pride in their son’s educational achievements and pushed him hard. By the time he was 18 he was an obvious candidate for one of the best Soviet universities.

After Stalin’s death, Khrushchev and the new Kremlin leadership chose Kazakhstan to be the site of one of the world’s largest steel plants. Nazarbayev saw an advertisement promising well-paid jobs in the new factory at Termitau. His father’s health was failing and rather than leaving for university in Moscow or Leningrad he got a traineeship in metallurgy at Termitau. With an eye on his career he joined the Communist Party – he had been his school’s Komsomol secretary. ‘I was an ambitious young man and Party membership was the route to advancement,’ he told Aitken. ‘If I had thought it would have helped my ambitions in those days to be a Buddhist I would have become a Buddhist. But as it was I became a member of the Communist Party – and a good one.’

If this suggests Nazarbayev was a mere opportunist, that would be wrong. He was a committed Party member who constantly urged his comrades to take part in voluntary work on Saturdays, cleaning up local parks or planting trees. By 1968, at the age of 28, he had become a full-time Party official. Intelligent and energetic, he hated incompetence and was a stickler for efficiency and hard work – which inevitably made him a rebel within the system. At the time Pravda was the instrument used to keep bureaucrats on their toes by naming and shaming them. It published regular reports on failings in the economy or local administration. In 1973 Nazarbayev collaborated with a Pravda writer to expose the collapse in production at the Termitau plant: long hours and poor housing and transport had led to a damagingly high turnover of workers.

The article led the Kremlin to set up an inquiry. As the first witness, Nazarbayev came to the notice of the Party hierarchy in Moscow. They seem to have liked his forthright style and his commitment to efficiency. A stream of promotions followed and in 1979 Nazarbayev was selected by Dinmukhamed Kunayev, the republic’s Party leader, to be the Central Committee secretary for industry. The two men formed a sort of father and son relationship. The new job gave Nazarbayev his first insight into the way Moscow took decisions, allocating big industrial or infrastructure projects to various republics without much consultation with their leaders. Nazarbayev began to develop a kind of economic nationalism, pushing for decentralisation within the Soviet system. He also developed a deeper interest in Kazakh culture, as he told Aitken, attending plays and poetry readings in the Kazakh language.

In 1984 the Kremlin leadership summoned him to Moscow and made him Kazakhstan’s prime minister, charging him with expanding the oil and gas sector. Before leaving Moscow Nazarbayev met Gorbachev, then a Politburo member but not yet the Soviet Party boss. Relying presumably on Nazarbayev’s account of the meeting, Aitken reports that the two had a conversation about change. ‘Do you have a backbone?’ Gorbachev asked, explaining that difficult times lay ahead. ‘There will be an assault, a fight. It won’t be easy.’ Gorbachev’s memoirs don’t mention any such exchange, but he does describe the Kazakh Party boss, Kunayev, as ‘an autocrat’ and leaves no doubt that he saw Nazarbayev as an ally in reforming the sclerotic Soviet economic and administrative system, the programme Gorbachev called ‘perestroika’.

One tradition Gorbachev did not change in the early months of his rule was the Kremlin habit of making all the Party’s top appointments, even in the republics. In December 1986 it led to one of his first blunders. Kunayev had become jealous of his one-time protégé, whose attacks on economic incompetence were beginning to threaten him, since they were winning support from younger members of the republic’s Central Committee. Nazarbayev had even dared to criticise him for allowing his incompetent brother to remain in charge of industrial research. Sensing the Kremlin was losing confidence in him, Kunayev went to Moscow and told Gorbachev he would resign while also urging him not to appoint Nazarbayev as his successor. It would be better to choose a strong Russian, he said. It should have been obvious that the advice was self-serving as well as risky for the Party’s standing in Kazakhstan. Yet Gorbachev agreed. He didn’t even pick a local Russian from the Kazakh Central Committee: he sent an official from Moscow.

