Transformation of principles or Expert-Shopping, Ak Orda-Style

Martha BrillMartha Brill Olcott is one of the most famous experts on Kazakhstan. She is the author of two books on Kazakhstan (The Kazakhs, published in 1987, and Kazakhstan: The Unfulfilled Promise (2002). 

Until 2009, she was fairly critical of the political autocracy of President Nursultan Nazarbayev, which was reflected in her first book and her public speeches.

Then her attitude toward the regime of Nursultan Nazarbayev seriously changed. Her critical attitude changed to a loyal attitude and even justification of what was going on in Kazakhstan.

This transformation of views about Nazarbayev’s regime led to Olcott even renouncing the chief notion of her second book, that the Kazakhstani authorities had not fulfilled their promises in building a democratic state with a liberal economy.

She rewrote certain parts of her book and even added question marks to the chapter headings of the book. Thus she called into question the book itself, which had been written in 2002.

Ever since, what Martha Brill Olcott has said and written about Kazakhstan’s government has been, as a rule, of a positive and even justifying nature.

We do not know the reason for this. We can only guess, and surmise what happened to this expert after 2009.

But we do know that in 2010, she became a professor at the department of international relations at the Al-Farabi Kazakh National University.

Parallel to this, she began to work in a joint project between the Carnegie Foundation and the Al-Farabi University.

It is also known that she was awarded with a medal by the government of Kazakhstan in honor of the 20th anniversary of the independence of the Republic of Kazakhstan. She was also awarded for her accomplishments by the Ministry of Education.

We know that for the last eight years, Olcott has actively cooperated with various government institutions of the Republic of Kazakhstan, including the First President’s Fund and the Nur Otan ruling party’s Institution of Parliamentarianism.

Twice, she was brought in by the government of Kazakhstan as an expert in litigation by the Republic of Kazakhstan against its foreign partners.

A third time, she was brought in as an expert in a dispute between the businessmen Anatoly and Gabriel Stati of the Ascom Group in Moldova, and the Republic of Kazakhstan. Olcott prepared an expert report for this proceeding at the Arbitrage Institute in Stockholm, in which she tried to prove that the conflict of the Stati brothers with Kazakhstan had no political underpinnings and was a purely commercial dispute between private entrepreneurs and individual Kazakh officials.
The lawsuit of the Stati brothers against the Republic of Kazakhstan was not interesting to me in itself.

But Olcott’s report contained an overview of Kazakhstan’s political system, which could not help but interest me.

It was interesting to learn how what is happening in our country is evaluated through the eyes of a foreigner, of such a seasoned scholar with whom in fact I had personally met and had conversations.

After reading the overview, I was stunned at the metamorphosis which had occurred with Olcott. I was amazed at how a former critic of the Kazakhstani autocracy had turned into its lobbyist. I did not think that such a thing was possible at all.

Understandably, such a serious statement requires proof. Therefore I will demonstrate this with specific examples from this overview.

Olcott begins with a justification of the fact that while the political system of Kazakhstan is based on strong presidential authority, supposedly, in reality Nazarbayev’s powers are not so broad as first seems at first glance. Disputing the claims of his opponents regarding President Nazarbayev’s monopoly on power, Olcott simply compares Kazakhstan with Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, as if to say, see, the situation there is much worse. Let us say outright that this is not one of her strongest arguments.

Next, she declares that the ruling powers of President Nazarbayev had lately been reduced, referencing recent changes to the Constitution, which somewhat re-distributed the ruling powers among branches of government.

To be sure, amendments were really introduced to the Constitution of Kazakhstan, in part reallocating powers among the president, parliament and government. Formally, the president relinquished a number of the powers he had possessed, which can be portrayed, if you wish, as a reduction of his ruling powers.

A sober assessment of the situation, however, indicates that de facto, no fundamental changes occurred. Just as he was in the past, the president remained the fully-powerful ruler of the country, in whose hands were concentrated the entire fullness of power. And accordingly, all the basic and fundamental decisions in the country today are made only with his knowledge and consent.

Yes, the president is growing older and it is harder for him to follow all the issues of government affairs. Even so, it must be understood that in those cases when the cost of the issue involves several billions of dollars, of course such an issue cannot be handled without his involvement.

