Communism fell, but liberty has yet to arrive in Central Asia.
By Peter Hitchens
Beyond, behind, mysterious and unvisited, the great expanse of what was once Soviet Central Asia sits ignored somewhere near the end of the world. Its single largest and most important segment is the Republic of Kazakhstan, a giant slice of virtually indefensible real estate, crammed with valuable minerals and bursting with gas and oil, and with a population of just 16 million. I think we will be hearing more of it in times to come. But apart from the facetious movie “Borat,” which had no relation to reality, the name and fame of Kazakhstan have not reached Western ears. As for the rest of the so-called Stans, a group of new and dubious nations clustered around the lakes and mountains of this landlocked region, we wrongly think it safe to remain ignorant of them too—with the exceptions of Afghanistan and Pakistan.
We have painful cause to recall their names almost every day. But this does not cause us to be—as we should be—more interested in their jigsaw-puzzle of neighbors, stretching from the Hindu Kush to the Caspian Sea and touching the frontiers of Persia and China. Especially if we include what used to be called Chinese Turkestan, and is now Sinkiang—unless you prefer the unpronounceable cultural cringe of its official Chinese name—we are describing a zone that may well turn out to be the most volatile on the planet in the century to come.
For this portion of our world, as well as being eminently invadable, contains enormous energy reserves, comparable to those of the Middle East, not to mention the pipelines that carry their products. And it sits between the weakening but hungry power of Russia and the rapidly increasing—and still hungrier—power of China and India. Its tiny population may be significant given crowded China’s recent habit of colonizing through migration. In Sinkiang, the once-dominant Turkic Uighur people—cousins of the Kazakhs—have swiftly been turned into a minority in their own homeland by Han Chinese settlement, an episode of neo-imperialism that has provoked almost no outrage, even among those inclined to be outraged by almost anything. It is also worth mentioning that the land is accustomed to despotism, having known little else throughout its history, and is increasingly Islamic in character.
It has been my good fortune to have explored this part of the world over many years. First I traveled there as a correspondent in Mikhail Gorbachev’s Moscow, when the USSR still survived as one of the last great 19th-century land empires. In those days Kazakhstan was a colony in which Moscow hid those things which embarrassed it, or which it simply wished to keep from Western eyes. There were the remnants of the Gulag among the coalmines of Karaganda, where as recently as the 1990s many of Stalin’s purge victims still lingered, sharing the streets and shops with their one-time jailers. The former prisoners’ original homes and families had long ago vanished, so they had nowhere else to go. There was the secret and walled space city of Leninsk, near the rocket ranges of Tyuratam, on the banks of the Syr Daria river. This odd and disturbing settlement contained a monument to an event which—for most of the city’s existence—had never officially happened. It recorded the fiery deaths in October 1960 of scores of technicians and of the commander in chief of the Strategic Rocket Forces, when an ICBM ignited on the launch pad in an incident wholly typical of Soviet incompetence. The catastrophe was a state secret until 1989.
More hidden still was the neat little town of Kurchatov, built under the firm direction of secret police chief Lavrenty Beria for Stalin’s H-bomb project. It was not on the maps of the time. It was never intended to be seen by people like me. Its streets were hung with sensible pro-deterrence propaganda, the opposite of the disarmament drivel promoted by Communist front organizations in the West. The climbing frames on the children’s playground were in the shape of rockets. The bookshop on Main Street displayed a Geiger counter in its window. The officers’ club served an agreeable Georgian red wine, believed by Soviet nuclear experts to be a prophylactic against radiation. On the nearby plains, scorched and poisoned by years of atmospheric testing, huge towers of solid concrete stood at alcoholic angles, knocked sideways by the unimaginable blast. In the dirt lay millions of shards of black glass, remnants of a great sheet of this material that had formed for hundreds of yards around, immediately after a nuclear fireball had melted the topsoil.
Other earthshaking events also happened in this region. It was in the former Kazakh capital Alma Ata—now renamed Almaty—that the first violent tremors to affect the post-Stalin USSR were felt in 1986, when a newly-appointed Mikhail Gorbachev was still feeling his way towards reform and treasuring the delusion that the Soviet empire could survive it. The murky story of the Zheltoksan riots has yet to be told properly, as the archives are still closed and will probably remain so. Ostensibly, the protests followed Gorbachev’s dismissal of an ethnic Kazakh as local party boss, who was replaced by a Moscow-approved ethnic Russian. But there are insistent suggestions that the almost unprecedented disorder helped bring an ambitious apparatchik named Nursultan Nazarbayev to power, after a decent interval. Comrade Nazarbayev, as he then was, has never since relaxed his grip on Kazakhstan, which became independent of Moscow soon after he took over and has since elected and re-elected him president under increasingly North Korean rules.
