The dictator with a Royal warrant: Why HAS Prince Andrew been to Kazakhstan six times in seven years?

Lost amid the lonesome waste spaces of the Asian steppe, the next North Korea is slowly appearing amid the winter blizzards and the blast-furnace summer heatwaves of one of the most inhospitable climates in the world.

This time the unhinged regime comes without the trappings of Marxism and is blessed – or cursed – with the wealth that comes from oil and gas.

The country also enjoys a strange sort of British Royal warrant – Prince Andrew is a frequent and honoured visitor, though the reasons for his many journeys to this remote destination remain unknown.


Seat of power: Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev rules with an iron fist - and his enemies have often met a grisly end
And he also sold his former marital home to a Kazakh businessman for an unexpectedly high price.

You may think you know about Kazakhstan because of the silly film satire Borat. In fact, this sordid and worrying country's rulers would much prefer you to believe that Sacha Baron Cohen's ignorant and frivolous travesty, which involved no visits to the place itself, was the truth. For the reality is far worse.
The best place to start on a journey to the real Kazakhstan is its astonishing new capital, Astana, a work of megalomania that brings to mind Nicolae Ceausescu's gigantic folly in Bucharest and the silent, deserted streets and squares of Pyongyang.

It also reminded me of the spooky Burmese forbidden city of Naypidaw, built, like Astana, in the midst of nowhere so the rulers can be as far as possible from the ruled. People Power will never be able to find its way here. It would starve to death on the way.

The word 'Astana' means 'Capital City'. This, as Kazakhs wryly point out, is rather like calling your dog 'Dog' or your wife 'Wife'.

Most people think that the name is just temporary, and the country's all-powerful autocrat, Nursultan Nazarbayev, is slowly summoning up the courage to name the place after himself.


Prince charming: Andrew, pictured here with Goga Ashkenazi at Royal Ascot is said to have gone goose-hunting with the Kazakh President

What we know about President Nazarbayev comes from two sharply conflicting sources. One is the not exactly critical biography of his progress from nomad hutment to steepled palace, via the Communist Party, written by Britain's penitent survivor of the sleaze era, Jonathan Aitken.

In this work, the leader emerges as a benevolent father of his nation, popular, sensitive to criticism, with a solid record of achievement, etc, etc.
The other version comes from a joyfully malicious and utterly self-serving volume by Nazarbayev's former son-in-law Rakhat Aliyev, driven from the boss's inner circle after a quarrel and now in hiding from the fist of his wrath.

It is in this work that you will read that President Nazarbayev is alleged to have three living wives. The first is his 'official' wife, Sara Alpysovna, who still maintains the position but is said to live in Almaty – hundreds of miles from her husband and his busy life.

The second is a former air hostess aboard the presidential jet. The third is said to be a former Miss Kazakhstan.

Many educated people in Kazakhstan know the names of these women, but nothing about them is ever published in the fearful and persecuted Press, which is allowed limited freedom provided it never criticises the President himself.


Capital city: Peter Hitchens stands in front of the Ak-Orda, the 'White Building', the presidential palace in the new main boulevard in the newly built capital
Libel is a criminal offence – not, as in civilised countries, a civil matter. One critical newspaper, Respublika, has suffered particularly hard. In 2002 its offices mysteriously burned down.

The culprits hung a headless dead dog from the ruins and left a note saying: 'You won't get another warning.'

Now the paper's presses have been confiscated and it appears in a crudely stapled, computer-printed version on newsstands.

The President carefully creates the illusion that his country is a law-governed democracy, while making sure that in reality it is not. Protest demonstrations are allowed, but only in remote parks, hard to reach by any method.

But Europe's powers happily join in the fiction that Kazakhstan is a Western-style democracy, as they do not wish to offend or destabilise a man who controls a large part of the world's oil and gas.

As usual, corruption and repression go hand in fist. The country languishes at No 105 in Transparency International's league table of corruption, alongside Argentina, Algeria, Moldova and Senegal. And it stands at No 162 on the Press Freedom Index published by Reporters Without Borders.

