Interview: Joanna Lillis sheds light on Kazakhstan’s secrets

Joanna LillisKazakhstan is an Asian country with an important role to play in the region, thanks to its geographical position and to the energy rich soil. Located in the heart of Central Asia, between two powerful neighbours with geopolitical ambitions, Russia and China, this young Republic is trying to maintain an equilibrium and defend its independence.

President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who was in power just before the collapse of the Soviet Union, established an authoritarian regime that has been criticised for intimidation, imprisonment, persecution and lack of respect of human rights applied in alleged or real political opponents.

But, Kazakhstan remains unknown to the West.

Now, a book comes to unveil the ‘mysteries’ of the secretive republic, the fights between the elites, the question of the rule of law that is mirrored to the politically motivated imprisonment of persons, the sensitive geographical position and the tendencies that could condition the future of the country.

Dark Shadows. Inside the Secret World of Kazakhstan, takes us through stories and tales of murder and abduction, intrigue and betrayal, extortion and corruption, to the history and reality of the country not only since its independence in 1991 but also back to the dark Soviet times.

The author Joanna Lillis, is an experienced journalist who spent the last 13 years in Kazakhstan reporting on Central Asia for the Guardian, The Economist and the Independent newspapers, the Eurasianet website and Foreign Policy and POLITICO magazines.

In an interview with European Interest just a day before the book’s publication Lillis describes the Dark Shadows and explains the challenges Kazakhstan faces today.

As regards the regime’s stability and why and how it persecutes opponents and even their relatives, on the environmental risks of the region as well as of the apathy with which European Union and the West in general treats the human rights questions emerged in Kazakhstan.

“Given the dire state of affairs in the United States, the EU should be stepping up to assume the mantle of the world’s moral compasses, not only for the sake of European citizens but for the sake of everyone around the world who believes in democracy and human rights, which are so blatantly flouted in our world today,” Joanna Lillis pointed out at the end of the interview.

European Interest: Kazakhstan is a quite unknown country in the West. Your book Dark Shadows aims to reveal the key points of country’s reality. Why is Kazakhstan so little known to the West?

Joanna Lillis: I think that Kazakhstan is relatively little-known in the West because it tends to fall through the cracks in reporting in the mainstream global press. There is a lot of international media interest in Kazakhstan’s larger and more powerful neighbours, Russia and China, and the same is true from the point of view of Western policy-makers, which see these states as more geopolitically important and thus worthier of their attention. Smaller countries in the region tend to get overlooked as a result. This is particularly true of the Central Asian states, which suffer in terms of international attention because Russia dominates both media coverage and the attention of Western policy-makers when it comes to reporting on and analysis of the former Soviet Union. Finally, there is a question of nuance, and sometimes even laziness, I think: Kazakhstan is to some degree difficult to penetrate, without descending into cliché, and it tends to get bypassed as a result.

Nursultan Nazarbayev has been ruling the country with an iron fist since establishing an authoritarian regime. Is Nazarbayev an equilibrist? Are there centrifuge tendencies inside the regime that the president manages to control or is his power absolute?

Nazarbayev is certainly an equilibrist in the sense that he has over the years astutely maintained the balance of power between competing groups in Kazakhstan. These days, as discussed below, competition for political and economic resources is mostly focused within the pro-regime elites rather than, say, between the ruling forces and the opposition. One of the main ways that Nazarbayev has juggled the balance of power in his own interests is by crushing opposition with an increasing degree of ruthlessness, in my view, so nowadays he does not need to accommodate forces pushing for reform but rather only forces that are promoting their own political and economic interests. Nazarbayev is a skilled politician, as he should be since has been in politics for about half a century – the politics of the Soviet Union were not always that different to those of independent Kazakhstan – and he has vast experience of managing and balancing these competing interests. At present, they are focused on competing around him for favour, patronage and political and economic resources. How that will play out after the succession is another matter.

During the last decade, some key politicians and businessmen tried to form an alternative political party. The entire plan failed and many of them were imprisoned while others fled the country. Almost all of them, like Mukhtar Ablyazov, Moukhtar Dzhakishev, Viktor Khrapunov and now entrepreneur Iskander Yerimbetov, face allegations of fraud and corruption. They argue that these allegations are politically motivated. Do you think there was a “war” between oligarchs and interest groups inside the country’s nomenklatura? Or do you think that these people are committed to the democratisation of Kazakhstan?

There have been a number of attempts during Nazarbayev’s nearly three-decade-long rule of independent Kazakhstan to form opposition parties, although not so many of them have taken place in the last decade, in fact. The last decade has actually been characterised by the stifling of opposition parties. Nazarbayev has not faced a genuine opposition candidate in a presidential election for 13 years, since 2005, and parliamentary elections have not featured real opposition parties or candidates since 2012. The themes of both how and why formal, organised opposition has been crushed in Kazakhstan is explored at length in Dark Shadows, but we should distinguish one salient factor: Astana’s intolerance of any kind of dissent, not only political, has grown much stronger over the last decade, to the point that dissent is barely tolerated at all in Kazakhstan – both in the real world, and online.

