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Proxy War for the Soul of Kazakhstan

Once a high roller on the political scene, now a wanted man, a former Almaty mayor makes his case for heroic status alongside the country’s founding father. by Robert A. Saunders 19 September 2016

Nazarbayev – Our Friend and Dictator: Kazakhstan’s Difficult Path to Democracy, by Viktor Khrapunov, translated by Nicki Challinger. Ibidem, 2015. 178 pages.

 

 

Written by the former mayor of Almaty, Viktor Vyacheslavovich Khrapunov, Nazarbayev – Our Friend and Dictator: Kazakhstan’s Difficult Path to Democracy is the latest sortie in what seems to be an evolving war of (auto)biographies in Kazakhstani politics. In this extended, somewhat floral curriculum vitae-cum-condemnation of “Our Friend” (i.e., the long-serving president of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbaev), Khrapunov details his own rise to political prominence, his unassailable honesty and good intentions, and his major and minor achievements in his ceaseless efforts to better his country, all the while documenting the once-promising Nazarbaev’s descent into a maelstrom of nepotism, corruption, and governmental mismanagement.

 

For scholars of Central Asian politics, this autobiography from an exiled former minister and mayor provides a quantitative and qualitative breakdown of the fleecing of the Kazakhstani state by its president and inner circle, as well as the acerbic internal struggles for power within this small cadre; however, caveat lector, the faux-modest former Komsomolist Khrapunov presents himself as a (Soviet) saint, making every possible sacrifice in the service of mankind, never even hinting that he might have made an error in judgment or grifted a single tenge.

 

Reflecting the country’s now almost obsessive focus on identity politics, Khrapunov opens his story with his ethnicity, marking out Kazakhstan as his homeland despite being an ethnic Russian. He will return to this thread throughout the text, never making the claim that he was mistreated for his background, but subtly hinting that he was always handicapped by his Russianness, particularly when it came to facing off against clan-connected Kazakhs, especially those from within Nazarbaev’s closest kin circle (though, at times, he is wont to trade in rumor about the actual parentage of those within the Nazarbaev household). One of seven children, the young Khrapunov’s Soviet credentials are beyond reproach, with a father who was injured in the battle of Stalingrad and a mother orphaned by the purges. Being born into an “inclusive, loving family” that always found “an amicable solution” to any problem was the ideal incubation for a selfless public servant-in-the-making. A true post-modern patriot, Khrapunov is quick to present Kazakhstan as both a victor and victim of Sovietization, mercurially shuttling back and forth between praise of Moscow’s distant hegemony and criticism of its unintended effects, such as the depletion of the Aral Sea.

 

The Kazakhstani Security Council in a meeting last summer with President Nazarbaev in the chair. Photo from the presidential website, akorda.kz

 

Following a curious foray into mysticism associated with a near-death experience, Khrapunov shifts into high gear analytics with the ascendance of Mikhail Gorbachev and the raft of structural changes that would accompany attempts at economic acceleration, the restructuring of the military-industrial complex, transparency, and the ultimate move toward democratization. It is around the December Events (Jeltoqsan) in 1986 – when local security forces assisted by the Soviet army stepped in to quell a spreading wave of protests – that we are introduced to the theme of the book: Nazarbaev as public hero and private villain, or as Khrapunov phrases it, his taking those “first steps of a tyrant.” The future president of independent Kazakhstan, as we learn, was well-positioned to be the Number 2 of an unrealized post-Soviet Union under a politically competitive system (something that never emerged due to the August coup attempt of 1991), but instead chose to keep to his knitting at home. Running the ninth-largest country in the world seems to have been enough for the former steelworker, who knew full well that his local connections would make ruling easy when compared to the vagaries of stepping onto the trans-Eurasian stage with a host of European, Caucasian, and Central Asian pretenders to the throne all wrangling for power.