International monitors say the police routinely torture suspects. A Human Rights activist to whom I spoke in his remote premises in the far suburbs of Alamaty – but who shall remain nameless for his own safety – told alarming tales of how he and others had been falsely charged with criminal offences and imprisoned, so their persecution could not be officially recorded as political.

He said with a shrug: 'In this country no one is actually persecuted for his political views. They always find another way to get you.'

One campaigner, Evgeni Zhovtis, director of the Kazakhstan International Bureau For Human Rights And The Rule Of Law, was jailed last September for four years after a traffic accident in which a pedestrian died, but which seems not to have been the driver's fault.


Imposing: The impressive looking mosque in Astana - the Kazakh President is alleged to have fathered a son after married in an Islamic ceremony
The dead man's own mother pleaded for leniency, but the driver still received a specially heavy sentence.

Criticising the President in person is now specifically illegal, under Article 318 of the Kazakh criminal code. Even before this law came into force, writing a story for a magazine about the President's private wealth earned my informant a menacing visit from the KNB, more or less the successor of the old Soviet KGB, but without the charm.

Soon after that he was violently attacked in the unlit hallway of the block of flats where he lives by large, gruff men who warned him to shut up.

Genuine opposition is difficult. Parties need to collect huge numbers of signatures to register, and the authorities routinely disallow many of the signatures.
According to Aliyev, the opposition parties that are permitted to operate are fakes, maintained purely for public relations. Real opponents meet unpleasant fates.

In November 2005 a critic of the President, Zamanbek Nurkadilov, was discovered dead with a gun by his side. An official inquiry said he had killed himself.


Desolate: Vast, windy plazas, almost wholly empty of people, stretch westwards from the blue-domed Ak Orda. The two metallic-gold towers are known irreverently by locals as 'the beer cans'

But the dead man's lawyer wondered if anyone could have committed suicide by shooting himself twice in the chest before putting a third bullet into his head.

Not long afterwards another prominent opponent of the regime, Altynbek Sarsenbayev, was found dead in the mountains near Almaty, with his driver and bodyguard, in highly suspicious circumstances.

Aliyev's book casts serious doubt on the official trial of those accused of the crime, and makes sensational allegations about who ordered the death.
Nazarbayev likes to win general elections with around 91 per cent of the vote, and is usually careful to do so, even if this involves paying little attention to actual ballot papers, or so his former son-in-law Aliyev alleges.

He triumphed in 1991, had his term extended until 2000 in 1995, was re-elected in 1999 and again in 2005. Opposition candidates usually understand in advance that they are there for show.

Nazarbayev – unlike anyone else in Kazakhstan – can stand for election to the supreme post as often as he likes. Others are limited to two terms.
This lawless dispensation is non-transferable – except perhaps to a future son and heir.

For now there may be a dynasty on the way. Aliyev alleges that the mysterious third Presidential wife, married to the increasingly Muslim President in an Islamic ceremony valid under Sharia law, bore Nazarbayev a son in Turkey in April 2005.

Having read Aliyev's book, crammed with scurrilous elite gossip too racy to repeat here, and blood-freezing allegations about the conduct of state affairs, I am not surprised that Nazarbayev wants to get hold of the author, or that the author moves house frequently.

His former father-in-law has already made strenuous efforts to get him back to Kazakhstan.


Sweeping changes: Many leading modern architects have been invited to contribute designs such as the new concert hall. Kazakhstan's national colours of blue and yellow are reflected in many of the buildings

In this account the 'Godfather-in-law' is portrayed as the super-rich, mildly comical but also sinister chief of a corrupt and thuggish autocracy which sometimes kills its critics.

He is also accused of trying to set up a Kim il Sung-style dynasty, moving from wife to wife to wife to achieve a male heir, like an Asian Henry VIII.
Nazarbayev is one of the only two people left in the former USSR who also held power in the days of Communist rule. The other is his neighbour in Uzbekistan, Islam Karimov, infamous for his nasty habit of tipping boiling water over dissenters.

