Allen Ruff: Vicious dictatorship courted by US and Russia, is a vital strategic objective in Eurasia.
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I'm Paul Jay in Washington.
Towards the end of March, President Obama met in Korea with some of the world leaders to discuss the nuclear threat and nuclear proliferation issues. Of course, most of the media attention was on Iran, 'cause we're told there's an Iranian threat, even though so far there seems to be no actual evidence of such. But at the conference, President Obama met with the leader of Kazakhstan, where there is a lot of evidence of nuclear activity, at least in terms of their production of uranium and other activities. And one of the rationales for why Iran's supposed to be a problem having nuclear weapons, when Israel and Pakistan and India supposedly are not, is because Iran has such a dictatorial regime. Enter again Kazakhstan.
Now joining us to talk about this meeting and Kazakhstan and the U.S. relationship with it is Allen Ruff. Allen Ruff is a U.S. historian and investigative researcher. His primary work centers on the U.S. grand strategy, interventions in the Middle East, Central Asia, and elsewhere. He hosts a weekly public affairs program on WORT in Madison, Wisconsin. And he blogs at Ruff Talk [allenruff.blogspot.ca]. Thanks for joining us again, Allen.
ALLEN RUFF, RADIO HOST, WORT 89.9 FM : Well, it's my pleasure, Paul. Thank you.
JAY: So talk a little bit about this meeting, President Obama's meetings with the president of Kazakhstan. And tell us a bit of the story, because Kazakhstan does not make the news very often, but perhaps it should.
RUFF: At the Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul, South Korea, March 26, 27, the president for life of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, met with Barack Obama. He was in a joint meeting with Dmitry Medvedev of Russia and Obama, and then sat down for bilateral conversation.
Right now, in this past year, Kazakhstan has become the world's largest producer of uranium for the first time, bypassing Australia and Canada. As some listeners may know, Kazakhstan is also a major source now of oil and natural gas. And major U.S. firms, in partnership with the state-owned firms, especially the state-owned energy firms in Kazakhstan, have been investing billions of dollars for the natural reserves of minerals, gas, oil, and uranium. Kazakhstan, of course, is the ninth-largest country in the world at this time, is the size of—larger than four states of Texas, is larger than all of Western Europe, and sits in a geostrategic heartland, what Zbigniew Brzezinski, the former national security adviser under Carter, has written about on numerous occasions, the Eurasian core, that it's absolutely vital for the United States, as the world hegemon and competitor, to control that Eurasian core. And Kazakhstan sits at the center of it.
The regime is known by anyone who's examined it, by Amnesty International, by Human Rights Watch, by Freedom House, by all of the international monitors of human rights and democratic rights, as being a major repressive regime, a dictatorial regime that guarantees no civil liberties, no guarantees for open opposition parties, open media critical in any way shape or form of the current regime. The current regime is run on the basis of a kind of—well, we can call it kleptocracy. It is run on the basis of graft, bribery, and corruption, which means, of course, where there's that kind of massive bribery and corruption, that everyone from the street peddler to the highest offices and corporate heads of these major energy firms, everyone is susceptible to blackmail and bribery. And that's one of the ways in which the Nazarbayev clique maintains its control.
JAY: Now, there's been some specific issues both in terms of the fallout and accidents in the nuclear industry and how that's affected people there, and also in terms of suppression of workers rights. What are some of the examples of that?
RUFF: Well, in—we came to this story—my research colleague Steve Horn and I came to this story in part because of the—there was a ongoing strike of oil workers in one of the oil concessions, one of the partnerships on the Caspian Sea, in the oil center of Zhanaozen, where after striking since May, on December 16 police and troops were sent in to break the strike, basically, and opened fire on the oil workers there. The official state figure said there were some 16 killed and another 20 or so or 50 or so injured. International observers and videos smuggled out report that there was upwards of 70 killed and 500 to 800 wounded, with another thousand or so in Zhanaozen and the neighboring city of Aktau arrested. Subsequently, all attorneys, lawyers, reporters, anyone attempting to follow this story was subsequently jailed, harassed, beaten, threatened. Since then, just now, there's the continuation of a trial of 37 people that were culled from the—identified as so-called leaders of these oil workers, who are currently standing trial. And just today, just this week, Human Rights Watch issued a report that all of them have been subsequently and continuously beaten and tortured while under interrogation in prison since December.
Just this past week, there was a report that came out in the international press that Nursultan Nazarbayev—to give just some inkling of what this regime is about—issued an edict stating that anyone caught chewing gum and sticking it to the bottoms of tables in public facilities or underneath the underpasses of bridges and so on would be subject to hefty fines and an automatic three-year imprisonment in jails that are absolutely hellish.
At the same time, the United States talks about, or Obama talked about, and Hillary Clinton talks about, and all the folks involved in the State Department and in other, you know, national security agencies talk about moving Kazakhstan toward a more democratic, open civil society, a pluralist society with transparency and so on. That kind of lip service is incessantly made. But in reality nothing has changed. Yeah, Nursultan Nazarbayev, as I said before, is the president for life—that's what he's often referred to now. They have show elections. It's a one-party state. They celebrated the fact that there was—the United States even made mention of the fact that they recently had a snap election on January 15 in which there were two parties. This was the first time that there were actually two other parties that entered the list. Both of them are also pro—very minor parties, but pro-Nazarbayev parties. So, again, it's a one-party state.