That is the axiom and the chief principle of Kazakhstan’s statehood.

Olcott’s statement, that by virtue of Nazarbayev’s age, and gradual withdrawal from affairs, the Presidential Administration was growing weaker and was increasingly turning from a regulatory into an oversight body did not correspond to reality whatsoever.

On the contrary, as the president grew older, his wariness and suspiciousness grew stronger. And after the thwarting of a state coup, which his late son-in-law Rakhat Aliyev had been plotting, this paranoia grew more severe.

The president’s distrust began to manifest itself in the creation of total control over everything which one way or another could constitute a threat to his power. This was expressed in a heightened attention to the work of the intelligence agencies, where accordingly, a reorganization was carried out, and they were strengthened both in personnel and in equipment.

In her overview, Olcott placed in doubt the plaintiff’s claim that the Committee for State Security (KNB) was subordinate directly to President Nazarbayev. According to her, this was not the case, because the KNB only fulfills the president’s orders. How can we not help but ask the respected professor, how the power of the first differ from the second, under conditions of a total monopoly?

People quietly call the KNB “the Committee for Nazarbayev’s Security.” It is an agency that above all stands guard over the security of the ruling regime and is the chief weapon of the regime against dissent and opposition. And that is what essentially Olcott wrote in her book in 2003. And oversight over this body which is important for the President is above all carried out by appointing to the leadership of this organization people who are personally loyal to him, whom he completely trusts.

Particularly surprising are the more than strange arguments, made with Olcott’s help, that a process of strengthening the rule of law is underway in Kazakhstan.

In her opinion, this is shown by the appointment to the positions of heads of tax agencies of such figures as Kayrat Kozhamzharov and Rashid Tusupbekov. In her view, they are such great professionals in their field, and had so improved the work of their agency, that it does not allow the current legal system of Kazakhstan and Russia. This was all the more astounding to read from an expert who knew perfectly well the level of professionalism of Kazakhstanti officials. And then, since when have “the cadres decided everything,” as Stalin said it, in Kazakhstan? It was a very strange logic, to put it mildly.

Separate mention should be made of the assessment that Olcott gave to the tragic events in Zhanaozen in 2011, where 14 people were shot dead when an oil-workers’ strike was dispersed. Here the tendentiousness of her assessment was very obvious. Her main thesis was that Ak Ord was not involved in this massacre; that it was all the consequence of the stupid and incompetent actions of regional authorities.

As proof, Olcott cited the list of regional officials who had been fired for allowing this unrest. In her eyes, Ak Ord was above the fray, a kind of objective tribunal, punishing the guilty in the tragedy on both sides. In fact, the dismissals do not prove anything: the officials were made scapegoats, to divert suspicion from the central government.

There are no doubts that resistance at such a level of workers against employers and the authorities was known in Ak Ord, and that permission for the use of firearms to put down the strike was coordinated at the highest level. But Olcott for some reason does not view such a scenario as a possible explanation.

Olcott looks in the same one-sided fashion at the trials of the strikers and the leader of the opposition, which all observers characterized as unfair and unjust. Other conclusions and claims by Olcott in this political overview also prompt us to thoughts of her one-sidedness and prejudice.

In particular, this is indicated by her claims that we can observe a tendency for the decentralization of power in Kazakhstan. Taking as a basis the purely formal changes in the Constitution, and also cosmetic reforms passed off by the Kazakhstani authorities as political reforms, Olcott claims that Ak Ord has managed to bring together in the government a team of reformers who are successfully implementing economic reform in the country.

In her opinion, President Nazarbayev’s “Appeal to the Nation” served as the impulse for conducting social and economic reforms today. After this appeal, the government’s attention was focused on “increasing the responsibility of government officials, raising the level of social welfare of the citizens of Kazakhstan, and increasing the sense of personal social responsibility.”

Olcott’s contention is very controversial and merits the most serious criticism.

In my view, no reforms that are changing the economic much less the social situation can be observed in Kazakhstan.

A country that has with difficulty overcome an economic crisis is in deep economic stagnation. In order to maintain the exchange rate of the tenge, the government is forced to spend funds from the National Fund that had been saved for an emergency. A large number of ordinary Kazakhstanis live in poverty and are forced to survive in the literal meaning of that word. The level of social protection for the needy and vulnerable in the population is critically low.