Putting a Russian in the top position was a throwback to earlier times (Brezhnev had been first secretary of the Party in Kazakhstan in 1955). Nevertheless, still a Soviet loyalist, Nazarbayev didn’t oppose the move when the Kazakh Central Committee was asked to rubber-stamp it. It was left to students at several Almaty institutes to sound the first note of protest. No sooner was the appointment announced on the radio than the students got together and called a demonstration for the following morning. Here at last was the first stirring of a Central Asian revolt – though it had nothing to do with Islam. Fired up by the promises of perestroika, the students felt the parachuting in of an unknown Russian was an affront to their national pride as well as a blow to their own ambitions.

The car taking Nazarbayev to work the next morning was surrounded by hundreds of young protesters. He tried to calm them, but without success. Gennady Kolbin, the new Moscow-appointed boss, in constant telephone touch with the Kremlin, was floundering between using force and trying persuasion. The police were summoned. The square outside Party headquarters was cordoned off and the Almaty garrison of the Soviet army put on alert. Nazarbayev and three of his colleagues were instructed to address the crowd but they were jeered and stoned, and beat a retreat.

Gorbachev gave orders that force should be used if the demonstrators did not disperse. The next morning, by which time the crowd had grown to around 15,000, police and special forces attacked with dogs and batons. In the mêlée two people were killed and scores seriously injured. Hundreds were detained, and then beaten up in police custody. This display of state violence was followed by a witchhunt, as dozens of lecturers and administrators at Almaty colleges were accused of ‘Kazakh nationalism’ and purged. The college, it was said, had enrolled too many Kazakhs as students.

This was the first outbreak of anti-Moscow feeling in any republic for decades, and a seminal event on the road to the Soviet Union’s collapse. Kolbin wanted to sack the minister in charge of higher education as a warning to other officials not to tolerate any expressions of nationalism. Nazarbayev spoke up unsuccessfully in his defence but failed to do anything to reduce the tension or help the victims of the crackdown. He never contemplated resignation. Aitken describes him as having been despondent, and says he had to be rushed to the cardiology unit of the Kremlin hospital after a suspected heart attack, but this was only after Kunayev, in his farewell speech to the Central Committee in Moscow, had accused him of encouraging the riots by his ‘thirst for power’.

The Almaty demonstrations were followed by a series of increasingly more serious outbursts in Armenia and Azerbaijan: the remarkable thing was that they have never been repeated in Kazakhstan itself. For all his reformist inclinations where the economy was concerned, Nazarbayev seems to have drawn the conclusion that political challenges from below have to be repressed.

As further evidence that dissent could not be allowed to score any victories, Kolbin remained in his post for two and a half years. When in 1989 he was eventually given a new job in Moscow and Nazarbayev took over, there was no sign that he was anything other than a Soviet loyalist and one of Gorbachev’s most reliable allies in trying to hold the Soviet Union together. He advised Gorbachev during the difficult negotiations on the drafting of a treaty for a reformed Soviet Union based on a looser federal structure. During the August 1991 coup, when hardline members of the Politburo put Gorbachev under house arrest and sought to prevent the treaty being signed, Nazarbayev initially took a cautious line, his ‘two paramount priorities’, as Aitken calls them, being ‘to protect his republic from any abuse of power by the coup leaders in Moscow’, and ‘to prevent any signs of ethnic or nationalistic rebellion which could be used as a pretext for bringing in troops’. On the coup’s third day Nazarbayev rang the Soviet defence minister, Dmitry Yazov, one of the coup leaders, to urge him to withdraw his tanks from the Russian parliament, where Boris Yeltsin, Gorbachev’s rival, was holding out. Yazov did so.

