Allen Ruff: Kazakhstan’s brutal repression of workers and opposition ignored as it tries to play broker in the stand off between the US and Iran
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore.
On February 26: the next round of negotiations with Iran and what they call the P5+1â€”that’s the UN Security Council plus Germany. And they’re going to continue to see if they can negotiate what they call an end to the Iranian nuclear arms program, except none of the American intelligence agencies says there in fact is a nuclear arms program in Iran. Iran denies that there is. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t sanctions against Iran and continuing verbal speak from the various leaders, from President Obama to Netanyahu in Israel, and other places that keep talking as if Iran is on track to a nuclear weapon.
But at any rate, that’s not what this story’s about. This story as about the fact that the meeting is taking place in Kazakhstan, a place we don’t talk about or hear about very much.
And now joining us to talk about why the meetings are in Kazakhstan and tell us a little bit about Kazakhstan is Allen Ruff. He’s a U.S. social historian and a freelance writer and recently been spending a lot of time focusing on the study of Kazakhstan.
Thanks for joining us, Allen.
ALLEN RUFF, SOCIAL HISTORIAN AND WRITER: Well, thank you, Paul. Good to be back.
JAY: So, first of all, why Kazakhstan? Why the meeting there? Is there any special significance to it being there?
RUFF: Well, first of all, you know, as you said, we learn and we hear very little about Kazakhstan. Kazakhstan is currently, you know, the former Soviet republic. It’s currently the ninth-largest country in the world. It has a 4,000 mile border with Russia, an 1,100 mile border to the east with China, and it straddlesâ€”it’s at the top of the so-called Stans. It’s large, it’s oil-, energy-rich, and, significantly for this story, right now it’s the world’s largest producer of uraniumâ€”it has known reserves of about 15 percent of the world’s total and currently provides upwards, now, of approximately 35 percent of all uranium in the worldâ€”again, a major shipper and producer of uranium.
JAY: And also I’ve learned through my conversations with you, one of the state investment companies, I guess it is, of Kazakhstan has money in Toshiba and in Westinghouse, both of which make nuclear reactors.
RUFF: Right. Unlike the former Soviet Unionâ€”or Russia, when the Soviet Union imploded, Kazakhstan maintained the ruling clique in Kazakhstan, headed by Nursultan Nazarbayev, the current leader for life in the country, president for life, leader of the nation. They formed large holding companies that have doled out concessions to various private firms, primarily multinational energy firms.
JAY: And not only are they resource-rich and uranium-richâ€”I think they’re the largest producer of uranium in the world now, and they’re involved in nuclear reactors, as I said, but Kazakhstan was also the home, to a large extent, of the Soviet nuclear industry, was it not? So there’s a whole intellectual base there, is there?
RUFF: Right. A great deal of that was eroded. True, it was the proving ground for Soviet nuclear weapons testing above-ground, the missile program and so on, from the ’50s forward. There’s a whole, huge northeast quadrant of Kazakhstan that is currently still irradiated from those tests.
And then, early in the ’90s, right after the independence of Kazakhstan in ’91, the country began to disarm itself, shipping missiles and nuclear warheads to Russia, destroying silos, and so on. That came in part out of an inducement by the U.S., funding to the tuneâ€”I believe, in the early ’90s, the tune of $800 million in U.S. aid to the country that was just in shambles at that time.
Again, the country now has these vast industrial extractive holding companies. One of the most significant now, of course, is Kazatomprom, the nuclear holding company lorded over by the regime. And they give out concessions and wheel and deal in not only mined uranium, but processing of uranium. They’re increasingly entering the nuclear reactor business and have partnerships with a number of international firms, most significant among them Toshiba in Japan. They ship a large amount of uranium to Japan, and according to some reports, actually increased shipments to Japan in the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster. Toshiba ownsâ€”.
JAY: Before we get more into that, let me just back up one step. Why do we think the meetings are there? Is there some special significance, given it’s about Iran’s nuclear program and Kazakhstan has such a background in this?
RUFF: Right. Well, central to it is a proposal now coming from the Kazakhs that had previously come from the Russians to create an international fuel bank, that is, the production and storage of nuclear fuel, low-yield nuclear fuel for, quote-unquote, peaceful reactors for energy, which would mean that there are some 40 countries in the world now that are seeking to build nuclear reactors.
But a big concern, of course, has beenâ€”at least as trumpeted by the heads of the Security Council, with the U.S. in the lead, has been this concern that Iran get its nuclear weapons. So they’re now saying to Iran, look, Kazakhstan is willing to provide you with the uranium for your reactors for peaceful use, for energy use. And at this point it’s totally unclear, it’s doubtful, in my estimation, that Iran will pick up on that.
Again, Nazarbayev wants to become an international player. It’s energy-rich, it’s strategically located, and they’ve developed what is called the multivectored strategy of aligning itself with everyone in the region. They talk, for instance, of while playing a Russia card, shipping gas at this point, natural gas, to China. They’ve also allowed in major U.S. corporations. It’s become a center of soft and hard power, strategic interest for the U.S. And at the same time, Nazarbayev just recently talked about the neighbor across the Caspian Sea to the southwest, that is, Iran, being a fellow Muslim country and that Kazakhstan seeks friendly relations, peaceful relations with everyone in the region.
JAY: Now, one of the reputations the country wants to have is that it’s a country that has more equality than some others that are resource-rich and such. But how true is that? I saw one statistic. I think it’s the top 50 richest people share about $24 billion and that in fact there’s been a lot of social protest precisely about the lack of equality.
RUFF: Well, it’s a repressive regime. It’s not in any stretch of the imagination a parliamentary democracy. There is a parliament, but it’s dominated by Nursultan Nazarbayev’s Nur Otan Party. It’s basically a one-party state, two other minor parties going along with that.
There’s an absolute repression going on now that’s increased in the past year against opponents of the regime, dissident voices, opposition newspapers; there are some small opposition parties; all of them coming under increasing repressionâ€”the jailing and fining of leaders, closing down of offices, the closing down of newspapers. Every well-known international human rights monitorâ€”Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Freedom House, Reporters Without Borders, and so on all report an increasingly desperate situation.
There haveâ€”while there’s no large social movements at this point surfacing in the country, that plays intoâ€”you know, the country presents itself as a region of stability in an unstable broader region of Central Asia, and there’s this percolating tension underneath the surface. So it’s really questionable at this point, at least from those close observers of the country, whether it’s a good idea or not for Kazakhstan to be taking on that kind of role as a international nuclear bank, energy bank. There’s lots and lots going on.
And interestingly, few officials here in the U.S., if any, have spoken out about the actual nature of the regime and what it means for the people.
There is a growing middle class that has benefited from primarily the energy-rich industries and the billions of dollars now that have flowed from export of oil and natural gas, the uranium, as I mentioned, but also other minerals, coal and so on.
JAY: We don’t hear very much critique or take on the lack of human rights in Kazakhstan in American press. Why?
RUFF: Well, again, it’s at some level out of sight, out of mind. One has to merely Google Kazakhstan and human rights and tons of stories pop up all across the board.
I imagine that there will be some coverage somewhat of the country as a bastion of progress and economic growth and stability. When the U.S. press does refer to the country, it’s usually referred to in economic terms and there’s hardly anything ever said about the absolute nature. I think that has to do withâ€”you know, it fits in the longer history of U.S. relations with antidemocratic and dictatorial regimes that have some strategic or major economic interest for the U.S. and the powers that be in this country.
JAY: Right. Alright. Thanks for joining us, Allen.
JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
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