You asked about the attempts of oligarchs and businessmen to form opposition, which is an interesting question and one that dates back to the first meaningful attempt to set up a reform group, in 2001, when Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan was first created (in its original incarnation, not the one that now exists and is banned in Kazakhstan). Prominent businessmen were involved in this, as were prominent politicians – and it became clear from this early attempt to set up a reform movement (it was not, originally, an opposition movement) that Nazarbayev would not tolerate any challenge, from oligarchs or anyone else, even when – at this stage – they were pushing for reform from within rather than root-and-branch reform from without or a change of leadership. It is important to remember that both then and later it was not only entrepreneurs and oligarchs involved in such attempts, but civil society leaders, politicians and others too.

Some of the people you mention I do not recognise as businessmen who got involved in politics. Iskander Yerimbetov was never involved in politics, until he was dragged into politics against his will by his arrest (and now jailing) on what critics say are highly spurious, politically-motivated charges inspired by a desire to target his sister, a lawyer of Ablyazov’s. Mukhtar Dzhakishev was not known for being politically outspoken and had not been openly involved in opposition politics, but he was a long-time associate of Ablyazov’s, and critics also believe his imprisonment after a closed trial in highly contentious circumstances to be another egregious, politically-motivated case of criminal proceedings being abused to punish not only critics of the regime, but relatives and associates of critics of the regime. As for Khrapunov, he only became a critic of the Nazarbayev regime long after he emigrated, so it is hard to count him as an “opposition politician”. Ablyazov, of course, is a different matter: he has a history of political opposition to Nazarbayev dating back to 2001, but he has also leveraged his political activities in his own interests.

As for political battles involving oligarchs and vested interest groups inside the country’s nomenklatura, there have been many over many years. Some attempts to form opposition groups have been part of these battles, perhaps, but such “wars” are still going on between elite interest groups close to the president, without any opposition element. No businessman dares to cross Nazarbayev politically now, for fear of the consequences – for that is one of the points of the type of high-profile politicised trial mentioned above: not only to punish a figure the regime perceives to have been disloyal, but also to act as a warning and disincentive to others.

As for the question of whether these people are committed to the democratisation of Kazakhstan, it depends who you mean. If you mean Ablyazov, I think that his engagement in politics in 2001 was genuine, albeit in his own interests. I also think that he has used his political battles and this ugly public feud with the regime for his own ends, for example to avoid extradition. It is also clear that Astana has totally played into Ablyazov’s hands by pursuing him and his associates (and even family members of his associates) with such utter relentlessness, which only helps Ablyazov to paint himself as a political victim, because Astana itself has turned him into one with its extreme behaviour. The question of why it has done this is an interesting one. I would venture to suggest that fury against Ablyazov seems to blind the authorities to the consequences of their own behaviour. The question of why Ablyazov is so toxic for Astana that it jails people who express support for his messages in social messaging groups is another interesting one, which leads me to speculate that the authorities genuinely fear that some citizens may agree with his political messages – no matter what his motivation for putting them forward.

On another note, I would add that it is galling to hear the authorities complaining about countries refusing to extradite Ablyazov and others to face corruption charges when it is the administration itself that uses the judiciary as a political tool and cannot guarantee fair trials in Kazakhstan, which means that European countries cannot by law extradite people if they can prove a political motivation. The allegations against Ablyazov were, of course, aired in the London High Court in a case brought by BTA Bank against him, but the case ended when he was debarred from fighting the case after he fled the UK around the time he was ordered jailed for contempt of court. The High Court subsequently granted BTA an asset recovery order against Ablyazov, which certainly tells us something about the judge’s attitude to the claims. Ablyazov, of course, denies them and claims all allegations made against him are political.

The astonishing twists and turns of the Ablyazov saga are discussed in Dark Shadows, so read all about it there! But let me add that all this aside, I think that the focus on the elite battles and headline-grabbing Ablyazov-related news obscures the real problem, which is the regime’s utter intolerance of even the most trifling and even constructive forms of dissent, which leads to the abuse of the criminal justice system to punish perceived and imagined foes. There are many ordinary people inside Kazakhstan who are truly committed to democratisation in the interests of the country and its people, and it is a shame that they are not allowed to have their say – because questioning the status quo is dangerous and can land you in jail.

Nazarbayev is 78 years old. Is there any indication that he is preparing his succession? What will happen in the country after he leaves power?

