During the last two months, Kazakh state officials have made an unprecedented number of “working trips” to remote regions of the country. In what was widely perceived as a pre-election publicity stunt, President Nursultan Nazarbayev toured the coal-rich Karaganda region on June 15 and praised the economic and social progress made under his leadership. He assured his audience that Kazakhstan would attract $200 million in foreign investments this year. Speaking at a session of the Foreign Investors Council in Karaganda, he emphasized that over the past five years the country’s total GDP volume grew by 50%.
However, the atmosphere at the international business conference held in Almaty on June 14 presented a startling contrast with Nazarbayev’s optimism. George Soros, the financier promoting “open societies,” provoked a heated debate by saying that Kazakhstan was facing the harsh choice of either pursuing its authoritarian course or taking the road toward genuine democracy. According to Soros, rampant corruption, restrictions on civil liberties, and the draconian laws on non-governmental organizations and extremism currently being debated in parliament signal Kazakhstan’s retreat to “Uzbek-style” authoritarian methods of securing public order. He said it would be more judicious for Kazakhstan, in order to avoid the Uzbek path to bloodshed, to evenly distribute public wealth among the population, including profits from the oil business (Delovaya nedelya, June 17).
The criticism from Soros came as a surprise, as the business conference was expected to focus on global investment opportunities in Kazakhstan. But due to a combination of adverse circumstances, it coincided with the parliamentary debate over the draft law that makes it mandatory for non-profit and international organizations to notify the authorities about planned public events, conferences, and rallies 10 days in advance. Additionally, the draft law insists that representatives of local governments and law-enforcement authorities must be present at events held by non-profit organizations. Just before the international business conference opened, legislator Tokhtar Nurakhmetov called on Foreign Minister Kasymzhomart Tokayev to address the problem of non-profit organizations “funded by the U.S. Embassy and OSCE” interfering in Kazakhstan’s internal affairs (Yegemen Qazaqstan, June 16).
It is obvious to everyone what political factions stand behind Nurakhmetov, whose name had hardly been mentioned before in parliamentary debates. Tokayev, earlier urged by the president to actively protect the “economic interests” of Kazakhstan, picked up the right cue this time and harshly retorted to Soros that Kazakhstan would have to be concerned with its security more than any other country, and the country has never been familiar with the Western model of democracy, which would take a long time to develop in the current geopolitical climate surrounding Kazakhstan. Giving economic reasons for the slow pace of democracy, he argued, “Kazakhstan will never be a prosperous country as long as its neighbors live in poverty.” The foreign minister also pointed out that developed countries are also plagued by top-level corruption (Ekspress-K, June 18).
Pro-presidential forces have long viewed the Soros Foundation and other international organizations operating in Kazakhstan as alien, hostile elements bent on destabilizing the country and assisting the opposition to topple the existing regime. However, Tokayev’s direct and somewhat undiplomatic verbal clash with Soros is the first open manifestation of this intolerance. Although the target of the foreign minister’s bold demarche at an international conference was George Soros, the words were obviously meant to demonstrate to the West Kazakhstan’s independent stance on issues of democracy and civic society. At the same time, Tokayev stressed the importance of cooperation with the United States, which accounts for half of the total foreign investment in Kazakhstan’s economy. He recalled that Kazakhstan opened its air space for U.S. air forces flying missions to Afghanistan to defeat the Taliban and joined coalition forces in Iraq. The foreign minister also made it clear that Kazakhstan would respect all contracts concluded with big U.S. companies, adding at the same time, “Cooperation with the USA is not governed solely by dollars”(Novoye pokolenie, June 17). He clearly hinted that the West should continue investing in Kazakhstan’s economy and steer clear of political processes in the run up to presidential elections.
Soros is a rare guest in Kazakhstan. His appearance at the business conference came as a surprise to many. Clearly, he did not come to Almaty with the sole purpose of kicking up a row with the leadership of Kazakhstan. Although his private talks with President Nazarbayev were highly unproductive, he expressed his hope to maintain contacts with state officials (Kazakhstan TV, June 17). His unrestrained criticism of the poor state of democratic reforms in Kazakhstan shows that he is beginning to be seriously concerned with the uncertain prospect of the Soros Foundation’s activities in Kazakhstan, where the seeds of democracy often fall on barren soil.