But Olcott does not even hint at this. In assessing the level of economic development, she once again resorts to a clever ruse, comparing Kazakhstan to its neighbors in the region, whose economic situation is even worse. As a result of this, Kazakhstan seems more preferable. But that does not prove the presence of a positive dynamic in economic development.

Still more evidence of Olcott’s bias is her positive vision of the anti-corruption campaign carried out by the authorities. In her opinion, this is proven by the fact that several key figures from law-enforcement agencies were prosecuted for crimes of corruption. Even so, Olcott remains completely silent about the effectiveness of this campaign. There was not a word about the fact that the work conducted by the Government did not yield any serious results. There is nothing to confirm that corruption in Kazakhstan has grown less.

Regardless of the campaign against dishonest officials declared by the authorities, corruption remains the chief problem of Kazakhstani citizens and Kazakhstani business.

Interestingly, such a positive appraisal by Olcott practically coincides with what is written by government bureaucrats in reports. Perhaps the coincidence is accidental, but one gets the feeling that Olcott used materials about the successful anti-corruption campaign prepared by the Kazakhstani authorities.

The overview contains an appraisal of the Kazakhstani parliament which from year to year is becoming more professional, according to Olcott.

This is a very interesting opinion, but it has little to do with Kazakhstan’s reality. In my view, it is all just the opposite. And it is not only my view. If Olcott had bothered to take an interest in Kazakhstani public opinion on that score, through the available data from public opinion surveys or social networks, then she would see the lack of professionalism of Kazakhstanti members of parliament; their limited nature and their alienation from the needs of the people have become a standing joke. Social network users openly ridicule the uselessness, ineptitude and lack of professionalism of the parliament. Of all the branches of government, the parliament is the least respected and most criticized body. So why does this American expert think their professionalism has grown?

And Olcott seems quite strange in her appraisal of the level of Kazakhstanis’ political rights and freedoms. In her opinion, “despite the fact that Kazakhstan, naturally, does not meet the formal criteria for a civil society according to Freedom House,” Kazakhstanis with whom she spoke in Kazakhstan do not sense restrictions in holding discussions on political issues both in an academic environment and in private life.

That is, in admitting the lack of democracy in Kazakhstan’s political system, Olcott believes that Kazakhstanis are quite satisfied with the current level of democracy in the country. She formed this opinion by meeting with Kazakhstanis. Supposedly, the level of political freedom that exists today in Kazakhstan suits them fine.

Are there really people in Kazakhstan who do not aspire to democracy? There are quite a few of them. But there is also a significant number of those who are not happy with the existing level of political rights and freedoms. We would have to ask why Olcott saw the former, and absolutely ignored the latter.

The answer can be found in this same overview, where she cites her record of service, from which it is evident that in the last ten years, she actively cooperated with the authorities of Kazakhstan, an association that evidently left its mark on her assessment.

Furthermore, she relied on the opinion of members of the academic community with whom she was forced to associate, given her status as a scholar and the profile of her work. And here it must be taken into account that Kazakhstani academic circles are largely made up of people who are very dependent on the government, who work for the government and therefore support it.

But if that is the case, Olcott’s conclusions, made on the basis of the opinion of people from the government, and specialists dependent on that government, can hardly represent an objective picture of the situation of rights and liberties in Kazakhstan.

Interestingly, the overview contains not a word about the restrictions of rights and liberties, on the bans on rallies and the opposition, on censorship, and on the unjust, corrupt judges, and the total system of bribery.

Particularly hard on the ear is Olcott’s claim that in the last eight years, the government of Kazakhstan had made positive achievements in fulfilling its promises regarding the advancement of the country toward democracy and the respect of principles of observance of human rights. In my understanding, that is called sinning against the truth.

In developing the topic of rights and liberties in Kazakhstan, Olcott states that there are no problems with opposition newspapers in Kazakhstan. She claims that it is not hard to obtain them at any location in the country.

But that is not quite true. An expert who lives mainly in one city of the country can hardly speak about the whole country. What is surprising, even so, is that Olcott does not mention at all the fact that opposition newspapers in Kazakhstan are persecuted, fined, and closed, and their journalists risk their welfare, health and freedom.