Hints to the effect that Mr. Nazarbayev might have a sharp understanding of the uses of street protests also appear in a gripping but scurrilous book, The Godfather-in-Law by Rakhat Aliyev, once married to Nazarbayev’s eldest daughter, Dariga. Nazarbayev’s alleged fear of being overthrown by some sort of people-power revolution is the most obvious reason for his decision to move the country’s capital to Astana, an improbably remote site in the midst of the Central Asian steppe, where its monstrous wind-blasted piazzas, vast horizons, and absurdly wide avenues would dwarf and demoralize any demonstration and give every advantage to the forces of order.
Aliyev’s suitably black-covered volume was penned in exile (and in hiding). Aliyev’s rift with his former father-in-law is so profound that—having once been his country’s ambassador to Austria—he has now been condemned to 20 years in a maximum-security prison should he ever be fool enough to return home. His wife has been compelled to divorce him, and news of this was sent to Aliyev by fax. Soon afterwards, Aliyev found it wise to disappear to avoid attempts to extradite him or simply drag him home. He, like most of Nazarbayev’s exiled critics, is not exactly loveable himself. He was for a while deputy head of Kazakhstan’s secret police, the KNB, and wallowed for years in the swamp that is the Kazakh banking system. And he may be too kind to himself in his account of the past. But if even half of what he alleges against his former father-in-law is true, then Kazakhstan was a very poor choice for the current chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, an arrangement that brought the regime much-needed respectability late last year. The OSCE is supposed to be one of the guarantors of law-governed respectability in modern Europe, which is why Hillary Clinton was one of many global luminaries who attended its recent conference in Astana. Her uncritical presence there, alongside the foreign ministers and senior politicians of many other reputable countries, must have gravely demoralized those in the country who believe in the rule of law, fair elections, and a free press.
The media in Kazakhstan are specifically forbidden to criticize the president—who also has a special dispensation from electoral law allowing him to remain in the post for life. As for the freedom to criticize in general, that must be exercised with great care. One vigorously independent newspaper, Respublika, was almost destroyed in 2002 after it went too far. Its offices were mysteriously burned down one night. Those responsible hung a dead dog, gruesomely decapitated, from the smoldering ruins, together with a note which said, “You won’t get another warning.”
Individual opponents of the regime, especially those who suggest that the president may be lining his pockets, likewise only get one warning from the state. If they ignore that, they receive after-dark visits from large, gruff men who mutter threats as they administer beatings. Or they find that they fall foul of the criminal law and are punished with exceptional severity for crimes that are normally more leniently treated. A casual observer, or one who wished to be deceived, could easily fool himself into thinking that the outward forms of law and democracy exist. Demonstrations, for instance, are allowed—but only at remote locations hard to reach by any form of transport.
Defenders of Comrade Nazarbayev, some of whom wrote to me after I published criticisms of the Kazakh state in London, insist that he is the father of his nation, that Kazakhstan is not as bad as some of its neighbors, the sort of things that apologists for all unacceptable regimes invariably say. It is true that matters could be worse. Neighboring Uzbekistan is famous for pouring boiling water over dissenters and for the violent and trigger-happy repression of protests. Turkmenistan, until recently a wholly unhinged despotism, is now just a partly unhinged despotism. Azerbaijan is a hereditary autocracy that shamelessly rigs elections. And so on. But this has never seemed to me to be an especially persuasive argument. Foreign relations, especially those involving trade with gas and oil states, are bound to bring us into contact with nasty people and repulsive governments. It is best not to deceive ourselves about this one way or the other.
One visit to the Nazarbayev museum in Astana should cure anyone of the view that the president-for-life—who is rumored to have three wives and to have recently fathered a longed-for male heir—is not vying for the mantle of North Korea’s deceased Kim Il Sung. The worshipper—for this is a temple—must wrap his feet in blue plastic bags and shuffle past hagiographical displays of the president’s school books (excellent grades!) and his gifts from foreign leaders and celebrities. These include a dagger, appropriately enough, from Belarus’s appalling despot Alexander Lukashenko, a signed tennis ball from Boris Becker, numberless heavy and grotesque presentations from visiting delegations, flattering portraits of himself, honorary degree robes from many universities, shelves of books about him in many languages. (Aliyev’s volume is absent.)