How on earth has Kazakhstan, such a strange and creepy country, been appointed to the chair of the Organisation For Security And Co-operation In Europe? And how has it found its way into the heart of Prince Andrew? Perhaps his role as Britain's Special Representative for International Trade is involved, though it would be nice to know exactly how.

The Prince is a close friend of a prominent and glamorous member of the Astana elite, Goga Ashkenazi. He is also said to have gone goose-hunting with the President himself, and to have made surprisingly frequent visits to Kazakhstan.

He has even been seen in a not-specially luxurious Almaty expatriates' bar, Soho, where staff remember him arriving with a large group of mainly British people, and asking the lively resident band to play Prince's 1984 hit Purple Rain.

The Duke's old home, Sunninghill Park, was recently bought for £15 million – £3 million more than anyone expected – by a Kazakh businessman, who has since left it empty. Whatever is going on here?

One Kazakh journalist said to me that 'there are many ways of saying thank you in Kazakhstan. But this method – paying a higher price for what you buy than it is worth – is a common method of rewarding a friend'. If Kazakhstan can do such favours for our Royal Family, where else is its influence felt?
We need to know because Kazakhstan is the ninth biggest country in the world by area, larger than the whole of Western Europe. It is one of the beneficiaries of the enormous

Caspian Sea bubble of oil and gas, as important as the oilfields of Arabia and being eyed all the time by China, India, Russia and the USA.
With a population of 16 million and more or less indefensible borders, it is a likely battlefield in any future war for energy.


Status symbol: Peter Hitchens with a group of military cadets. The caps are a throwback to Kazakhstan's Soviet Days, when a cap the size of a large pizza was a sign of authority

I first came here 20 years ago in Soviet days, when Kazakhstan was Moscow's cupboard of guilty secrets, its launching ground for space flights and its nuclear playground. In the fading days of the Evil Empire, I visited the secret city of Kurchatov (not on any map), where a Geiger counter was installed in the main street to check radiation levels.

I walked gingerly among the shattered sheets of black glass, where the earth had melted under the heat of Nikita Khrushchev's H-bomb tests. I visited survivors of Stalin's concentration camps, unable to leave their imprisonment in Karaganda because their homes and families had vanished while they were enslaved.

And I watched the lift-off of a Russian space rocket, crude and simple (you could see the paintbrush marks on it) and more or less identical to the one which had sent Yuri Gagarin into orbit in 1961.

And I flew over the dried-up Aral Sea, the world's single greatest environmental disaster, caused by idealistic communists. The sea is still mostly desert. The space launches continue, paid for by Moscow, but Kazakhstan has long been able to assert its independence from the Kremlin, thanks to the flow of oil wealth.

This status also owes much to Nazarbayev himself, who learned the dark arts of power at the end of the Eighties when he clawed his way into the local Communist Party leadership. During his time as a senior communist, there were riots in the then capital of Kazakhstan, Almaty.

Many suspect that Nazarbayev moved the capital hundreds of miles north, to the desert, to make sure he would be safe from any such thing.

I reached Astana on the night express, which runs from Almaty, taking 13 hours as it rambles across tawny grassland, desolate by day and without lights at night. I arrived on a raw autumn morning at a new and ultra-modern station.


Count your blessings: Peter Hitchens is relieved the British political arena is a far cry to Kazakhstan's regime

And there it was, rising out of the flatlands in a bend in the Irtysh river, its skyscrapers sparkling in the pale sun. And what strange structures they are.
Two, clad in shiny gold, are known locally as The Beer Cans. Another, referred to as The Cigarette Lighter because of its odd shape, recently caught fire.
In the midst of an enormous avenue stands the Bayterek Tower, which is meant to symbolise a complex Kazakh myth involving a tree, a dragon and an egg. Inside the egg, visitors can place their palms in a bronze handprint of President Nazarbayev (the national anthem used to play every time this happened, but it became too annoying and it has now been silenced).