Furthermore, Olcott for some reason forgot to add that there are practically no opposition newspapers left today in Kazakhstan. They were all simply closed. Two opposition newspapers remain, with a small print run and a very limited area of distribution – and they are hard to get. You will agree that this is a very suspicious kind of forgetfulness, and is rather more reminiscent of prejudice and tendentiousness.

Another very important issue that was mentioned in the overview: based on her own experience of teaching at a Kazakhstani university, Olcott claims that in Kazakhstani academic institutions, the teachers are absolutely independent in their assessments of the political situation in the country and can express this openly within educational institutions.

In my view, such a statement does not correspond to reality. Today, propagandistic brain-washing of students to support the political line of President Nazarbayev is openly conducted in state universities. In private schools, informally, a loyal attitude toward the government and a negative attitude to those who oppose it is also formed. This may explain why Kazakhstani students demonstrate an enviable political loyalty to the Nazarbayev regime, and a high degree of political passivity. This, despite the fact that throughout the world, the student body traditionally reacts to unpopular decisions of the authorities and takes part in various types of political and social protests. It is surprising how the propagandizing of the current government’s line can be combined with freedom of political expression.

I would like to note the method used by Olcott, which enables her to create a positive perception of the situation, even where an obviously negative trend exists.
I will demonstrate this with a concrete example. The chapter of the overview titled “Freedom of Speech in Kazakhstan” begins with these words: “Despite the fact that in Kazakhstan, there still exists far more legislative restrictions than in the American or European democracies, I think that the public space has greatly expanded in the last decade, in particular thanks to the globalization of the means of communication.”

This text creates the sensation that positive processes are underway in Kazakhstan regarding democratization of the government and public life. These processes supposedly are going full speed ahead, but there are certain legislative restrictions that do not enable democracy in Kazakhstan to become the same as in America and Europe.

The cunningness in this is that the sentence leaves out a qualitative difference between Kazakhstani and American democracy. Supposedly, Kazakhstani and American democracy are essentially the same; the differences are exclusively quantitative – in one, restrictions of rights and liberties are a little more than in the other.

But that is fundamentally not true, since the level of realization of democratic principles in Kazakhstan significantly differ from those in the USA.

Here, at the root of the review is an outward, formal side of the issue – the guarantee of the freedom of speech in the Constitution, the absence of censorship, the presence of formally independent media, and so on. But the real situation with freedom of expression isn’t taken into account nonetheless; it differs substantially from what is declared at the official level and defined in legislation.

And this is despite the fact that Olcott knows perfectly well about the tacit censorship which exists in the Kazakhstani media; about the existence of undesirable topics and unstated prohibitions on criticism of President Nazarbayev and his close associates. She also knows about the closures of independent and opposition newspapers; about the persecution of journalists; about lawsuits against the media; and much else that provides evidence of serious problems with freedom of speech in Kazakhstan.

She knows this, but she doesn’t say it! Either it is of no interest to her, or she is doing this deliberately, forming the picture she needs of the situation with democracy in Kazakhstan as a whole and freedom of speech in particular.

She takes only the most positive that she sees in Kazakhstan – this is the expansion of the field of information due to the Internet and social media, and serves that up as a general process of improvement of the situation.

Yes, the Internet does really change the situation, it works to extend the freedom of exchange of information, but that is not to the government’s credit, and in no way is this evidence that the authorities are working in the direction of extending the public space and protection of freedom of speech.

On the whole, the overview is sustained in a spirit of justification of the Kazakhstani government, which Olcott admits is authoritarian, but even so, justifies this political regime, seeing in it the only real correct political system, relevant to the level of the society’s development, and guaranteeing the optimal development of the country under modern conditions.

This is formulated through a constant pushing of the reader toward the notion that strategically, the Kazakhstani authorities are oriented toward democracy, which they do not hasten to introduce into Kazakhstan only because of the immaturity and unreadiness of Kazakhstani citizens for that democracy.

Olcott does this not directly, but in circumspect fashion, avoiding direct support and approval of the actions of the authorities. She understands that with this, she can show her interest and support toward support of the regime.

Thus, the formation of the premise in the report of Nazarbayev’s good and correct authoritarianism is camouflaged by very careful and balanced formulations.

