Cheney and Russia: Useful Hypocrisy?

8 May 2006

Cheney and Russia: Useful Hypocrisy?

By Gwynne Dyer

Had US Vice-President Dick Cheney declared during his visit to Kazakhstan last weekend that “in many areas of civil society — from religion and the news media to advocacy groups and political parties — the government has unfairly and improperly restricted the rights of the people,” human rights groups would have cheered. But he said that in Russia, a few days earlier. What he told Kazakhstan’s dictator, Nursultan Nazarbayev, was that “all Americans are tremendously impressed with the progress that you’ve made in Kazakhstan in the last 15 years. Kazakhstan has become a good friend and strategic partner of the United States.”

Admiration for Kazakhstan’s progress is not actually a leading conversational topic in the United States. The man whom the Financial Times recently and memorably described as “the Bush administration’s Lord Voldemort” was merely engaging in a little useful hypocrisy, or so he imagined. The question is whether it really is useful.

Cheney’s blunt condemnation of the Russian government’s behaviour certainly roused a vehement reaction in Russia. President Vladimir Putin’s drift towards a “soft dictatorship” has the support of most Russians, who are still smarting from the anarchy, corruption and poverty of the first post-Communist decade under Boris Yeltsin. Now the anarchy has been suppressed, the corruption is better hidden, and the economy is growing, so the Russian media’s bitter response to Cheney’s strictures really did match popular attitudes.

Under a headline reading “Enemy at the Gate”, the Moscow business daily Kommersant, normally a critic of the Kremlin, said that “the Cold War has restarted, only now the front line has shifted.” “Komsomolskaya Pravda” asked: “What is Russia to do? Evidently it needs to strengthen links with Belarus and Central Asia. And get friendly with China, to counter-balance this Western might.” Over-reactions, of course — there is no new Cold War — but Cheney’s criticisms would have been more credible and less offensive if he were not so obviously applying a double standard.

Kazakhstan is expected to become one of the world’s top ten oil producers in the next decade. It is a close ally of the United States, even sending a small contingent of Kazakh troops to Iraq. But Kazakhstan is not a democracy (though it observes all the forms), and Nursultan Nazarbayev is not a democrat.

When Dick Cheney became Secretary of Defence in the administration of the elder George Bush in 1989, Nursultan Nazarbayev was already the First Secretary of the Kazakh Communist Party. By 1990 he was president of the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic and a member of the Soviet politburo in Moscow. And by the end of 1991 he was the president of an independent Kazakhstan and a keen advocate of the free market, as if his Communist past had been merely an adolescent foible.

Fifteen years and three “elections” later, Nazarbayev is still president of Kazakhstan, re-elected only last December with a 91 percent majority in a vote that foreign observers condemned as fraudulent. His daughter Dariga Nazarbayeva, who controls the Khabar media conglomerate and leads the “opposition” Asar party, is widely expected to take power when his current seven-year term expires in 2010. (“I can’t swear it will never happen.” she says coyly.)

Nazarbayev’s regime does not boil people in oil like that of his neighbour in Uzbekistan, President Islam Karimov (who was First Secretary of the Uzbekistan Communist Party in 1989). It is not as megalomaniacal as the regime of President-for-Life Saparmurat Niyazov in Turkmenistan, who has renamed the month of January after himself, April after his mother and May after his father. (Niyazov became First Secretary of the Turkmenistan Communist Party in 1985.)

Among the six ‘Stans, Nazarbayev’s Kazakhstan is only the third- or fourth-worst dictatorship, but it is a far less democratic and tolerant society than Putin’s Russia. So why did Dick Cheney castigate Russia’s imperfect democracy while saying not a word about Kazakhstan’s shameless travesty of the democratic system? Oil, obviously, but how could he be so ignorant of Nazarbayev’s priorities?

Senior oil company executives know that you sometimes have to kiss the nether regions of local potentates in order to make the deals happen, but they generally only deliver the osculation when it seems fairly certain that the deal will really go through as a result. This one won’t.

What Cheney wants out of Nazarbayev is commitment to pipelines that will move Kazakh oil and gas to Europe by routes that do not cross Russia — which means pipelines under the Caspian Sea. But what Nazarbayev wants is a solid American offer that he can take to the Russians so that he can demand a higher price for his gas exports to them through the existing pipelines. He will also take it to the Chinese and suggest that they build pipelines to bring his oil and gas to China. He has been playing the game at least as long as Cheney, and he holds a better hand.

Nursultan Nazarbayev is holding out for the best price, and the winning bid is unlikely to come from the United States. Cheney’s kow-towing to Nazarbayev is as futile as his chiding of Putin. And although his hypocritical moralising about the shortcomings of Russian democracy probably has little direct effect on the calculations of a strategist as cool as Vladimir Putin, it does poison the relationship at many other levels. That still matters, because Russia is coming back as a force in the world.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 8. (“Admiration…useful” and “Nazarbayev’s…1985”)