The visitor must use all his inner strength not to giggle as the pretty guide describes this garbage in reverent tones. The building itself, heavy and large, used to be the Presidential Headquarters until superseded by the still larger and more grandiose Ak Orda (“White Palace”). The new residence is not open to visitors. It is an outrage against architecture, adorned with a blue dome and a little spire, and sits in a well-protected position among the vainglorious structures of the new capital. These include a pyramid—I am not making this up—and a shopping mall in the shape of a nomad’s tent, and they look most impressive from a distance. Closer, the visitor observes the poor finish, missing tiles, and grave lack of public restrooms—the locals have, alas, improvised their own arrangements. It is a place designed to overawe rather than to be the home of normal human beings.
Keep walking beyond a Congress Hall containing a Pyongyang-style mural of Nazarbayev among his admiring folk, then past a statue of Nazarbayev at the base of a huge triumphal column with what looks like a large and irritable parrot perched on top of it, and suddenly the fantasy city ends in irregular hummocks, twisted shrubs, and scrap heaps. In miserable hutments amid this unplanned desolation, a few distressingly poor people still dwell, and will no doubt do so until the next stage of Astana sweeps them away to some other wasteland. This abrupt division between real life and state-sponsored grandeur tellingly illustrates the gap between earthly utopias and achievable reality.
The regime has its apologists. It would of course be perfectly possible to visit Kazakhstan as a businessman or tourist and not notice that it is a corrupt despotism. Equally it is possible to visit China and to fail completely to observe that it is a police state that sees nothing wrong in forcing women to have abortions. Jonathan Aitken—a British Conservative politician until he was consumed by scandal, now a famously penitent ex-prisoner—has become Nazarabyev’s not-very-critical biographer. He reproved me sharply when I first wrote about my experiences in Kazakhstan, which he insisted was “the most stable and successful new nation to emerge from the former Soviet Union.” I am not sure what Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia would make of this claim, though I should have thought all three were well ahead of Kazakhstan on any measure of liberty, law, or stability—and would be even further ahead were they blessed with one tenth of Nazarbayev’s gas and oil resources.
Aitken demanded to know why I had not mentioned what he called “President Nazarbayev’s internationally applauded decision to disarm his country’s huge arsenal of over 1,200 nuclear weapons.”
I suppose this is because those weapons were not really his, but the USSR’s, left behind after the collapse of the Evil Empire. Having no pretensions to global power, he had no use for them and almost certainly lacked the technical ability to keep them in working order. Nazarbayev is believed to feel that his action in scrapping these useless machines ought to have earned him the Nobel Peace Prize. The Nobel Committee have so far failed to respond, though Kazakhstan’s chairmanship of the OSCE must have been some consolation for this disappointment.
And here we reach the sad point of all this. As we survey the ruins of Soviet power, we become confused. There is talk of a “New Cold War” with Russia, despite the almost total collapse of the Russian military. There is ridiculous encouragement of various nationalists in the Caucasus, for purposes I cannot myself begin to explain, since the area must either be dominated by Russia, Turkey, or Iran, not by us. If we drive out Russia, what good will come of it? Do our foreign-policy makers ever look at an atlas or open a history book?
As it becomes more hostile to Moscow, that shapeless and ill-defined force still known as the West cheerfully overlooks Nazarbayev’s many shortcomings. Much of this attitude is encouraged by a perfectly correct belief that Vladimir Putin’s Russia is a nasty mixture of autocracy and crime family—not that this sets it apart from many other countries with which we have perfectly equable relationships. But it is also sustained by an absurdly deluded belief that Russia’s neighbors and former colonies are paragons of democracy, law, transparency, and justice. They are not.
With the exception of the Baltic states, the nations of the former USSR are pretty much all morally bankrupt pits of chaos, the wretched results of 80 years of communism, which shriveled the human conscience, punished civil courage until it almost died, laughed at legality, and enthroned naked power. I still believe that we might have done something about this in the years immediately following the end of communism in 1990, had we recognized that the foundations of civilization rest above all on the rule of law, and those things that form the foundations of that rule, rather than on the free market and universal suffrage.
But we did not, and ever since then we have been avoiding the ghastly truth that what started as the greatest liberation since 1945 ended in squalor and disappointment. Rather than confront our general failure, we attempt to turn the new Russia into a bogeyman as bad as the old USSR, while overlooking the comparable faults of the rest of the former Soviet empire. This willful distortion is a mirror of the similar errors that conservatives make at home. There too we avoid the difficult and dogged, while flinging ourselves into the satisfying and the spectacular. We fail to fight effectively for morality, marriage, and fatherhood while supporting utopian foreign adventures or posturing as heroic radicals when we know we are far from having the power to keep our promises. I do not know if there is any hope that we will ever put this right. Only a fool would be an optimist. But the more I travel in the modern world, the more I treasure the rare miracle of Christian civilization—and the more I fear for it.
Peter Hitchens is a columnist for the London Mail on Sunday and is the author of The Rage Against God.