Essentially, this lobbying of the interests of the Nazarbayev regime is done at the level of word games, rather subtle at times, and expertly-constructed sentences.

I will demonstrate this with the example of a sentence where Olcott describes the situation in the country: “…although the public space is still partly restricted, I am confident that the personal space is absolutely free.” What is key here are the words “although…still.” It is these words that make the restrictions of civic initiative in Kazakhstan seem to be a temporary status. The notion is that the processes of democratization are going in the right direction and the restrictions will become less and less, and soon they will disappear completely.

But this fundamentally contradicts the real state of affairs. Strictly speaking, this phrase contains disinformation, camouflaged, and hidden behind words.

In fact, Olcott should have said the opposite, that despite the official statements of the authorities who articulated their wish to expand the public space, it is even more restricted and is narrowing. This is according to the fact of what was happening in Kazakhstan in the period she was describing.

In reality, in the last 15 years, processes are underway that indicate a rolling back of democracy; the essence of democratic institutes is being eroded. Furthermore, a cult of personality is being established in a country solely ruled by one person, with all the elements of sacralization and worship ensuing from this. To see this, you do not have to be an expert at the level of Olcott; it is enough simply to live for a time in the country and talk to ordinary people.

I was stunned by Olcott’s statement that in recent years, the level of political openness of public events had risen. She claims that Kazakhstanis are not afraid to say what they think even on the most controversial topics of life in Kazakhstan. As an example, she cites her participation in the work of the Civic Forum, where representatives of Kazakhstani NGOs gathered. In her understanding, such a forum where President Nazarbayev himself speaks before the participants is unambiguously a demonstration of positive changes in the country.

But Olcott did not see, however, that the majority of the NGOs convened by the government were GONGOs, that is, supported by government contracts and therefore organizations that were financially and ideologically dependent on the government. She did not notice that the event was itself of a political nature, and was supposed to demonstrate the support of “civil society” for the current government.

This was a totally official event which did not influence the situation with civil rights and political liberties in the country and could not do so. There was nothing there – and there could not be anything there (with rare exceptions) that could have testified to the bravery and openness of the Kazakhstani activists, and their abilities to raise the most relevant and urgent issues of Kazakhstanti political life. On the contrary, everything was sufficiently pre-organized and predictable and demonstrated that civil society is in a deep crisis, not self-sufficient and not capable of being a full-fledged partner of the government. But Olcott did not see this, either.

And one more point which very well demonstrated the bias of the scholar Martha Olcott.

This was her position on the case of the sentencing of the Kazakhstani human rights advocate Yevgeny Zhovtis. Olcott writes that “Zhovtis unjustly received a short sentence – four years – thanks to his authority in the international human rights community.”

Supposedly accordingly to Kazakhstan’s law, drivers bear responsibility for the death of a pedestrian regardless of what role in the accident was played by the driver’s negligence.

But for some reason she forgot to say that under the law in Kazakhstan, a procedure for releasing the driver is stipulated if the striking of a pedestrian was done from carelessness, and from criminal liability in the event if the relatives of the victims are in agreement. And that in the case of Zhovtis, the mother of the victim petitioned for his release.

The main point is that before Zhovtis’ case, this standard always worked. That is, in this specific case, everything was the opposite – were he not a famous human rights advocate, he would have remained free. But Olcott deliberately keeps silent about this.

Apparently, she had a different task than the Kazakhstani human rights advocates, independent journalists, and opposition, and all those who oppose the regime of President Nazarbayev.

It is hard for me to find an explanation for all this, other than the fact that the medals and awards Olcott received from the Government of Kazakhstan had to be earned.

Author: Sergei Duvanov (https://goo.gl/iXEVZV)

Zagranburo.org, 09.06.2018

 

Central Asian Economies: Thirty Years After Dissolution of the Soviet Union

Central Asian Economies: Thirty Years After Dissolution of the Soviet Union

More details
Europe’s weak protections for refugees leave Central Asian dissidents at extreme risk

Europe’s weak protections for refugees leave Central Asian dissidents at extreme risk

More details
Analysis: Central Asian countries need to remain focused on reforms despite new security threats

Analysis: Central Asian countries need to remain focused on reforms despite new security threats

More details