Tony Blair's Kazakhstan role has failed to improve human rights, activists say

Situation has deteriorated since former prime minister began advising on good governance, according to Kazakh opposition leader

Tony Blair's multimillion-pound deal to advise Kazakhstan's leadership on good governance has produced no change for the better or advance of democratic rights in the authoritarian nation, freedom campaigners say.

At the end of Blair's two-year contract, which lapsed at the end of October and may yet be renewed, activists said the country had actually experienced heavy reversals in civil liberties and freedom of the press during the time the former prime minister was advising the Kazakh president, Nursultan Nazarbayev.

"Unfortunately, over the two years that Tony Blair's been a consultant for Astana, we haven't seen any changes for the better, or signals of movement towards democratisation," said embattled opposition leader Amirzhan Kosanov, pointing instead to "a deterioration in the human rights and political freedoms situation, a further tightening of the screws".

Oksana Makushina, a former deputy editor of one closed-down newspaper, said wryly: "If Mr Blair was advising Nazarbayev on something, it definitely wasn't freedom of speech. Over the last two years the screws have only been tightened on the media."

Blair's office maintains his work is a force for good in a country moving in the right direction. Tony Blair Associates said his work "focuses on social and economic reform and is entirely in line with that of the international community".

A spokesperson said: "Of course the country faces challenges but that is precisely why we should engage and support its efforts to reform. It remains strategically and globally important and it was right that David Cameron chose to visit there earlier this year."

Blair's team has also raised human rights, his spokesperson said, adding that speaking publicly last year Blair "was explicit that the status quo was not an option". Yet his office rejects the notion of a crackdown in Kazakhstan. "We simply do not agree that the situation in this regard has deteriorated."

Since Tony Blair Associates set up in the glitzy capital, Astana, in October 2011, Kazakhstan has launched a massive crackdown on civil liberties. It began after unrest in the energy-rich west of this sprawling country in December 2011, which left 15 civilians dead when police fired on protesters.

The government blamed the opposition, jailing alleged ringleader Vladimir Kozlov amid an international outcry, closing down his party and shutting dozens of independent media outlets.

During his visit in July, Cameron raised human rights with Nazarbayev, the 73-year-old Leader of the Nation – his official title, a symbol of a thriving personality cult – who has ruled with an iron fist for more than two decades and last won re-election in 2011 with 95.5% of the vote.

For many in Kazakhstan, Blair's operations are more about spin than substance, as Makushina puts it, "creating a positive image of Kazakhstan in the west that this is an oil-rich country headed by a wise president".

Blair's office is defensive about the record of this strategic western ally, describing Kazakhstan as "an important country which has made significant progress by growing its economy around 12 times, giving up nuclear weapons [in 1991] and being religiously tolerant as well as playing a supportive role with regard to troops returning from Afghanistan [for which Kazakhstan provides transit]".

Rights campaigners take issue with this positive spin. "Blair says human rights issues are critical to his work but he has downplayed new limits on basic freedoms and widespread concerns on the rule of law and torture, in favour of focusing on Astana's economic and geopolitical achievements," said Hugh Williamson of Human Rights Watch.

"From what we know, he has been indifferent to those suffering abuses and has given a veneer of respectability to the authorities during a severe crackdown on human rights."

Blair likes to talk about changing the world. His office says work in countries such as Kazakhstan helps fund pro bono work in Africa – and it dismisses reports of reaping £16m in fees from Astana as inflated, and says Blair makes no personal profit.

Tony Blair's post-No 10 adventures
Photograph: Guardian

Blair himself recently wrote about "how individual people, in a certain place at a certain moment in time, can make the difference".

He was referring to the Northern Ireland peace process, in the foreword to former spin doctor Alastair Campbell's memoirs – but the question being asked in Kazakhstan is: has Blair made a difference?

The wife of jailed opposition leader Kozlov does not believe so. "I think official Kazakhstan is paying him really big money for totally different things than defending the civil rights and freedoms of Kazakhstan's people," Aliya Turusbekova said. "It's obvious that Nazarbayev hired Blair as a lobbyist."

Regardless of whether his Kazakh contract is rolled over, Blair has no shortage of international ears he can bend. This summer, somewhat improbably, he added Mongolia and Albania to the list of nations whose leadership he advises.

Albania's new socialist government says it wants him to help steer the country into the EU. The Mongolians want advice on education, health and foreign investment. Blair will visit the country just three times over the course of the year-long deal.

Joanna Lillis in Almaty

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
David Cameron urged to raise human rights concerns on Kazakhstan trip
Human Rights Watch says it is very concerned about deteriorating situation in oil-rich republic

Nicholas Watt, chief political correspondent

28, Jun, 2013 @10:28 AM

Article image
Kazakhstan praises Cameron and Blair for helping improving country's image
As he flies into central Asian republic, British PM says he will raise Kazakhstan's poor human rights record with its president

Nicholas Watt in Atyrau

30, Jun, 2013 @1:43 PM

Article image
How Tony Blair paved way for first visit by serving British PM to Kazakhstan
While Amnesty International denounces ex-PM's involvement with Kazakh regime, Blair says he wants to encourage reform

Nicholas Watt in Atyrau

30, Jun, 2013 @1:43 PM

Letters: Kazakh president's human rights record
Letters: The Kazakhstan state officially sanctions the repression of any opposition elements. This ranges from threats and intimidation, right up to murder

02, Jul, 2013 @8:00 PM

Article image
Kazakhstan: strategically valuable but democracy is 'work in progress'

Central Asian republic has amenable attitude towards co-operation with west but a poor human rights record

Joanna Lillis in Almaty

30, Jun, 2013 @1:44 PM

Kazakhstan and human rights | @guardianletters
Letters: Vadim Kuramshin has worked for many years to expose the ill-treatment of prisoners in Kazakhstan. The charges are widely perceived as an attempt to discredit his reputation

04, Dec, 2013 @9:00 PM

Kazakhstan, our repressive friend
Simon Tisdall: The jailing of a human rights activist underlines the lack of promised reform in the nation due to chair the OSCE

Simon Tisdall

10, Sep, 2009 @4:30 PM

Article image
Kazakhstan's autocratic president tells David Cameron: I would vote for you

Nursultan Nazarbayev, who retained presidency in 2011 with 95.5% of the vote, says British PM deserves to win next election

Nicholas Watt in Astana

01, Jul, 2013 @9:26 AM

Article image
Kazakhstan is an abusive dictatorship – the UK should not court it | Aigerim Dzhakisheva
Aigerim Dzhakisheva: Rich natural resources and trade opportunities – plus a massive PR campaign – make it easy to turn a blind eye. But I cannot

Aigerim Dzhakisheva

21, May, 2014 @11:00 AM

Article image
David Cameron seeks Kazakhstan deal as trade trumps human rights
Prime Minister stresses importance of securing business for UK as Amnesty says Kazakhstan has 'disgraceful' record

Nicholas Watt in Atyrau

01, Jul, 2013 @5:00 AM