This is a good question, and one on many people’s lips – although I have to add that the question has been on the agenda for all the time I have been living in Kazakhstan, which is 13 years.

There are indications that Nazarbayev and his entourage are preparing for the succession, such as the limited political reforms designed to create a more collegial system of government enacted last year. However, I would add that the passage of constitutional amendments that granted Nazarbayev the right to intervene in policy-making after his retirement dates back to 2010 – and he has not stepped down yet, so anyone who thinks he is preparing to do so now is quite rash, in my view! Furthermore, I believe that it would be hard for a man with such a towering personality and a strong opinion of the benefits of his own rule, who has ruled the country for nearly three decades, to step down and take a back seat in politics for the rest of his life.

Nevertheless, Nazarbayev is now 78, and as an astute politician he, and also his entourage, must be engaged in succession planning behind the scenes. I am inclined to think that when the time comes it will not be as dramatic as people think – look at Uzbekistan, where people predicted all kinds of dire scenarios when the time for a change of president came, but the succession went smoothly – albeit undemocratically. Likewise, in Kazakhstan I think the elites will consolidate around a certain figure and ensure that person’s election, when the time comes, albeit possibly with a cat fight behind the scenes.

The question of what will happen in Kazakhstan when he leaves power is also fascinating, and I wish I had a crystal ball! Will the successor maintain the status quo, or enact ambitious reforms as Shavkat Mirziyoyev is in Uzbekistan? It depends who comes to power, but I think one thing is clear: whoever it is, they will have neither the authority nor the all-encompassing power of Nazarbayev, so they may be forced to govern in a more collegial manner. I personally think the purpose of the reforms enacted in 2017, granting more powers (theoretically) to the government and parliament, are intended to act as an insurance policy for the political classes against the successor amassing too much power and using it against rivals. So far, those reforms have had zero practical impact, but they may actually become effective after the succession. I don’t know if we should expect major changes, but I think that the successor may – like Mirziyoyev in Uzbekistan – feel the need or desire to liberalise some of the more autocratic elements of the system, and make it less sclerotic.

The recent accident of a Soyuz launch from the Baykonur Cosmodrome, according to the media, resulted in environmental damage in Kazakhstan. But the country is so secretive about environmental issues, it remains unknown what happened. What are the environmental risks faced by the country and in this area? Are the authorities concerned?

It is clear that there is environmental damage to Kazakhstan from rocket launches at Baykonur, of which the government is both aware and concerned. The major sensitivity is that the cosmodrome is run by Russia, and Kazakhstan has no desire to cause friction in the relationship. There used to be a group called Antigeptil that tried to draw attention to this issue, but the authorities did not welcome their efforts, particularly because they were openly critical of Russia, and when they staged protests, members were arrested under Kazakhstan’s draconian public assembly laws. One of its members once went to Kazakhstan’s space agency dressed as an alien to stage a satirical protest which involved pretending to kidnap the space chief and take him to Mars, which at least tells you that some people in Kazakhstan have a sense of humour! Of course, the environmental damage from space rocket launches is a serious issue, but I don’t think it is going to be tackled any time soon, given the importance of the Baykonur site to Kazakhstan and the political sensitivities of the relationship with Russia.

Following the Russian annexation of Crimea and Vladimir Putin’s declaration that Russians should be defended by Russia wherever they live, Nazarbayev issued a tough declaration defending his country’s independence. Does Russia represent a threat for the republic? Do you think the President is able to face it and for how long?

The question of Russian influence in Kazakhstan is a sensitive one, and it is definitely true that Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the subsequent outbreak of a pro-Russian separatist conflict in Ukraine that remains unresolved brought these sensitivities to the surface, as did Putin’s remarks in 2014 questioning Kazakhstan’s viability as sovereign state. While many people in Kazakhstan have very favourable attitudes to Russia, many – Kazakhs, mainly – are suspicious of what they see as Moscow’s colonial, hegemonic attitudes. There was a lot of chatter in 2014 about how Kazakhstan might be next on Russia’s list for a land grab after Ukraine, because of similarities such as the long land borders and the large ethnic Russian minorities in both countries. These came to nothing, of course, and it is important to remember that there are major differences in the bilateral relationships, not least that Astana makes no bones about the fact that Russia is its closest ally. That said, Russia’s behaviour in Ukraine clearly came as a shock to Kazakhstan and made it wary, unsurprisingly.

