How Tony Blair advised former Kazakh ruler after 2011 uprising
British former PM told Nursultan Nazarbayev to stress he ‘understood’ critics and to say reforms would ‘take time’
The newly knighted Sir Tony Blair is one of several well-paid western advisers who have burnished the image of Kazakhstan’s former ruler Nursultan Nazarbayev and his autocratic regime, now the target of angry protesters.
Narzabayev invited Blair to give him strategic advice after Kazakh security forces shot dead 14 people during the country’s December 2011 anti-government uprising. The protesters in the western oil town of Zhanaozen were demanding higher wages.
Although the unrest then was on a lesser scale than this week’s rebellion, the government’s heavy-handed response dealt a serious blow to its international reputation.
Blair offered advice on a speech Nazarbayev made in Cambridge, where the Kazakh leader was to make his case to a western audience of academics and dignitaries.
In a letter to Narzabayev, Blair advised the president to “meet head-on the Zhanaozen issue” while stressing the “enormous progress” Kazakhstan had made since its independence from the Soviet Union.
Blair urged the dictator to stress he “understood” what his critics were saying. The former Labour prime minister suggested Nazarbayev say reforms would “take time” and should be done “with care and with stability uppermost”.
The Kazakh government is said to have paid Blair’s consultancy $13m for its services.
Narzabayev incorporated the ideas in the speech. Blair signed off by writing: “With very best wishes. I look forward to seeing you in London! Yours ever, Tony Blair.”
The Kazakh regime has spent – sometimes covertly – large sums in recent years to improve its standing in the west and to rebut persistent allegations of corruption and lavish spending by Narzabayev and his family.
His daughter and grandson own £80m of property in London. In 2020 the National Crime Agency lost an attempt in the high court to force them to explain where the money came from.
Blair’s former consultancy firm, Tony Blair Associates, signed a deal to advise Kazakhstan’s government in 2011, months after Nazarbeyev was controversially re-elected with 96% of the vote and weeks before the massacre.
The former Conservative cabinet minister Jonathan Aitken wrote two flattering books about Nazarbayev. Aitken travelled around the country on a plane belonging to Sir Richard Evans, the former head of BAE Systems who sits on the board of Samruk, a Kazakh state holding company.
The Guardian described Aitken’s 2009 Narzarbayev and the Making of Kazakhstan as “quite probably the hagiography of the year”. He denied receiving money from the regime for the work, which skirted over repression and Kazakhstan’s poor human rights record. But the Pandora Papers, a trove of leaked data exposing tax haven secrecy reported on by the Guardian and others, suggested Aitken was paid £166,000.
According to the papers, World PR, a firm that represents several Kazakh ministries, sent the cash to the former MP’s Oxford bank account via the British Virgin Islands. It allegedly also paid for his hotel and book tour in the US.
Meanwhile, London-based bankers have earned large fees from assisting with the flotation on the London Stock Exchange of Kazakh mining conglomerates. They include the Eurasian Natural Resources Corporation (ENRC) and Kazakhmys, which mines the country’s copper.
The late businessman and Tory party chairman Sir Paul Judge was an ENRC director. The company also hired and subsequently ousted Sir Richard Sykes, the former head of GlaxoSmithKline and chancellor of Brunel University.
A spokesperson for Blair said he was not an adviser to Narzarbayev but did “give thoughts” on the president’s speech and said he should deal with human rights issues during his UK trip. The Kazakhstan project was in line with international community goals and was “focused on the government’s change and reform programme,” they added.
The project fee did not go to Blair personally and mostly funded an in-country team, they said, with the “business side” of his consultancy work ending in 2016.