Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev, along with Azerbaijani leader Ilham Aliyev, have claimed a leading role in the thawing of relations between Turkey and Russia after the downing of a Russian military jet in November 2015. Kazakh state propaganda are using this to project Nazarbayev as a statesman of global significance, though critics say the people will still judge him over his questionable performance at home.
On August 5 Nazarbayev was the first foreign leader to rush to legitimise Erdogan’s actions following the failure of a coup attempt in Turkey on July 15. The visit was initially planned as Erdogan’s chance to offer gratitude to Nazarbayev for his intermediation services in the Turkish-Russian rapprochement, but the attempted coup turned the agenda in its head with Nazarbayev having to explain his position over the power struggle between Erdogan and alleged supporters of exiled Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen.
Ahead of the visit, the Turkish ambassador to Kazakhstan lambasted Astana for tolerating the operations of institutions with alleged links to the Gulenist movement, calling for the closure of a chain of 27 Kazakh-Turkish schools for spreading extremism. However, the country’s educational authorities rejected the calls, explaining that the schools employed hundreds of Kazakh teachers and taught thousands of Kazakh pupils to the highest education standards.
“Kazakh-Turkish lyceums have their own place in the Kazakh education sphere and their activities should not be linked to the political situation in other countries. No one outside has the right to pressure them – these are Kazakh schools and Kazakh citizens,” the Kazakh Education and Science Ministry said, adding that all these schools were among the top 100 in the country.
However, during the visit Nazarbayev gave in to pressure from Erdogan and pledged that he would order checks on all the schools to establish their “terrorism” links. “If their link [to Gulen] is proved, we will replace teachers,” Nazarbayev said. “But if there are those who are somehow linked to terrorism, we will completely satisfy Turkey’s demands.”
Nazarbayev’s global image
Having secured Nazarbayev’s promise, Erdogan and much of the increasingly pliant Turkish media showered the Kazakh leader with praise for his “priceless” role in the Turkish-Russia thaw. “We will never forget this merit of Nazarbayev and once more from myself and on behalf of the all Turkish people I express gratitude to him for his great contribution to the normalisation of relations between Turkey and Russia,” the state-run Kazinform news agency quoted Erdogan as saying.
Kazakh media have long been working to project Nazarbayev as a statesman of global significance to the domestic audience and praise from Erdogan, as well as from Putin and the Russian media, has come in handy for the Kazakh leader, who has little to boast about at home when the economy is in crisis due to low oil prices and social discontent has manifested in large-scale land protests and alleged rising terrorist activity in the country.
“It is hard to gauge the exact amount of influence that Nazarbayev exerted upon the rapprochement between Russia and post-coup Turkey. Kazakhstani media, with propagandist aims in sight, celebrated the presidential input,” Luca Anceschi, lecturer in Central Asian Studies at the University of Glasgow, tells bne IntelliNews. “This is certainly a scenario that plays well for the image-making strategy that the Kazakh government has pursued since independence: presenting Nazarbayev (and Kazakhstan indirectly) as an active international player that enjoys great global legitimacy.”
While acknowledging the intermediary role that Nazarbayev and Aliyev might have played, Rasul Zhumaly, an Almaty-based independent political analyst, explains that there were objective reasons for Turkey and Russia to make this thaw happen anyway, as both countries are experiencing difficult times economically, politically, diplomatically and domestically.
“I think without deep interest from Moscow and Ankara this rapprochement would not have happened… For both Putin and Erdogan it was important to make this happen without losing face politically and damaging their domestic image,” Zhumaly tells bne IntelliNews.
Following the downing of the Russian jetfighter, Putin demanded an apology from Erdogan and after receiving none he imposed a raft of economic sanctions against Turkey and banned Russian tourists from travelling there.
Image back at home
Zhumaly cites the examples of other world leaders like US President Barack Obama or former British prime minister David Cameron who, when praised, are praised for services to their own countries not to foreign ones.
“When foreign politicians praise our country or its leaders it should not be a subject of pride. On the contrary, it should be a subject of concern. “It is understandable that Kazakh media and officials try to somehow aggrandise Kazakhstan as one of the world’s leading countries, but Kazakhstan is considered in the world as a mediocre country which suppresses democracy and as a country on a par with regimes like Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan,” Zhumaly says, pointing out that these countries languish at the bottom of human rights, freedom of the media and corruption rankings. “This is hardly a subject of great admiration and pride.”
He explains the “tremendous” activity in Kazakhstan’s foreign policy as the government’s “desire to distract public attention and replace economic, social and other problems with some imaginary achievements”.
“It cannot continue indefinitely like this, because the main needs of the country can in no way be covered by some contrived international forums. There is the need for real policy to solve the very grave economic, financial, political and governance crises Kazakhstan is experiencing now,” Zhumaly says. “This propaganda will hardly be able to substitute for the needs of Kazakhstan and Kazakh society for a long time.”
“The efficiency and productivity of a leader are not judged by the number of countries he visits, the number of agreements he signs or the number of forums he attends, but they are judged by clear and objective parameters such as the living standards of the population, personal income, purchasing power, the stability of the national currency, the stability of the domestic political system, happiness index, the level of corruption and so on. In these terms, we cannot say Kazakhstan occupies acceptable positions, but at the bottom of such rankings,” the Almaty-based analyst concludes.