A specter haunts the president of Kazakhstan. It is what in the West we call dissent. The growing condemnation of his repressive government is turning increasingly international, revealing that Nursultan Nazarbayev is a dictator, not a democrat. And he is doing whatever he can to stop his critics. In the U.S., one of his servants, a Washington Beltway fixer of Bulgarian origin by the name of Alexander Mirtchev, has threatened to sue the Human Rights Foundation (HRF) if we don’t shut up.
Kazakhstan is exhibit A in what HRF calls the “post-modern dictatorship.” The post-modern dictator doesn’t use firing squads to eliminate opponents, or operate vast gulags. He is subtle in cultivating a climate of fear, allowing some degree of free speech and private property. His goal is to avoid comparisons with North Korea or Cuba and to pass muster as an “evolving democracy” that is “undergoing reforms.” Post-modern dictators love the facade of elections—in Kazakhstan they are rigged from start to finish and recently provided Nazarbayev 95.5% of the vote. They often cooperate with the world’s liberal democracies on major issues such as “the war on terror,” all the while terrorizing their own people.
The post-modern dictator usually relies on significant natural resources (in Kazakhstan’s case, mammoth oil and gas reserves) that Western companies readily exploit in return for silent complicity. His family and friends, of course, are free to travel to the West, own luxury apartments (Nazarbayev’s family has bought multi-million dollar properties in New York, Miami, and Switzerland), and make significant investments elsewhere. Just recently, Nazarbayev went to the Czech Republic offering $250 million in contracts to Czech companies. He was received by Václav Klaus who shamefully lavished praise on the Kazakh tyrant, while barring journalists from asking any questions.
The global support system for every post-modern dictator is a team of people in the capitals of the Western world who do their bidding and enrich themselves while peddling the idea that the dictatorship isn’t so bad—and when it is bad they peddle the idea that things would be much worse under anyone else, usually some monster locked up in a political prison.
Vladimir Putin relies on former German Prime Minister Gerard Schroeder; Equatoguinean dictator Teodoro Obiang purchased the support of a civil rights foundation in the U.S. (the Leon H. Sullivan Foundation) to launder his reputation; the dictator of Angola bought himself Jimmy Carter’s UN Ambassador, Andrew Young (a corrupt, self-styled heir to Martin Luther King); Hugo Chávez first had Jack Kemp and then went Hollywood when he bought Danny Glover for $18 million; and the tyrannies of Singapore and Saudi Arabia have too many servants in the West to list. Beyond the rosy language, post-modern dictatorships all feature heads of state who intend to rule for life, leading dominant statist governments with hardly any real checks on their power.
In the case of Kazakhstan, the president-for-life and his agents are listed as having hired several firms to do his bidding: BGR Public Relations, Qorvis Communications, Global Options Group, APCO Worldwide, and Policy Impact Communications. Beyond these PR mercenaries, post-modern dictators also use individuals who do not operate as lobbyists, but rather as advisors and fixers. Tony Blair recently sealed a Kazakh contract for $13 million, wherein the former British prime minister is expected to “help buff Nazarbayev’s personal image internationally.” He subsequently doubled the windfall. Prince Andrew was considerably cheaper—his payoff came in the form of a £3 million real estate overpayment for his old house.
In Washington, DC Nazarbayev has employed the well-connected Alexander Mirtchev, a member of the Atlantic Council’s executive committee, senior scholar at the Wilson Center, and confidant to the former Singaporean dictator Lee Kuan Yew. According to a Wall Street Journal investigation, Mirtchev was paid millions to manage the enormous ill-gotten fortune of the Nazarbayev clan and help the dictator spy on opposition activists. In a separate investigation reported in The Wall Street Journal, the U.S. Justice Department and the Manhattan District Attorney suspected that Mirtchev laundered money for a crooked Russian oligarch. The investigations appear to have stopped and the media trail goes cold as of 2008. Officially, he is on Nazarbayev’s payroll as a director of Kazakhstan’s sovereign wealth fund. Despite copies of payments to Mirtchev his lawyers deny all of the negative publicity and claim a conspiracy to besmirch his good name.
On October 1, 2012, HRF received a request from two Kazakh dissidents: would HRF help them circulate a letter to the U.S. Congress detailing the crimes of Nazarbayev, especially with regard to his role in perpetrating the Zhanaozen Massacre on December 16, 2011. Inasmuch as Kazakhstan, Singapore, and Equatorial Guinea are part of HRF’s new focus, we agreed to help them place the letter. HRF sponsored its publication in a high-circulation Washington newspaper read by most congressional staff members. Hours before publication we received a frantic call from a connection inside Kazakhstan: Could we stop publication of the letter? At first we thought that the letter’s strong language, accusing the dictator of numerous crimes and exhorting America’s leadership to please hold Kazakhstan to a high standard, had caused the signatories trouble. “No!” we were told, “there is a quarrel among opposition and civil society leaders here because every major government critic wants to be added to the letter.” As the late Václav Havel observed: when citizens make the bold decision to live in truth, totalitarian rule begins to crumble.
Several days later, the Kazakh Embassy circulated its pitiable response, declaring the Kazakh dissident letter “baseless,” “biased,” and “unfair,” without providing any evidence to support their denials. On October 25, members of HRF’s board received a veiled legal threat from Mirtchev, who was mentioned in the published letter. His lawyer insisted that HRF retract and remove the statement that Mirtchev had enriched himself by serving Nazarbayev. The “settlement letter” also instructed us to refrain from any repetition or republication of the allegations and apologize to Mirtchev.
When human rights defenders in Kazakhstan learned about the letter from Mirtchev’s lawyer, they could hardly contain their excitement about the opportunity: “Really? In a U.S. judicial court? Could we come to the U.S. and testify about Mirtchev’s crimes?” They warned: “There may not be enough room in the courtroom for those of us with something to say.”
Fascism doesn’t triumph without help, and it will try hard to silence those who expose its enablers.
We’ll see Alexander Mirtchev in court.