Tuesday, May 31, 2011

My Perspective on Sunday's NYT Article on the Nazarbayevs

Many of you probably already read Sunday's NYT article by Eric Lipton about the feud between Rakhat Aliyev and the Nazarbayev family. The article sheds interesting light on the behind-the-scene lobbying activities in Washington, D.C., but provides a limited view of the complex controversy. In Central Asia, politics is personal.  Family connections and marriage symbolize political capital that are essential to gaining power in government and state-owned companies.

First, the Nazarbayev is a powerful political dynasty. President Nazarbayev's three daughters, Dariga (eldest), Dinara and Aliya, are all involved in national and regional politics. Aliya married Aidar Akiyev, son of the former President of Kyrgyzstan Askar Akayev, in 1998 when she was only 18. Their marriage, while not forced upon them by their powerful parents, was viewed as a joining of Central Asia's political dynasties. Sadly, by 2005, the young couple divorced due to irreconcilable differences. Aliya now runs a high-end jewelry line.

Dinara is married to Timur Kulibayev, chairman of the Samruk Kazyna National Welfare Fund. While no one is 100% certain as to who will replace President Nazarbayev in the future, Kulibayev is viewed as a likely contender for the position.

Finally, Rakhat Aliyev was married to Dariga Nazarbayeva, Deputy Chairwoman of the Majilis (Parliament) and of Nazarbayev's Nur-Otan ("Fatherland") party until the couple's divorce in 2007. Aliyev served as deputy foreign minister and then Kazakh Ambassador to the OSCE until he was demoted by President Nazarbayev. A political bloodbath ensued (A Eurasianet article provides some great details on the scandal). Living in Austria, Aliyev depicts himself as a sort of political martyr and victim of patrimonial power-politics. In 2009, Aliyev published his tell-all book, "The Godfather in Law," available to purchase here in German on Amazon.com. I must confess that I have not read "Godfather in Law," but it does not take a rocket-scientist to realize that publishing a book that reveals your personal family details with the President of Kazakhstan's family is not a smart move. Aliyev aired his dirty laundry for the world and elevated the issue to unprecedented political levels.

Family politics are not new to Kazakhstan or Central Asian affairs as a whole. Lipton's argument that the U.S. was drawn into the Aliyev-Nazarbayev dispute is misguided in that the U.S. and other countries regularly deal with Central Asian patrimonial regimes, such as the Karimovs in Uzbekistan and the Aliyev clan in Azerbaijan. Currently, Lola Karimova, daughter of Uzbek President Karimov, is in the midst of a libel lawsuit against Rue89, after suing the French website for calling her father a dictator. Family politics are an inevitable part of dealing with Central Asian regimes.

Finally, the article argues that many Washington think tanks were paid top dollar by the Kazakh government to publish glowing reports. As a student who religiously reads reports on Central Asia and even attends some lectures by D.C. think tanks, I know that many think tanks are extremely critical of Kazakhstan's political system. At the same time, the country has achieved remarkable economic growth and its chairmanship of the OSCE in 2010 and hosting of the Astana Summit was a significant diplomatic milestone. As one of my professors would say, "give credit where credit is due."

I am not an expert and I do not know what happened in private discussions between State Department and Kazakh officials in Almaty and Washington D.C. I follow Central Asian politics and simply want to point out that family relations are not new to Central Asian affairs, and that the U.S. may not be more involved in Kazakh domestic politics than other countries. I strongly suspect that if Wikileaks uncovered cables from European countries or neighboring Russia or China, it will become clear that all countries that maintain relations with Kazakhstan have a stake in the Nazarbayev family.

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