Once the coup collapsed, it soon became obvious that Yeltsin was determined to weaken Soviet institutions to the point where they would exist only on paper, if at all. Yet Nazarbayev was shocked when Yeltsin and the leaders of Ukraine and Belarus met on 8 December 1991 to declare the USSR dead and announce its replacement by a Commonwealth of Independent States. Feeling that the Slavs were acting selfishly and as a bloc, he called a meeting of the five Central Asian leaders, aiming not to create another bloc but rather to ensure that the new CIS included all the former Soviet republics (minus the Baltic states, which had definitively broken with the collapsing union). The move was a success and Nazarbayev persuaded Yeltsin and the presidents of Ukraine and Belarus to fly to Almaty to sign a treaty creating the CIS. The leaders of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Moldova came too.

Nazarbayev’s caution – his downplaying of Kazakh nationalism and independence as well as his desire to maintain ties with Russia – was undoubtedly prompted by the fact that Slavs (mainly Russians but also a sizeable number of Ukrainians) made up more than half the Kazakh population, thanks to large-scale postwar migration. Kazakhstan was the only Soviet republic where natives were not in the majority. Slavs held most of the jobs in the professions, in government and the Communist Party.

His solution was a policy of creeping ethnic cleansing. His methods were more subtle than those of the Baltic states, particularly Estonia and Latvia, which denied citizenship to those who could not speak the local language. Instead, he paid lip-service to the notion of an inclusive state while in practice turning it into an ethnocratic one. Should he have done more to accommodate Russians and other nationalities within Kazakhstan? How much effect did the 1995 proclamation of Kazakh as the sole state language have, since Russian remained the language of ‘inter-ethnic communication’? Was the exodus of Russians after independence economically or politically motivated, given that the state administration had started to discriminate in favour of Kazakh job applicants? Aitken is silent on all these questions, yet by the time of the 1999 census 53 per cent of the population were Kazakhs, forming a majority in the republic for the first time in more than half a century.

Aitken instead concentrates on Nazarbayev’s efforts to build a new state, install a market economy and get international recognition. Free from Soviet control, he established relations with China and, under pressure from the United States as well as Russia, abandoned the nuclear weapons left behind when the USSR collapsed – Kazakhstan had been the Soviet Union’s main nuclear testing ground as well as the launch pad for space exploration. Internally, Nazarbayev privatised the economy more rapidly than almost any other post-Soviet leader.

There were soon signs that he felt he could indulge his whims without fear of challenge. He decided Kazakhstan needed a new capital: Almaty was on the southern border of the republic and a more central capital would, he thought, help to ensure Kazakhstan’s development. Other countries, such as Australia and Brazil, have built new capitals almost from scratch, but there the decision was taken democratically.

The Kazakh parliament was stunned when informed of his plan, but went along with it. Its members were bundled onto planes, along with the diplomatic corps, to examine the site Nazarbayev had chosen. Even Aitken concedes that Astana is the most isolated capital in the world, set in the centre of a vast, almost uninhabited steppe, several hundred miles from any other major town. Here Nazarbayev has built a presidential palace larger than the White House. With money no object, the president had no difficulty in recruiting top architects like Norman Foster, who designed the 62-metre-high pyramid known as the Palace of Peace and Reconstruction. The city is built in a jumble of styles, from Chinese pagodas and Tuscan villas to vast office blocks fronted with golden reflecting glass. Nazarbayev decreed that it had to be ready by June 1998, only four years after he’d announced his intention to shift the capital. He would brook no hesitation, making constant visits to Astana and demanding harder work. In a frantic climax, 3000 extra workers had to be drafted in to finish the Intercontinental Hotel in the 24 hours before scores of foreign presidents and other dignitaries were due to arrive for the city’s inauguration.

The Astana project diverted money from other possible economic and social reforms. Inequality has increased since 1991, with the country’s growing oil and gas wealth failing to narrow the gap between rich and poor. Average living standards have declined. Yet Nazarbayev’s biggest failing has been his refusal to permit any significant degree of political pluralism. After initially supporting the creation of a vigorous parliament – on the model of the parliament Gorbachev instituted in the Soviet Union in 1988 – Nazarbayev emasculated it after independence by changing the constitution and creating a strong executive presidency. Like Yeltsin, who did the same in Russia in 1993, he argued that parliament was obstructing the switch to a full market economy. By 2007 the opposition had no voice at all in parliament, thanks to Nazarbayev’s support for a measure requiring parties to win at least 7 per cent of the vote before getting a seat. The one-party parliament promptly voted to lift the two-term limit on presidents, allowing Nazarbayev to stand again when his current term expires in 2012.

