It’s been some time since Kazakhstan last had such a high profile in the British media. David Cameron recently became the first serving British Prime Minister to visit Kazakhstan, so various newspapers dusted off some old press releases about the country’s human rights record. Perhaps anticipating this, Nursultan Nazarbayev’s press team are flourishing Kazakhstan’s GDP growth figures and making ambitious predictions about the planned diversification of her economy.
This is not surprising. GDP growth in the country has been heavily reliant on the extraction and export of natural resources since independence from the USSR in 1991. As noted by Eric McGlinchey in his book ‘Chaos, Violence, Dynasty’ (2011), this places Kazakhstan right alongside other oil-rich dictatorships which rely on the price of hydrocarbons to fund government initiatives. Neither taxation, nor representation, need be on the agenda.
I’ve just been to Kazakhstan (I have yet to receive thanks from Dave for laying the diplomatic groundwork for his own visit), and this characterization doesn’t seem wide of the mark. But because of the way countries like Kazakhstan acquire media attention in the UK, and then lose it, it can be easy to forget that the regime’s domestic policy is not just human rights abuse and spending oil money here and there. A few of my experiences in the country demonstrate this point.
Most memorable for me was a video which played regularly on the small television screens installed on Almaty’s trolley buses. In between adverts for pasta and candid camera-style sketches with canned laughter, this clip really stood out. In soft focus, a series of people were shown looking thoughtfully into the camera. Some were ethnically Russian, some Kazakh. It included men, women and children of all ages, and the implication of their surroundings was that they represented various professions: medics, business people, farmers. At the end of the video came the slogan, in the Cyrillic script ‘Kazakhstan – It is you’.
Dictatorships like Nazarbayev’s are usually assumed to be crass, and the state-sponsored television, print media and radio produced by these regimes are depicted as propaganda. Basically, they are supposed to be stupid. But I’ve seen far more mindless attempts to communicate inclusivity from companies and institutions here in the UK. The websites of British schools and hospitals usually include images, designed by committee, which crudely tick every box in terms of social equality. What I want to emphasise, in contrast, is the sophistication of ‘Kazakhstan – It is you’.
Perhaps clearly authoritarian regimes are co-opting the language of tolerance and multiculturalism in much the same way that they hold elections. But in a country where only 63% of the population is ethnically Kazakh, the effect of this kind of ‘propaganda’ cannot only be obscurantism.