The storied history of Western actors spinning post-Soviet dictatorships for foreign audiences has seen some notable entries over the past dozen years. From Tony Blair whitewashing Kazakhstan’s dictatorship to American academics papering over the worst government-led massacre since Tiananmen Square, myriad Western writers and analysts have shown a distinct willingness to ignore the kleptocratic leanings of many of Central Asia’s leaders, preferring to focus on the supposed advantages of living under governments that rank near the bottom of global corruption and press freedom rankings alike.
However, few individuals have made such an outsized contribution to the library of regional spin as Jonathan Aitken, a disgraced former member of the UK Parliament who, years ago, was jailed for perjury, actions which included concocting a false witness statement for his own daughter. While many Westerners are content to stick to one-off op-eds, Aitken took his literary talents to something a bit grander: an entire book dedicated to the life and times of Kazakhstani President Nursultan Nazarbayev.
Described by EurasiaNet as a “hagiography,” the book — Nazarbayev and the Making of Kazakhstan –– relies on nearly 24 hours of personal interviews, and seeks to describe the rise of a man who, nearly 30 years on, remains the lone Soviet-era dictator heading a regional government. The publisher’s note alone describes Nazarbayev as a “widely admired” leader, which is an interesting descriptor for a political leader who has never won an election deemed free or fair. It’s also a noteworthy approach to describing a man once tabbed by an American official as the most “notoriously corrupt” leader “in the free world.”
The book, which came out in 2009, never gained much traction in either policy or academic communities. But it does stand as something of an exemplar of how Western actors smoothed over regional leaders’ dictatorial records for Western audiences unfamiliar with the region. (More recently, Aitken publicly declared that referring to Nazarbayev as a “dictator” is “irresponsible reporting.”) Aitken’s efforts, however, were transparent for all with a modicum of knowledge about the region. As The Guardian described in its review:
Here, make no mistake, is wondrous hagiography. … It relies, for supporting evidence, on the good opinions of his friends (or of those too cowed to utter a word out of place). It becomes curiously tolerant when oppression, corruption and galloping megalomania are on the menu. But, mush and slush notwithstanding, it is also a fascinating, cleverly orchestrated snow job: quite probably the hagiography of the year.
This month, nearly a decade after the book’s release, the Kazakhstani government decided to revisit Aitken’s contributions. As Inform.kz related, Aitken received a medal from Astana marking “25 years of independence of the Republic of Kazakhstan.” Amb. Erlan Idrissov, per Inform.kz, said the medal was awarded in “recognition of Mr. Aitken’s huge contribution to making Kazakhstan popular in the world and promoting its global reputation.” AKI Press reported that Aitken said Kazakhstan — which, in 2016, saw both negligible growth and its largest mass protests to date — is “one of the world’s dynamically developing states.”
To be sure, Astana’s attempts at spinning Western audiences has recently dried, alongside decreasing oil revenues. But Aitken’s book remains available for all interested — with the author now awarded by Kazakhstan’s government for his efforts.