The early evidence for this movement away from democracy is well covered in Martha Brill Olcott’s study Kazakhstan: Unfulfilled Promise (2002) – unmentioned in Aitken’s bibliography. She points out that in his presidential message for 1997 Nazarbayev did not even include the development of democracy as one of his eight principles of state-building. By 2000 political practice in Kazakhstan was in crucial respects little different from the rest of Central Asia: a manipulated electoral process, independent media stifled and a silenced civil society. Power was increasingly concentrated in the hands of the president and his family. Olcott argues that an independent Kazakhstan was not predestined to follow the path of authoritarianism. Nazarbayev chose dictatorship fearing the unpredictability of pluralism, and in order to preserve his own and his cronies’ new wealth.

Today the man who was seen as a reformer in his youth presides over a system in which human rights violations are routinely perpetrated and condoned. ‘Torture and other ill-treatment by members of the security forces remained widespread and continued to be committed with virtual impunity, despite stated efforts by the authorities to introduce safeguards,’ Amnesty International reported last year:

Beatings by law enforcement officers were routine, especially in temporary pre-charge detention centres, in the street or during transfer to detention centres. Few law enforcement officers were brought to trial and held accountable for violations, including torture, despite scores of people alleging that they were tortured in custody in order to extract a confession. Evidence based on such confessions was still routinely admitted in court.

The US State Department’s report for 2008 takes issue with the government’s overwhelming control of the country’s mass media: 21 per cent of the 2810 media outlets are government-owned and many of the privately owned newspapers and television stations receive government subsidies. The majority of broadcast media not owned by the government, including the larger ones, are owned by holding companies believed to be controlled by members of the president’s family or his associates. The law on state secrets, meanwhile, makes it a criminal offence to release information about the health, finances or private life of the president.

Although opposition websites are allowed and there are no formal restrictions on access to the internet, observers have reported that the government monitors email and internet activity, blocks or slows access to opposition websites, and plants propaganda in internet chat rooms. The president has appointed a human rights ombudsman with a mandate to investigate citizens’ complaints of violations by state agencies, but complaints against the president, the heads of government agencies, parliament, members of the cabinet and constitutional council, the procurator-general, the central election commission and the courts are not permitted.

In spite of all this Western governments have been anxious to curry favour with Kazakhstan, as with the other Central Asian dictators. Energy is one reason. The other is the region’s strategic position: it is ideally placed to provide bases or overflight rights for US warplanes and military transport aircraft going to Afghanistan.

In 2007 Nazarbayev began showing an interest in becoming chair of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe. Under mild Western pressure he agreed to make some changes to his country’s electoral law and the role of the judiciary, and on this basis was awarded the OSCE chairmanship for 2010. He is the first Central Asian leader to have such a prestigious role, though the OSCE, it has to be said, has very limited power.

Nazarbayev and his team are delighted with their new badge of respectability. Kanat Saudabayev, the foreign minister, in his first speech as OSCE chairman, described it as ‘recognition by the international community of the impressive achievements of Kazakhstan and president Nursultan Nazarbayev in building an economically powerful and dynamically developing democratic state’.

In fact, local and international human rights organisations see no significant improvement in the two years since the OSCE gave Kazakhstan the nod. Yevgeni Zhovtis, the former director of Kazakhstan’s independent International Bureau for Human Rights and the Rule of Law, gave the Helsinki Commission a bleak assessment of his country in May last year. Its judicial system, he said, was worse than it had been in Soviet times while the president’s party, Nur-Otan (Light of the Fatherland), was little different from the Soviet Communist Party in the way it functioned. Two months after giving this testimony Zhovtis was involved in an accident on a country road in southern Kazakhstan. Returning with friends from a fishing trip, he knocked down and killed a man. His lawyer argued that Zhovtis was temporarily blinded by the undimmed lights of an approaching vehicle, but in September he was convicted of vehicular manslaughter and given a four-year prison sentence. The prosecution conceded that there was no evidence that Zhovtis was speeding or over the alcohol limit, but accused him of careless driving. International human rights groups expressed concern at the verdict, but since Zhovtis was indisputably the driver it was hard to clear him of all responsibility.