From here there are fine views of this curious hybrid of Pyongyang, East Berlin and Dubai. In one direction is the White Palace, with its blue roof, dome and spire, symbol and seat of Nazarbayev's power and startlingly like Ceausescu's florid Eighties monstrosity in Bucharest.

Do all tyrants like this heavy, icing-like architecture?

At the other end of the prospect is a curious shopping mall, designed by Britain's Norman Foster, built to resemble a nomad's tent, but containing a branch of Debenhams on the ground floor and an all-weather beach, at the top. As I trudge back towards the palace, I realise there is still more to see.

Beyond its arrogant bulk, and across the river, sits a blue and grey pyramid, also the work of Lord Foster. It crouches on a small hill beyond a scruffy park. This contrast between grandeur and grit is typical of Astana. Look closely at much of the site and there are cracks, missing tiles, broken glass, graffiti and evidence that Astana does not have enough public lavatories.

As I approach the Pyramid (officially a Palace Of Peace And Reconciliation) armed men wearing berets pop out of a hole in the hillside and look at me. They seem nervous.

'We are here to watch for the Wahhabis [members of Osama Bin Laden's Muslim sect]', explains one, demonstrating that Central Asian dictatorships, just as much as

Western democracies, know how to fan the fear of Islamist terror.

After reassuring him that I do not belong to this or any other fanatical sect, I carry on past the pyramid.


All hail: A painting of Nursultan Nazarbayev in Astana, the capital of Kazakstan

Here I encounter a curious monument. At its base is a statue of President Nazarbayev.

Above a towering, fluted column is a gilded bird that looks remarkably like a parrot spreading its wings to squawk.

In a nearby conference hall, a vast and garish mural depicts the President smiling among his loyal, happy people, in the unmistakable style of North Korea's Kim il Sung.

But beyond all these boastful structures a number of shacks huddle against the scything Asian wind. After much banging on doors and braving nasty watch dogs, I find that these dismal places are still inhabited by people little short of desperate.


Shanty town: The remains of an old village, which will soon be demolished

One of them – again I will not name him – dwells there in smelly squalor with a tiny, pale child, an aged parent and a sadly disabled brother.

Offering me bread and tea with the heartbreaking hospitality of the desperately poor, he says he expects to be moved out sooner or later to make way for the next stage of this Dubai of the Steppes. But he will not be compensated.

Any doubts of the leader's grotesque self-worship fled away when I toured the museum – once his palace – he has erected to himself in the older part of the city.

Visitors are compelled to wrap their feet in blue plastic bags and walk slowly past ludicrous exhibits.

Here we can see faded pictures of his humble childhood, the living leader's old school reports (top grades in all subjects), a painting of him with his father amid the sheep pastures, his gigantic desk, his ranks of telephones, the robes given to him by the universities that have awarded him honorary degrees, the President's own books in many languages, a copy of Jonathan Aitken's biography (but not one of Aliyev's), various gross nick-nacks presented by foreign delegations, a tennis ball signed by Boris Becker and a dagger (of all things) sent by Alexander Lukashenko, dictator of Belarus.


Museum relic: A picture of Nursultan Nazaarbayev, left, with his family as seen in the museum dedicated to Nazarbayev in Astana

It is a great strain to tour this warehouse of embarrassing rubbish without giggling, but I am sure that any mirth would land me in serious trouble.
For it truly is not funny that such a large part of the Earth's surface should have escaped from Soviet tyranny only to fall into the hands of this vain and cliched dictatorship.

But so it is, and so it is likely to remain, propped up and condoned by the very people in the West who claim to be the friends of liberty.

Once again, I am forced to reflect on how immensely lucky we are in Britain to have real freedom and a real rule of law, and to be able to know what our rulers get up to in private, and to laugh at them.

These are great and rare luxuries, and all the oil billions of Kazakhstan cannot buy them.

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