 

Apparently gifted with the power to see the future, Khrapunov, from this point onward, begins to identify Nazarbaev’s own eerie prescience in making sure he situated himself for decades of rule and that “his family [would] be able to steal all of the riches of the country” under the new world order. Categorizing Nazarbaev within the ranks of heads of state for life like Muammar Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein, Khrapunov then methodically ticks off a list of events in Kazakhstan’s short national history wherein Nazarbaev, through passive or active decisions and policies, ruined the country – though he often fails to remember how well Kazakhstan has done in relation to its southern neighbors and other post-Soviet peers. Not surprisingly given the author’s undying, though well-coded, reverence for Marxism-Leninism, privatization is at the root of all evil, with the familiar refrain “It’s what Papa decided” girding most economic decisions, no matter how disastrous. Chronologically mapping Kazakhstan’s post-1991 development, Khrapunov walks the reader through the tough times following the dissolution of the USSR, the relocation of the capital to Astana, the international opprobrium around “Kazakhgate,” and myriad other developments, tracking his own rise and later fall as a prominent, if always second-tier player in the government.

 

There are a number of interesting, if occasionally salacious, claims in the book, which contrast sharply with the otherwise monkish reporting of its author. According to Khrapunov, Nazarbaev, who “actually thought of himself as Jesus,” brags that Vladimir Putin is his “pupil” and it was he who taught him “how to run a country.” The “vindictive personality” and “scheming way of thinking” of the president’s eldest daughter, Dariga, is the direct result of her being born out of wedlock to an unknown paramour prior to Nazarbaev’s relationship with the current first lady, Sara Nazarbaeva. In fact, the author reserves his harshest invective for Dariga; she regularly appears in the narrative, stymieing Khrapunov’s (and his wife’s) efforts to improve this or that aspect of life in the post-Soviet republic in order to enrich herself or her underlings.

 

The animosity shown toward Dariga is particularly poignant, given that Khrapunov’s autobiography provides a perfect companion to her ex-husband Rakhat Aliyev’s The Godfather-in-Law: The Real Documentation, described by RFE/RL as a “scandalous tell-all book about the long-time Kazakh leader.” In his document-based memoir published in 2009, Aliyev sonorously echoes the themes of Khrapunov’s autobiography, especially in their shared tone of personal magnanimity contra their absolute horror at discovering that the man they once venerated as a trusted servant of the state was, at the end of the day, a greedy and possibly murderous dictator (Aliyev refers to his former father-in-law as a “communist sultan.”)

 

While Aliyev, by his own admission, was a businessman and a networker before he was a politico, Khrapunov situates himself as the ever-dedicated bureaucrat, propelled into a life of service due to his one and only fault, that he is “a good administrator.” Importantly, he always eschews the notion that he was, in any way, a politician. And his reward for serving the people of Kazakhstan so diligently for so many years: exile in Switzerland – a better fate than that of the pariah Aliyev, who died in a Vienna jail cell last year, apparently by his own hand, while awaiting trial on an international warrant for kidnapping and murder (though the Kazakhstani government is currently fighting to get back funds it claims Khrapunov stole while in office, focusing on real estate purchased in southern California).

 

These neatly twinned exposes of the regime sharply contrast with competing narratives, including Jonathan Aitken’s Nazarbayev and the Making of Kazakhstan (which I reviewed for TOL back in 2010) and The Kazakhstan Way, Nazarbaev’s own thinly veiled paean to himself, which led off with a foreword by the Iron Lady, Margaret Thatcher. While there is nothing strange about dueling narratives, the disparity between the two camps in this “war of the (auto)biographies” is striking.

 

Taken with a grain of salt (make that a salt block), Nazarbayev – Our Friend and Dictator provides insight into the often chaotic realm that is contemporary Kazakhstani politics. Like many autobiographies, Khrapunov’s provides the reader with a highly circumspect view of reality, pregnant with personal prejudice and rooted in an idiosyncratic worldview, whether discussing the fate of the oralmandar (ethnic Kazakh repatriates) or France’s “special relationship” with Kazakhstan. For the dedicated Kazakhstan-watcher, there will be little that is new or earthshaking here, but for those in the early stages of coming to grips with the Central Asian republic’s tortured path toward international respect and prominence, Khrapunov’s book makes an effective gateway to some kind of understanding of the country, however one-sided and self-serving it may be.

Robert A. Saunders is a professor in the department of history, politics and geography at Farmingdale State College-SUNY. He is the author of four books, including Popular Geopolitics and Nation Branding in the Post-Soviet Realm (Routledge, 2016) and The Many Faces of Sacha Baron Cohen: Politics, Parody, and the Battle over Borat (Lexington Books, 2008).

 

This review was supported by the Fund for Central & East European Book Projects, Amsterdam.

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