Further criticism comes from Rakhat Aliyev who negotiated Kazakhstan’s assumption of the chairmanship of the OSCE and agreed to ensure improvements in its human rights performance. Aliyev had married Nazarbayev’s eldest daughter and was first rewarded with the post of head of the tax police, a position which provides the perfect opportunity for destroying or imprisoning any business rival; he also at one time served on the state security committee; and he and his wife owned half the shares in the main national TV company. A sudden row with Nazarbayev led to Aliyev being sent into virtual exile as ambassador to Austria in 2001, though it didn’t end the marriage. Back in favour four years later, Aliyev became first deputy minister of foreign affairs. Relations with Nazarbayev soon broke down again and in June 2007, not long after his OSCE negotiations, he was dismissed and charged with kidnapping, money laundering and fraud. This time Nazarbayev’s daughter divorced him. Aliyev fled to Austria. He was convicted in absentia and given two 20-year sentences. He fell from grace, he said, when he told Nazarbayev that he intended to run for the presidency in 2012. He recently published The Godfather-in-Law, a book banned – and much sought after – in Kazakhstan.

Other senior officials have fallen foul of the system’s selective justice. Impunity granted to the ruler’s friends can easily be withdrawn. BTA Bank, Kazakhstan’s largest, was nationalised without warning last February and its chairman, Mukhtar Ablyazov, sacked. He left for London where he too has become an outspoken critic of Nazarbayev. Several other BTA managers were arrested. In May Mukhtar Dzhakishev, the head of the state nuclear agency, Kazatomprom, and a friend of Ablyazov, was arrested and accused of stealing uranium deposits. Eight of his associates were also detained. Foreign diplomats meanwhile describe Nazarbayev as increasingly isolated – surrounded by yes-men, unwilling to appear in public, dotty.

Kazakhstan’s OSCE chairmanship will put the spotlight on the country’s flimsy democratic pretensions. No doubt the OSCE acted mainly on the principle of Buggin’s turn, since Central Asia is the only region that had not yet chaired the organisation, and Nazarbayev is the least obnoxious of the region’s five leaders. But it would have done better to think again about keeping the Central Asian states in the organisation. They became members only because the OSCE was founded when the Soviet Union still existed, and no one expected it to fall apart. When they were suddenly installed as the USSR’s heirs, no Western government had the political courage to reject the new states, although their inclusion stretches the concept of Europe well beyond its limits – but then so does the inclusion of the United States and Canada, members by virtue of the Cold War confrontation between Nato and the Warsaw Pact.

More to the point, if Turkey’s wish to join the EU is a matter of fierce controversy, why isn’t Central Asia’s automatic membership of another European institution? The reason is simple: the OSCE has no powers and no identity: it is just another elite talking-shop, sustained by the ease of air travel. Nazarbayev is pushing for an OSCE summit this year. Standing on home soil alongside Obama, Medvedev and European leaders, he would see it as his crowning achievement.

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Vol. 32 No. 4 · 25 February 2010

It seems that Kazakhstan’s President Nazarbayev has found a fitting panegyricist in Jonathan Aitken (LRB, 28 January). Jonathan Steele is right to highlight the growing inequality, authoritarianism and corruption which Aitken ignores in his book, and right to raise the question of whether the country might have been, in some respects, ‘better in the old days’; however, he fails to locate its post-independence trajectory of ethnicisation within the conditions of the Soviet legacy itself.

