So David Cameron’s been cozying up to Kazakhstan’s autocratic president Nursultan Nazarbayev, talking up ‘a new relationship’ between Britain and Kazakhstan and claiming that trade between the two countries could total £85bn. Cameron did briefly mention a letter he received from Human Right’s Watch which detailed President Nazarbayev’s appalling record on democracy and human rights but the British Prime Minister spent more time declaring that he wants ‘to be Harry Potter’ and enjoying the compliments of Nazabayev as the dictator declared that he would ‘vote for Cameron’.
While Cameron was visiting he also found time to snip the ribbon at a ceremony to mark the opening of a massive oil and gas processing plant at the Kashagan oil field. This super-giant oil field, which is partly owned by Shell, is about twice the size of Greater London; it is estimated to contain 35 billion barrels of oil. That the first visit of a British Prime Minister to Kazakhstan comes as the country is set to become one of the world’s largest oil exporters is hardly a coincidence. While it was Tony Blair who arranged the trip (and allegedly received millions for doing so) Cameron’s eagerness to spend his weekend with the autocrat is no doubt due to the country’s large oil and gas reserves.
Cameron failed to mention many horrific examples of the government’s violent repression of its citizens. In particular the violent attack in December 2011 by state security forces on oil workers in the town of Zhanaozen. Since May 2011 the workers had been demonstrating for better living conditions. 10,000 had gone on strike and occupied Zhanaozen’s main square. Khazak security forces killed at least 16 people and injured more than 60 when they sealed of the town and rounded up protestors. There were also about 60 arrests following the riots including the detention of Vladimir Kozlov, leader of the Algha! (Forward!) party, who was sentenced to 7 and 1/2 years in prison.
This was followed in October 2012 by the murder of Alksander Bozenko, a 20 year old activist who had played a key part in exposing the torture of witnesses by police officers in order to get the testimonies they wanted at a trial of 37 union activists.
Along with this shocking example of the state’s reaction to workers who dared to organise, in the letter that Human Rights Watch sent to Cameron they list a liturgy of other abuses by the state including the imprisonment of government critics, controls over the media and limits on religious freedom.
Cameron’s trip has prompted several commentators to criticise the Primeminister for spending more time talking about trade than human rights, but these concerns don’t fully acknowledge that promoting trade with violent, repressive regimes harms human rights, even if it’s accompanied by strong statements about repression or democracy.
I was recently in Baku in Azerbaijan where activists explained that the UK’s support for BP’s oil and gas operations in the country meant that the UK were silent on the fraudulent elections, repression and violence that keeps Ilham Aliyev in power. They also said that the very existence of a huge oil industry firmly entrenched both Ilham Aliyev’s rule and that of his farther Heydar Aliyev. This oil wealth has given the Aliyev regime the money they need to pay a large police force and means they are not dependent on their citizens taxes so they have little need to pay attention to their interests:
As Mirvari Gahramanli, from the Public Union for Oil worker’s rights said:
BP is where the President got his power from. What is he without the money? Where is his wealth, where are his police without BP’s money? They (the Aliyev’s) have grown rich from BP and now as a result they have much more power. Under the order of the president these revenues are directed here and here but they don’t serve the social welfare of people
Just as BP’s operations serve to financially and politically support Aliyev, rather than the people of Azerbaijan, so the profits of the Kasahgan oil field will only give Nazarbayev’s regime even more power. Rather than desperately seeking more and more fossil fuels regardless of who is selling them the UK government should put their efforts in to supporting sustainable, community owned energy. This would do far more for human rights than any statement Cameron could make.