JAY: And now he plays the—sort of deals with the Russians and the Americans. It's not—both are playing ball with him and competing, in some ways, for position there.
RUFF: The Russians, the U.S., and the Chinese are very much involved in Kazakhstan. There's a pipeline going eastward into China from Kazakhstan from the Caspian. The Russians still have—Kazakshtan was the center of the Russian space program during the Soviet era, and Russia still rents the launch pads and still sends up satellites and so on from Kazakhstan. They're all concerned about the energy sources and control. And they all have their geostrategic geopolitical interest in, again, maintaining a good relationship. So Nazarbayev and the folks around him do a very excellent job, you know, I gather, in playing off the various superpower interests in the region.
So I guess the big thing here is—amongst other things, is the sort of double standard or hypocrisy of U.S. position towards Kazakhstan.
RUFF: Well, right now, as I mentioned, Kazakhstan is the world's largest producer of uranium. But it's not just the—it goes from every step of the nuclear chain, from the mining and processing to the building of nuclear reactors. Kazakhstan currently owns about 7.7 percent of Westinghouse. Westinghouse is currently actually—the major shareholder of Westinghouse at this point is Toshiba, and there's a relationship even, again, with Japan and Toshiba and the Nazarbayev regime. In exchange for uranium, Toshiba's arranged for the continuation of uranium shipments to Japan in the post-Fukushima era. So [crosstalk]
JAY: And Westinghouse builds nuclear reactors.
RUFF: Right. It's not this kind of Westinghouse—the kitchen appliance folks, but again, the major builder—just like GE, the two major significant builders of nuclear reactors.
JAY: And is there any level of opposition, organized opposition to this regime?
RUFF: Within Kazakhstan?
RUFF: Again, the repression is such, as I believe I mentioned, there's no opposition political parties. Even the attorneys that went to the defense of these oil workers in Zhanaozen were jailed. There's been numbers of demonstrations by small pockets of civil society, intellectuals, intelligentsia, professionals, and workers. And one can see in various videos that are basically smuggled out that often at these demonstrations, around the time of the January 15 election, for instance, one can see that there are far more police uniformed and uniformed, plainclothes police, usually, than there are demonstrators. It takes an amount of bravery and courage to come out against this kind of regime. [crosstalk] opposition press office back already a couple of years ago, where the head of a dead dog was deposited in the doorway of the newspaper office, and the next day the newspaper was burned down. So that's the kind of fear.
Standard operating procedure of anyone jailed, especially those that are considered dissidents of whatever sort, is that there are forced confessions under threat of harm to an individual's family. A daughter of a leader of an opposition party, 18-year-old daughter, was murdered not long ago. Just this month, as reported by Human Rights Watch within the past few days, a leading journalist was attacked, accosted on the street, and stabbed eight times by a number of men, was left to die, but is in critical condition at this point. So it's hard for many of us in the West, so-called, to, you know, grasp what's going on there.
But business is business, and these major corporations, whether it be Exxon Mobil, whether it be Chevron, whether it be the energy conglomerates, in league with the national security state here—and the strategic planners in a sense have no problem with what's going on. There's joint military operations going on, the training, arming, and assisting of the Kazakh military by the U.S. Kazakhstan became a member of NATO in 1995, has assisted with the supply routes going into—now from Riga, Latvia, traveling across Russia, down through Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, into Afghanistan ever since the closing of those supply routes that came out of Pakistan in this past year, called the Northern Distribution Network, the NDN. Kazakhstan plays a central role. So it's all very complex geostrategic concerns, energy concerns. As some of your guests on Real News Network such as Michael Klare have talked about, there's a scramble now to control the world's energy supplies, whether it be gas and oil, uranium, or water, for that matter.
R.J. Reynolds has had a concession in southeastern Kazakhstan, in the tobacco-growing region, a region that's been long cited for its abuse of child labor. Whole families migrate out of Uzbekistan into southeastern Kazakhstan during the growing season to cultivate and then to harvest tobacco. And there's a huge number of—a large child labor workforce that has drawn the ire—rightly so—of numbers of human rights international human rights organizations. And again, that tobacco concession has been held by R.J. Reynolds.
There's a number—very importantly now, in what's called the soft imperial policy, rather than the hard military arming and so on and so forth, the soft face of it is a university—one of the things going on is a university program, a program in which the University of Wisconsin, Pitt, Duke, University of Pennsylvania, and a number of other universities are currently helping to create the newly inaugurated Nazarbayev University at Astana, what's called the mini-Dubai of the region, this brand-new city built with oil money that is now the new capital. Nazarbayev University will eventually have a 20,000 enrollment. It is entirely in English. So they're training a whole tier of bureaucrats, technicians, experts, taught in school in a U.S.-style curriculum, which of course will wed the regime and the nation as a whole closer to U.S. imperial interests.
JAY: Thanks very much for joining us, Allen.
RUFF: Well, thank you, Paul.
JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.