Three years ago today — Kazakhstan’s independence day — at least 15 striking oil workers in the western Kazakh city of Zhanaozen were killed by state security forces while they peacefully protested low wages and dangerous working conditions. More than 100 others were left seriously injured, with many more detained and tortured.
One of the strike’s leaders described being suspended by her hair, sexually humiliated and having plastic bags placed over her head. At least one other died in police custody.
More than a year and a half later, Amnesty International lambasted the Kazakh government for the relative impunity still enjoyed by the perpetrators of the Zhanaozen massacre and related crimes as well as for Kazakhstan’s use of torture and other forms of prisoner abuse.
The United States has also voiced repeated criticisms of widespread human rights violations in the Central Asian nation — tempered, of course, with praise from the State Department for Kazakh “progress in creating a favorable investment climate.” A 2014 State Department fact sheet even claims that the dictatorship of Nursultan Nazarbayev is developing as a “democratic … partner,” while specifying that the bulk of U.S. aid to Kazakhstan (more than $14 million in 2013) goes to furthering “peace and security.”
Apparently, this entails such activities as providing “training to Kazakhstan’s security forces in peacekeeping operations” and developing “maintenance and sustainment programs for U.S. equipment.” Reportedly on the scene at the Zhanaozen massacre were American-supplied Humvees.
The Emirati way
It’s easy to see why the Nazarbayev regime has managed to escape serious sanctions despite its track record.
For starters, Kazakhstan is currently a member of the United Nations Human Rights Council. The country is strategically located and saturated with natural resources, including oil, gas, coal and uranium. Its mineral wealth and pro-corporate policies pretty much guarantee that when it comes to ostensibly pro-democracy harassment by the U.S., Kazakhstan will never be in the same boat as, say, Cuba.
Assisting in the presentation of a whitewashed national image is the fact that Kazakhstan has pursued a United Arab Emirates–esque model of development in its showcase capital of Astana. The logic goes something like this: The more ostentatious buildings and malls you have in a place, the less folks will notice its oppressive foundations.
In the UAE and similar locales, the tragic irony is that the buildings are constructed by maltreated foreign laborers, often in conditions of indentured servitude.
In Astana, it’s only fitting that one of the focal points of recent laborer disenchantment is Abu Dhabi Plaza, an Emirati-funded skyscraper, where construction workers went on strike earlier this year over low wages.
Set to be the tallest building in Central Asia and located just down the way from the monument that houses Nazarbayev’s handprint in gold, Abu Dhabi Plaza will be one of the glitzy landmarks on display during Astana’s hosting of Expo 2017 — another event that recalls the UAE method of detracting attention from unsavory domestic realities through glamorous and capital-heavy international spectacles.
If the Western support that both governments boast is any indication, it’s a façade that’s paying off.
The portrayal of Astana’s four-year-old, unaccredited Nazarbayev University (NU) as a pre-eminent Western-style academic and research institution encapsulates the whole charade.
In a three-part exposé in 2012, historian Allen Ruff and journalist Steve Horn showed NU to be the brainchild of U.S. imperial ambition, having come about “in large part through the guidance of a small cadre of key actors with career-long connections to the [World] Bank and the U.S. national security state.”
But if NU is a Potemkin village, then it’s one inside the larger Potemkin village of Astana.
It’s not terribly difficult to speculate about the real purpose of a venture with such parentage. NU, Ruff and Horn wrote, “serves an elite function in reproducing and expanding the existing economic and political order”; once in full swing, the system will churn out “a corps of technicians, administrators and bureaucrats in service to an authoritarian state and its corporate partners at home and abroad.”
Among NU’s colorful cast of characters is Dennis de Tray, a member of the board of trustees and an adviser to the university president. As Ruff and Horn point out, de Tray studied at the University of Chicago under the tutelage of those behind the unleashing of free-market reforms on Chile during the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. De Tray later went on to serve the World Bank for more than two decades and was country director for Indonesia at the time of the fall of Suharto.
De Tray’s musings on the occasion of Suharto’s death in 2008 are helpful in assessing the sort of mentality that underpins NU. As de Tray saw it, Suharto’s track record of mass murder was not overly concerning because “the bad that he did — and some of it was horrific — should be balanced against the good, not for the sake of Suharto but for the sake of development.” And not only that: Suharto’s brutal and corrupt reign was “one of the great development success stories of all time.”
The same use of development lingo to excuse state repression applies to the situation in Kazakhstan. Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who now consults for the despotic Kazakh regime on how to attract foreign investment, took a similar line when he advised Nazarbayev on the proper approach to the 2011 Zhanaozen deaths: “Tragic though they were, [they] should not obscure the enormous progress that Kazakhstan has made.”
Massacre victims aside, the country’s homeless and others affected by growing inequality would presumably fail to see the progress in Blair’s multimillion-dollar contract.
On a recent trip to Kazakhstan, I visited the NU campus, the main atrium of which is lined with palm trees — a somewhat incongruous interior decorating move, given the often subzero temperatures outside.
The American professor who agreed to show me around began his tour with the analysis that “this place is a Potemkin village.” (Since he wanted at least one more year of Potemkin village salary and benefits, he asked that I not use his name.)
Among his critiques were the reportedly substandard caliber of the students — many of whom he claimed were not proficient in English, the language of instruction — as well as the preponderance of bureaucracy and corruption at the institution.
A former colleague, he said, described NU as “very impressive to anyone who does not understand what a university is.” In an ideal world, “university” would not be the first label to come to mind for a school where oil companies help write the curriculum.
But if NU is a Potemkin village, then it’s one inside the larger Potemkin village of Astana. And the matryoshka sequence doesn’t stop there; after all, the neoliberal world's attempts to conceal massive inequality makes it a Potemkin village in its own right.