If you want to know what price a great man will sell his legacy for – it’s $13 million. That’s how much it is costing President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan, a spiteful autocrat, to employ former Prime Minister Tony Blair as his adviser. The man who ushered in the post-Westphalian era, the anti-Kissinger who prevented the genocide of Kosovan Muslims and defended the rights of Sierra Leoneans, is now the counsel of oil-rich dictators.
Blair’s press team has said he makes no money from the deal. But there is no public statement on whether his firm, Tony Blair Associates, is paid. In January, 52 Kazakh youth activists urged Blair to back away from this deal in the opposition newspaper Respublika.
It came after state security forces fired on striking oil workers, killing 14.They told Blair: “…the leadership of Kazakhstan in peacetime opened fire on unarmed citizens. Such methods have been the bloody practice in our country as soon as you became an adviser to President Nursultan Nazarbayev.”
With dark irony, rumours abound Blair was hired by Nazarbayev to win him the Nobel Prize for Peace.
Kazakhstan is a post-Soviet human rights desert. Criticising the president is an illegal offence, the police routinely torture civil society activists, any independent press is bullied and children are used in the tobacco industry. The brave newspaper that stood up to Blair’s avarice has been the target of threats, web-blocking by Kazakhtelecom (the country’s largest internet service provider), libel actions and even arson attacks. In 2002, its offices were burnt down and a dead dog left hanging from a ground floor window in full view of the street. Attached to the corpse was a note stating simply, “You won’t get a second warning.”
As for elections (surely a matter of concern for any former leader of a democratic state): in 2011, President Nazarbayev took 95% of the vote in a widely criticised ballot. In 2005, the leading opposition candidate Zamanbek Nurkadilov was found dead three weeks before the vote. Near his body was a pillow pierced with bullets, possibly used as a silencer to muffle his screams. According to the official verdict, Nurkadilov shot himself twice in the chest before shooting himself in the head. Only double-think could rationalise this verdict.
Such a vile regime is understandably overjoyed by the PR coup that Blair’s appointment brings. One official told the Telegraph: “His advice is priceless… Kazakhstan will get the best advice possible from him on issues connected with policy and the economy. . . We could not have a better adviser.”
It’s not just Blair but some of his closest confidents who are working in Kazakhstan: Alastair Campbell has been spotted by the FT flying back from the capital Astana, Jonathan Powell (appropriately the author of a book on Machiavelli) is also apparently involved. Former BAE systems Chair Sir Richard Evans is now Chairman of the state enterprise Samruk, worth a staggering £50 billion that in turn has hired Lord Mandelson for speeches.
Of course, for many of those who viewed Blair with suspicion, if not active dislike, during his time in office this will come as little surprise. But it’s easy to forget that Blair did enunciate a hard foreign policy that attacked the realpolitik of the past. Even before 9/11, Blair was developing a truly coherent narrative on foreign policy. His Chicago speech of 1999 set the benchmark. He said: “We are all internationalists now, whether we like it or not. We cannot refuse to participate in global markets if we want to prosper… We cannot turn our backs on conflicts and the violation of human rights within other countries if we want still to be secure.”
And memorably: “Acts of genocide can never be a purely internal matter.”
The idea that sovereignty was no barrier when human rights are violated was developed by Blair in his “post-Westphalia” speech of 2004. Then, he said: “So, for me, before September 11th, I was already reaching for a different philosophy in international relations from a traditional one that has held sway since the treaty of Westphalia in 1648; namely that a country’s internal affairs are for it and you don’t interfere unless it threatens you, or breaches a treaty, or triggers an obligation of alliance. I did not consider Iraq fitted into this philosophy, though I could see the horrible injustice done to its people by Saddam.”
Now that the “post-Westphalian leader” is advising a tyrant, what’s left? Blair has not confirmed this arrangement – but neither have the sums involved, or the arrangement itself, been denied. This is important in itself. At Index on Censorship I work closely with dissidents from authoritarian post-Soviet countries, who know how critical it is for dictators to culture an air of respectability.
Forget the pantomime villains, like deceased murderer Kim Jong-Il, the majority of despots are not household names – for a reason. Well paid lobbyists tempt journalists over to write puff pieces on the burgeoning tourism trade. Or outfits like the European Azerbaijan Society use MPs like Mark Field or Mike Gapes to help promote the country’s interestswith little reference to human rights violations. Any association, however tangential with our politicians, is hugely symbolic for authoritarian regimes in helping them legitimise their rule within their countries. That Blair is involved is deeply depressing, and should be of concern.
Labour is having a tough time rebuilding its foreign policy. Tony Blair’s legacy should be anchoring the party as social democratic and internationalist to the core. Instead, Blair is making the case for his detractors – that his foreign policy was guided by self-interest. As one senior member of Blair’s government told me, “towards the end Tony just got too enthralled by wealth”. Since his deal in Astana, it’s a hard case to argue against.
The world is becoming a depressing place. There is, sadly, no endless march of democracy. On our doorstep, Hungary is becoming a managed democracy, Belarus has imprisoned and is torturing presidential candidates, Iran continues its executions, North Korea is the world’s largest gulag, and today Syria is murdering unarmed civilians.
Blair’s response in Chicago was the right one. We cannot look away, and our interests as a globalised society are not just here on British soil. Labour needs to move beyond Tony Blair, and articulate a vision of how a modern outward looking society interacts with the wider world. It’s a real shame that Blair won’t be joining the party on its journey.
Author: Mike Harris is Head of Advocacy at the free speech organisation Index on Censorship, and Vice-Chair of Lewisham Council. He tweets: @cllr_mikeharris.