I do not think that Russia presents some kind of immediate threat to Kazakhstan, but I do think that its annexation of Crimea and stoking of a separatist conflict in Ukraine sends a clear and alarmin message of how far the Kremlin is prepared to go if a post-Soviet state that it views as “in its own backyard” steps out of line, which would appear to be a reflection of Russia’s colonial mentality nearly three decades after the USSR’s collapse. For Kazakhstan, on a practical level, that means that it needs to accommodate and pacify Russia, and that also means that whoever succeeds Nazarbayev will have to be acceptable to Moscow – because if not, what will Moscow do? That is a factor in succession planning, undoubtedly. Kazakhstan is eager both to maintain Russia as an ally, which – given its geographical position and Moscow’s potential to stoke trouble in Kazakhstan should it wish to – is the only sensible and rational policy. At the same time Astana is eager to carve out its own place on the international stage and to differentiate itself from Russia in the eyes of the international community, which the Foreign Ministry is making serious and rather successful efforts to do, in my view. A lot of country’s profess good neighbourliness as their foreign policy, but few practice it in reality. Kazakhstan is an exception – in its own interests, as I said, since this is the only sensible policy when you are a country squashed between two major powers – but it should be given its due here for conducting an astute foreign policy and trying not to get dragged into the geopolitical battles that are tearing the world apart.

You asked if Nazarbayev can face down any potential threat from Russia. I would say that he is in a strong position to do so, as the elder statesman of the former Soviet Union (the only leader in power since before the collapse of the USSR) and a man who has invested three decades in building a close relationship with the Kremlin, and nearly two decades in forging a good personal relationship with Putin. Unfortunately, his successor will find this more difficult, which is why from the pragmatic point of view it is likely that power circles in Kazakhstan will make sure that the successor is acceptable to Russia. This begs an interesting conundrum, however, since the successor will also have to be acceptable to the Kazakh-speaking community in Kazakhstan, a powerful lobby which would like to see more Kazakhification after Nazarbayev. It will be interesting to see how Astana reconciles these competing interests when the time comes.

On the other side, China is a major player in the zone. How is Kazakhstan benefiting from this?

Kazakhstan is benefiting economically from the relationship, given China’s major economic investments in the country. These are mostly concentrated in the oil business, but lately Chinese investment in manufacturing and infrastructure projects has been growing, which suits both Kazakhstan – it is in line with the government’s economic diversification goals – and Beijing, which wants to build infrastructure for its One Belt One Road project. Kazakhstan, meanwhile, hopes to leverage OBOR to transform itself into a global transit hub – the government talks of transforming the country’s “landlockedness” into “landlinkedness”, a turn of phrase that is quite clever. The relationship is fairly beneficial for Kazakhstan, I would say, though of course China acts in its own interests.

However, there is potential for tensions to erupt in this relationship at the moment, given the widespread and well-substantiated reports that members of the Kazakh minority in China are being interned en masse in “re-education” camps, along with Uyghurs and other minorities – a million people are in camps (which Beijing implausibly describes as vocational training centres), according to human rights groups. There is tension over this in Kazakhstan, with some Kazakhs questioning why the government is not doing more or being more outspoken to protect Kazakhs in China. The government says it is conducting dialogue behind the scenes. Kazakhstan is in a difficult position: it is far less powerful than China and does not want to antagonise its giant, politically and economically powerful neighbour, yet it still needs to appease public opinion at home, so it will be interesting to see how this plays out.

On October 19, Nursultan Nazarbayev, speaking at a meeting of European business circles in Brussels, on the margins of ASEM summit, said EU countries are the most important trade, economic and investment partners of Kazakhstan. If this is true, the EU has the power to press the regime to respect human rights. However, there is a certain degree of apathy from the EU as regards the political situation and the human rights subject. How do you explain this?

I fully agree that there is apathy from the EU when it comes to pressing Kazakhstan for improvements in its record on upholding political freedoms and civil liberties, which are routinely abused with impunity. I would add that in the world that we live in today, when the world’s most powerful democracy has been taken over by a dangerous demagogue with no respect for human rights (yes, I mean Donald Trump), the EU bears a global responsibility to try and uphold human rights in a world increasingly tolerant of the flouting of human rights. It is very sad that the EU is so distracted by the disaster that is Brexit that so much of its energy is being consumed on something that is to the detriment of both Europe and Britain, and this means that it does not have the time or energy to focus on other areas requiring attention.

When it comes to Kazakhstan, I would urge the EU to keep engaging, but to press harder and more publicly for improvements in the country’s human rights record, and to be more willing to openly condemn abuses of the judicial system to jail people for political reasons – be this in high-profile cases like Yerimbetov’s or in low-profile ones like the recent jailing of a man in Semey for complaining on a social network about the lack of running water in some homes in oil-rich Kazakhstan, which seems like a perfectly legitimate grievance to air.

In my view, given the dire state of affairs in the United States, the EU should be stepping up to assume the mantle of the world’s moral compasses, not only for the sake of European citizens but for the sake of everyone around the world who believes in democracy and human rights, which are so blatantly flouted in our world today, not only by authoritarian regimes like Kazakhstan but also by some Western states.

European Interes, November 16, 2018


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