While Steele quite rightly underlines the dramatic economic growth enjoyed by Kazakhstan in the Soviet years he fails to capture the deep ambiguity of those years. On the one hand, collectivisation had in a few years destroyed the nomadic structures of the longue durée. The trauma of this event must not be underestimated: the scale of deaths, in terms of proportion of the population, is comparable to the Holocaust; and an isolated, largely autarkic, way of life came to a brutal end. The shattered people had no choice but to reconfigure itself within the modernity imposed by Soviet power. Kazakhs drifted towards the cities: cities located in what the authorities termed their Kazakh SSR, but built and populated by Europeans. Kazakh parents sent their children to Russian schools: not because they were forced to, but because this offered them the best opportunities in the cities. And, after Stalin’s death, as Steele emphasises, the quality of life did improve. On the other hand, the paradoxical Soviet nationalities policy meant that, even as the culture and way of life of the Kazakh steppes were being destroyed, a primordial sense of ethnicity became valorised as the most important marker of identity; and the Kazakh SSR, in which Kazakhs were a minority, was deemed the homeland of the newly defined Kazakh nation. The result is that modern Kazakh identity is marked by a deep sense of insecurity: while there is an awareness on the part of the Kazakhs that their position in modernity is shaped by the Russians, who both bullied and helped them into it, there is nevertheless a sense that they must be distinct from Russians, that the nationality inscribed in their papers should carry some meaning.

As Steele points out, Nazarbayev did not want independence. The challenge of building a viable state was enormous. Steele seems to downplay the perceived threat posed by large numbers of ethnic Russians living in the north of the country, who previously had scarcely been aware of which side of the border they were living on. In such a situation, how was the new state to acquire legitimacy? The Soviet-era flame of internationalism was kept alight, and this was crucial in avoiding secessionist claims from Russians in the north, but internationalism was not enough to ensure state legitimacy. Kazakhstan was born into a world of nation-states, and was, on paper, the homeland of the Kazakh nation. In such a situation, the most obvious route to legitimacy was to become a nation-state: Kazakh identity had to be affirmed as distinct from Russian identity, although many urban Kazakhs, Nazarbayev allegedly included, hardly knew the Kazakh language. It is this that underlies what Steele terms the ‘creeping ethnic cleansing’ of state structures and, in particular, the adoption of Kazakh as the state language. It is from this perspective too that we should view the bizarre move of the capital from balmy Almaty to windswept Astana. Steele presents this as a mere whim – which, I suggest, is precisely how Nazarbayev wants it to be perceived by his foreign admirers. Yet it is not without its rationale: Astana is in the north of this vast and empty country, much closer to Russia than Almaty is. By making Astana the capital of the nascent nation-state, Nazarbayev effectively legitimised that nation-state’s authority over the potentially secessionist borderlands.

None of this is to approve the course Nazarbayev has taken. For the time being, the inclusive, international Kazakhstani identity, which has been protected by the adoption of Russian as the language of inter-ethnic communication, makes Kazakhstan appear a model of pluralistic multiculturalism. Nevertheless, the progressive Kazakhification of state structures can only exacerbate ethnic faultlines, and ethnicise the ever growing state-society split. Yet can young states, in the present world of rigidly demarcated nation-states, transcend ethnicity? The USSR represented the bravest of efforts to do so, but paradoxically its very internationalism ultimately institutionalised the nationalities it sought to transcend. The post-independence trajectory of Kazakhstan is haunted by this legacy.

William Wheeler
London SW8

Jonathan Steele is surprisingly stingy with his schadenfreude. Jonathan Aitken’s Nixon: A Life was first published in 1993, and not after his own fall from grace in 1999. The jacket copy on the original edition reads: ‘Nixon: A Life is the first entirely objective biography of Richard Nixon. Jonathan Aitken … in addition to serving in Parliament, serves as Her Majesty’s Minister of State for Defence … [His] refreshingly unencumbered positions provide a unique perspective on Nixon’s life and his presidency.’

David Rose
New York

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