Try as he might, playwright George Bernard Shaw could not find a bad thing to say about Stalin’s Soviet Union. The workers? Not downtrodden at all, he wrote after a 1933 trip, but hopeful and enthusiastic. As for the purges of Stalin’s critics: “They often have to be pushed off the ladder with a rope around their necks.”
Blinkered liberals — not just Shaw but the likes too of Beatrice Webb — were useful to the tyrant in Moscow. They created a fog around Stalin’s intentions, muffled protest, justified inaction.
Today wealthy and corrupt autocratic leaders in the central Asian republics, Russia’s backyard, are performing a similar whitewash: they are signing up former statesmen (and not just Tony Blair), commissioning hagiographies and paying top dollar to western PR companies to rebrand their image.
It’s not just about the cash, though there is plenty around. Vanity is in play too, the idea that the West can make a mark on countries such as Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan at a time when they are uncomfortable with the competing interest of Russia and China. The West, in other words, can be part of the Great Game again. In the 19th century the contest pitted the British Empire against the tsar over Afghanistan and its neighbours. We thought Russia could make a grab for India; they thought we were stirring trouble in their soft underbelly.
Today, the likes of Nursultan Nazarbayev, president of Kazakhstan — which boasts big reserves of oil, gas and uranium — are worried about becoming over-dependent on an internationally isolated Russia. And nervous too about China’s “Silk Road” project, building roads and railways along the routes that once carried silk, ceramics and paper to the West. This has been sold by Beijing as a hugely ambitious way of revitalising the region. To the Kazakhs the scheme is beginning to look like Chinese self-enrichment and a kind of colonialism-lite.
So the autocratic “Stans” are looking to Europe and to a largely indifferent Washington for a third way. One Nazarbayev idea was to form the so-called “Team Operetta”, a group of high-profile international advisers who could brainstorm about the future of his country. The former German chancellor Gerhard Schröder and the former president Horst Köhler were approached, as were Italian politicians. A dinner was arranged with Bill Clinton. Tony Blair was viewed as the rebrander-in-chief, the man capable of projecting Kazakhstan not just as a large and empty inbetween country but as a pivot between East and West.
Great legal brains were recruited to advise on how to deal with the leader’s troublesome former son-in-law Rakhat Aliyev who had written an embarrassing book, Godfather-in-Law. Nazarbayev was convinced that Aliyev was plotting his overthrow. His daughter divorced Aliyev, and the man who fancied himself to be the future leader of the Kazakhs could not escape attempts to put him in the dock and he hanged himself last year in a prison cell in Vienna.
There is common ground between the new despots and the West: neither of us wants al-Qaeda or Islamic State to use central Asia as a fall-back area from Afghanistan nor as a launching pad for terrorism elsewhere. So we help to keep the old men in power, to keep the jihadists down and to keep the cash flowing.
The Russians naturally think that our interest in central Asia is part of an attempt to encircle them. Our strategic ambition, however, is not to destabilise Russia but to maintain stability in the Stans. And that is creating any number of foul compromises. Until recently Germany used the Termez airbase in Uzbekistan as part of its military supply route into Afghanistan. The price: cash in the coffers of Islam Karimov, central Asia’s most brutal tyrant. He ruled the country for almost 30 years, slaughtered demonstrators, crushed free speech and had some of his critics boiled alive in water like lobsters. Germany is probably the most influential western investor in the region — yet it has looked away rather than used its clout. Britain is little better: it has barely squeaked at the jailing of activists.
Now the western line is: let’s wait until the next generation takes over; we can work with them in a way that doesn’t smack of western arrogance. That’s not going to wash. The dominant feature of these autocrats is their utter lack of trust even in the inner circle. There is no point then in hoping for a benign family succession to the dreadful Karimov who died in September: he put his own daughter Gulnara under house arrest two years ago and it seems that no one now has the authority to set her free, let alone rehabilitate her politically.
It is rarely a good idea for foreign policymaking to be led by human rights advocacy. Hostile regimes quickly realise they can fill up prison cells and win concessions by emptying them one by one. But in dealing with the authoritarians of central Asia, championing individual liberties should be at the forefront. In a three-way competition with Russia and China, the West should be persuading these hard-bitten elites that open democracy can go hand in hand with prosperity.
Visitors to Kazakhstan should, unlike Shaw in Russia, always ask awkward questions. Lionel Barber, the editor of the Financial Times, was recently taken to prison 66/10, the regime’s showcase jail. “It’s rooms are spotless,” he reports. “There are curtains and large glass window panes without bars.”
He should have asked to see the basement. That’s where the truths are buried.
Roger Boyes is a British journalist and autor.