Kazakhstan: David Cameron’s oil-slicked PR

Knocking back £11-a-go pints of Guinness, joking about getting election votes from fellow international leaders - David Cameron’s visit to Kazakhstan has certainly been … eventful.

As the news headlines have mentioned many times, this is the first-ever visit from a British prime minister to this vast, oil-and-gas-rich country, fictional home of Borat, but very real land of repression and human rights abuse.

How to play it if you’re the British prime minister? On the face of it, it’s tricky politics. Then again, it seems to me, No10 takes this kind of thing in its stride. All that’s needed is a breezy mention of how “nothing is off the agenda” and how the prime minister will be having a “frank dialogue” on human rights and … job done. The sense of it being “easy PR” for the government was reinforced – for me at least – by listening to Radio 4’s The Westminster Hour last night. The frequency with which the programme reported prime-ministerial briefings on domestic political items (tax breaks for married couples, MPs’ pay) emanating from far-away Astana in Kazakhstan, just added to my impression that this was a doddle for Downing Street. A bit of political juggling. No problem.

But, actually, how well done is all this? The prime minister says he’s having a frank discussion with his counterpart President Nursultan Nazarbayev, but Mr Nazarbayev has immediately said there’s no political repression in his country. Meanwhile, and as with recent arms-selling trips to the UAE and Saudi Arabia, Mr Cameron’s protestations over the priority of his human rights conversations might seem more convincing were he not accompanied on the trip by some 33 people from British-based companies, including representatives of Rolls Royce and the oil and gas companies BP, Petrofac and the BG Group.

Anyway, here’s a quote from the prime minister:

“I have over 30 British businesses with me. We're hoping to sign over £700m worth of deals. That means jobs back at home and also investment in this rapidly growing economy. That's what this is about. But of course nothing is off the agenda, including human rights.”

Hmm. It’s an old tension, I know. Prime ministers are not human rights advocates pure and simple, and they necessarily represent the UK’s economic interests, but you do get a distinct sense here that human rights are being name-checked for PR purposes as much as anything else. At the end of the day it’s trade - that's what this is about, to coin a phrase.

Meanwhile, what about human rights in Kazakhstan? Well … torture is rife, dozens of independent media outlets have recently been forced to shut down, and oil workers have had their protests over union recognition violently broken up by the police. In one case a labour rights activist, Roza Tuletaeva, was rounded up and reportedly subjected to sexual torture, as well as having a plastic bag put over her head and told that security officials were going to harm her 14-year-old daughter. Yes, this is oil workers, the very sector that seems to be of most interest to foreign trade delegations like David Cameron’s (the country has a massive four billion tons of oil reserves and lots of gas; it’s apparently poised to enter the world’s top-ten oil-producing countries). Writing in the Daily Telegraph, President Nazarbayev himself mentions the “17,000 Kazakhs” working on a huge Caspian Sea oil project, but he makes no reference to labour disputes or human rights abuse. More on what Nazarbayev doesn’t mention here.

So, though political trips like this one may seem to present a political conundrum for Downing Street, it’s fairly simple in the end. To use Amnesty’s Allan Hogarth’s phrase, “Kazakhstan might be knee-deep in oil and gas wealth”, but the black stuff shouldn’t be blotting out the true picture in Kazakhstan.

Anyway, to end today’s show … oddly enough another rather prominent Western person has been creating headlines in a Central Asian republic this weekend. That’s right, it’s Jennifer Lopez in Kazakhstan’s neighbour, Turkmenistan. I don’t know if J-Lo has been swigging Guinness, but she’s certainly taken some flak for her Monroe-like Happy Birthday song at a corporate gig for Turkmenistan’s President Berdimuhamedov, another regional leader with an extremely dubious human rights record. I understand that Ms Lopez’s and David Cameron’s people are conferring on future travel plans to see if the two can team up in any way ...

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