AS THE WORLD’S largest landlocked country and surrounded by a sea of authoritarianism, Kazakhstan goes to extraordinary lengths to put itself on the map—and show what a normal, upstanding country it is. Its 78-year-old ruler, Nursultan Nazarbayev, obsesses over hosting conferences, conventions and expositions: Banyan was once in Almaty, the commercial capital, for the world arm-wrestling championship. Last year Astana, the grandiose capital laid out by Mr Nazarbayev, hosted Expo 2017. Kazakhstan’s pavilion, topped by a giant blue orb, was quickly nicknamed the “Death Star”. “Normal” does not come naturally to Mr Nazarbayev’s Kazakhstan.
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Still, it can try. A fortune is spent on public relations to polish the country’s democratic credentials. At the start of the decade it triumphantly hosted a summit of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) a group that promotes free elections among other things. Kazakhstan’s own are certainly impressive. After the presidential election in 2016, the Leader of the Nation even had to apologise. In other democracies, he acknowledged, winning with 97% of the vote on a 95% turnout might raise eyebrows. Nonetheless, the pained Mr Nazarbayev explained, “I could do nothing. If I had interfered, I would have been undemocratic.”
The OSCE is just one group that thinks Kazakhstan’s political norms fall short of democracy. Mr Nazarbayev has eradicated organised opposition in a country of 18m and hounded parties out of existence, their leaders jailed or muzzled. Only two tiny parties other than the main troupe of presidential cheerleaders sit in the national assembly. Candidates who ran for president against Mr Nazarbayev admit to voting for him.
Public space for dissent has been closed. Goons break up even the smallest gatherings. Labour leaders are in prison. Press and television long ago climbed into the regime’s lap.
Once, oil nicely lubricated an economy controlled by a handful of oligarchs and the sovereign-wealth fund. Drops trickled down to ordinary folk—the economy was a Central Asian success. But lower oil prices and a falling currency have hit hard. Ordinary Kazakhs resent living drab, pinched lives at odds with Astana’s bling. The grumbling is growing, and finding its way online, where the authorities have taken their hunt for enemies. A “rumour-spreading” law means citizens are just one click away from jail. This year police have registered 46 cases for prosecution.
A married couple from the oil town of Aktau, Ablovas Dzhumayev and Aygul Akberdi, are now paying for dabbling in virtual dissent. They were arrested after complaining about Mr Nazarbayev’s rule on Telegram, a messaging application. Last month Mr Dzhumayev was convicted and jailed for three years for seeking the forcible overthrow of the state. Ms Akberdi’s trial continues.
The most bizarre case concerns three men who participated in an informal political discussion club in Almaty. They are on trial on charges of hatching a terrorist plot, which carries a sentence of up to 12 years in jail. The case stems from a peculiar video circulated via WhatsApp. It shows three men in white masks touting fake machine guns and threatening to perpetrate jihad. None of the accused is known for links to extremism, and none of them even features in the supposedly incriminating video, which looks suspiciously like an amateurish production by the security services. (One does appear in another film the police have produced as evidence.) All three insist they are being framed.
Both sets of cases have a common thread: Mukhtar Ablyazov, an oligarch who fled Kazakhstan in 2009. He paints himself as champion of democracy keen to replace strongman rule. The Aktau pair made their comments in a forum run by a banned group which Mr Ablyazov founded. One of the video trio also expressed support for Mr Ablyazov’s goals before his arrest.
The regime’s obsession with Mr Ablyazov is puzzling. He has been convicted in absentia of plundering a bank he once ran, so he cannot return to Kazakhstan without going to jail. Although he denied related allegations in a court in London, he fled Britain after a judge ordered him jailed for concealing assets. He now lives in France after a court there struck down an extradition order on the grounds that it was lodged for political reasons. Admiration for Mr Ablyazov in Kazakhstan is slight. Perhaps the authorities fear his message more than the man himself.