The coverage of Prince Andrew’s ties with Kazakhstan has reminded me of another high-profile Brit with a fondness for trips to Astana: Tony Blair.
When we investigated Blair’s business and charity empire, we were puzzled by the former prime minister’s meeting in 2008 with Nursultan Nazarbayev, the longtime ruler of Kazakhstan.
The fullest explanation for the visit was given by Blair in a statement to the state-owned Kazakh Khabar TV:
I am very glad to visit Astana and Kazakhstan. Your capital is a very unique city. It demonstrates the power and development level of Kazakhstan.
We together with the president had a very fruitful talk. We discussed a wide range of issues, including Middle East issues. Kazakhstan may play a very important role in this regard. Moreover, we exchanged views on interfaith dialogue. In this regard, Kazakhstan sets a good example for the whole world
Blair found Astana such a “unique city” that he returned in January this year. No quotes this time. And no mention of Blair’s role as Middle East envoy or his interest in inter-faith dialogue. The Kazakh presidential press statement simply said the sides discussed “bilateral relations”.
Ten days later Jonathan Powell also paid a visit to sunny Astana. It wasn’t his first visit since leaving government, when he worked as Blair’s chief of staff. In 2008, on behalf of Morgan Stanley, he won an audience with the Kazakh prime minister to discuss trade and investment opportunities.
His visit in February 2011, however, was more to do with human rights. Powell held meetings about the National Human Rights Institution, which is clearly not short of work. According to the US state department, these are some of the problems reported in Kazakhstan:
severe limits on citizens’ rights to change their government; military hazing that led to deaths; detainee and prisoner torture and other abuse; unhealthy prison conditions; arbitrary arrest and detention; lack of an independent judiciary; restrictions on freedom of speech, the press, assembly, and association; pervasive corruption, especially in law enforcement and the judicial system; prohibitive political party registration requirements; restrictions on the activities of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs); discrimination and violence against women; trafficking in persons; and societal discrimination.
So why are Blair and his former aides interested in Kazakhstan and its billionaire president Nursultan Nazarbayev? It is still unclear. I’ve contacted Blair’s office and will update this blog if they want to say more about the purpose of the visit.
But the trips do seem to suggest that Blair and his associates have lost none of their appetite for working with autocratic world leaders, all in the cause of promoting political reform and economic development.