The episode raises suspicions that Afanasenko, likely a genuine victim of past government injustice, has become a pawn in a country-sized feud between Kazakhstan’s most powerful man and one of his most dogged rivals. In recent years, the two sides have shifted their conflict to an unlikely new theater: Washington.
In one corner is the government of 70-year-old President Nazarbaev, which, according to a recent investigation by “The New York Times,” has spent millions of dollars over the past three years retaining lobbyists and wooing experts to argue its case in the corridors of power in the U.S. capital.
In the other corner is Aliev, 48, who during his heyday in Kazakhstan — first as a senior official in the secret police, then as a high-ranking diplomat — amassed power and wealth second only to that of Nazarbaev himself. Aliev’s downfall was correspondingly dramatic. First came divorce from the president’s daughter, Dariga, followed by semi-exile as ambassador to Austria. It was in that country that Aliev, now on the run from his homeland, sought political asylum. In 2008, a Kazakh court convicted Aliev in absentia of attempting to topple the president.
We covered the Rakhat Aliev drama many years ago and I still have no idea what to think about it. Surely, like most autocrats in Central Asia, Aliev was into some nasty things. But so, too, is President Nazarbayev. What Tahir is getting at in a big picture sense is not especially new, since many governments spend outrageous sums of money to create positive impressions in Washington; what is new, however, is how Kazakhstan is using Washington as a staging ground for its information operations against an opposition figure (of sorts, I have no idea if Aliev has any support in Kazakhstan itself).
The New York Times article on Nazarbayev’s lobbying efforts is worth highlighting.
Prominent Washington research institutes have issued glowing reports about the country — after being paid by the government. And there have been charges and countercharges of illegal payments to unidentified members of Congress.
Without an official investigation by a special investigator we’ll probably never know if there were any bribes to members of Congress (though really, who would be surprised Darrell Issa was involved in some way?). What we do know, for certain, is that most think tank-y reports about Kazakhstan are ultimately funded by the government of Kazakhstan—and say deceptively positive things about the regime.
So with that in mind it is indeed remarkable that cracks in Kazakhstan’s otherwise-airtight PR campaign have appeared in Washington. I doubt it will fundamentally change anything beyond providing amusement to outside cynics like the gang here at Registan.net, but it is nevertheless interesting to see play out in public.
Bonus reading: Kazakhstantsy!, the personal blog of disgraced former Kazakh scion Rakhat Aliev.