Silvio Berlusconi has had lots of friends, or so he says – l’amico George (Bush), l’amico Tony (Blair), and now l’amico Nursultan (Nazarbayev) of Kazakhstan. The Shalabayeva affair has exposed the cost of this particular friendship.
Astana, December 2010. The OSCE summit is approaching an inconclusive end. In preparing the meeting’s final document, the parties seem incapable of reaching consensus on any of the several drafts, leaving the Kazakhstani government – the summit’s host – facing one of its worst nightmares: failure on the international stage. Just as the proceedings are drawing to a close, Silvio Berlusconi – then Italy’s Prime Minister – intervenes to negotiate a last-minute communiqué on ‘security in Eurasia.’ Pushing his colleagues to endorse the declaration, the Italian PM remarks that the document has the preliminary approval of the elder statesmen in both the West and the East – Berlusconi himself and Nursultan Nazarbayev, the president of Kazakhstan. Rather quickly, the plenary assembly approves the Astana Declaration; Berlusconi returns home to face his many political troubles; and Kazakhstan can chalk up another achievement in its long-term search for international legitimacy.
The Shalabayeva affair
Until recently, the Astana summit represented a rare public manifestation of one of the worst kept secrets in international affairs: the dangerous liaison between Berlusconi and Nazarbayev. In the last six weeks, however, the leaders’ personal ties have become the subject of public debate, when the Italian government facilitated the ‘extraordinary rendition’ of family members of Nazarbayev’s principal opponent, Mukhtar Ablyazov.
On 29 May, Ablyazov’s wife, Alma Shalabayeva, and her six-year old daughter, were asleep in a villa in Rome; they were woken up in the middle of the night by a group of masked and armed men – variously said to be Italian intelligence agents or forces from the Ministry of the Interior – who said that they were looking for Mukhtar Ablyazov. Not finding him, they forcibly removed his wife and daughter from the house at gunpoint; and held them in custody pending deportation. Following a remarkably speedy expulsion process, on 31 May mother and daughter were forced by the Italian police onto a private jet and deported to Kazakhstan, on a special flight provided by the Kazakhstani government, with the Kazakhstani ambassador to Italy on board. The Italian authorities claimed there were irregularities in Shalabayeva’s documents. However, Shalabeyeva’s lawyers have since provided evidence that her documents were legitimate; Mrs Shalabayeva and her daughter were living in Italy under an EU residence permit issued by the government of Latvia. They are currently being held in precautionary custody in Almaty.
On July 12th, the Italian government retroactively rescinded the expulsion order, in belated recognition that the forced return had violated Italian law.
A foreign policy disaster
Courtesy of the Italian government – or the Italian Police, if you believe Angelino Alfano, Italy’s Deputy PM, Minister of Interior Affairs and political secretary of Berlusconi’s party – Nazarbayev now holds a very valuable trump card in his political fight against Mukhtar Ablyazov. The Italian press, is demanding Alfano’s resignation, and has quickly identified Silvio Berlusconi as the political mastermind of the Shalabayeva affair, a foreign policy disaster that is now threatening the already shaky foundations of the government headed by Enrico Letta.
The Shalabayeva affair, however, represents only the tip of the iceberg in the murky connections between Nazarbayev and Berlusconi, who share a fondness for conducting state business on the basis of long-standing friendships and personal associations with foreign leaders.
These personal political relationships have determined Kazakhstan’s approach to Central Asian politics throughout the period in which first-generation leaders ruled the other regional states. The long-standing friendship between Nazarbayev and the late Saparmurat Niyazov dominated Kazakhstani-Turkmenistani relations; and Nazarbayev’s personal ties to Askar Akaev similarly dominated the interaction between Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, until the regime change in Bishkek (2005). With the notable exception of Berlusconi, however, Nazarbayev never managed to establish personal relations with his Western counterparts; he had to content himself with staged photo-calls; flattering enough for a leader obsessed with his international image.
Berlusconi’s foreign policy was similarly personal. He has often explained Italy’s involvement in the 2003 occupation of Iraq as the result of his personal support for the policies of l’amico George (former US President George W. Bush) and l’amico Tony (former British PM Tony Blair). The former Italian PM rarely failed to extend the hand of friendship to less presentable heads of state: the rapprochement between Italy and Libya was sealed by the very personal relationship that Berlusconi established with Muammar al-Gaddafi, who was always granted special treatment when travelling to Rome.
In dealing with Central Asian dictators, Berlusconi tried hard to keep his friendships out of sight, although not always successfully. The embarrassment of the Berlusconi government was particularly visible in 2009, when Turkmenistani president Gurbanguly Berdymuhamedov travelled to Italy. The Palazzo Chigi repeatedly denied that the visit was actually happening, and endeavoured to conceal Berdymuhamedov’s official schedule to Italian news outlets.
Obfuscation was never a part of Italian-Kazakhstani relations because, In Berlusconi’s view of geopolitics, the energy ties between Rome and Astana were too critical to be sacrificed on the altar of international respectability. Kazakhstan – the European Union’s fifth largest partner in the oil sector – is Italy’s main commercial partner in post-Soviet Central Asia, and the recipient of significant FDI in the otherwise struggling Italian industrial sector.
Quid pro quo
ENI, the Italian energy conglomerate (and, some would say, the economic arm of berlusconismo) in particular, has substantial economic interests in Kazakhstan, including direct involvement in the onshore Karachaganak field, and the offshore Kashagan project, both located in Western Kazakhstan. ENI’s involvement in Kazakhstan did not come without controversy: Paolo Scaroni, the long-term CEO of ENI, has been accused of paying bribes to family associates of Nazarbayev, to facilitate the granting of concessions to operate in the Kashagan project.
Friendly ties with Nazarbayev have so far served the economic purposes of Berlusconi and his associates; and helped improve Nazarbayev’s international standing. The two leaders are known to enjoy each other’s company, giving rise to much press speculation about what they get up to: the Italian press is rife with rumours surrounding Berlusconi’s stay in Nazarbayev’s dacha; and Kazakhstan’s independent media outlet Respublika has been reporting on a July 2013 informal ‘summit’ held in Sardinia, where Nazarbayev was holidaying in a villa belonging to one of Berlusconi’s cronies.
The Shalabayeva affair is unpleasant, but so is the attempt at a cover-up. Berlusconi and Nazarbayev have both adopted a similarly condescending posture when publicly commenting on the event in question. Berlusconi flatly denied his personal association with Nazarbayev, remarking that, in ten years as head of government, he had only visited Kazakhstan on one occasion. Nazarbayev has so far refused to comment on the affair: beyond criticism, as he sees it, he directed the Kazakhstani Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Embassy in Rome to address the many media requests concerning the ‘extraordinary rendition’ of Mukhtar Ablyazov’s wife and daughter.
Silvio Berlusconi himself has nothing to lose from the forced extradition of Ablyazov’s family. His own party has no choice but to cover up his responsibility in the affair, as criticism of Berlusconi’s political decisions is not an option for members of the Popolo della Libertà. Berlusconi’s principal ally in the current government, the bitterly divided Partito Democratico, has no interest in prompting a government crisis; and has so far channelled its anger towards Angelino Alfano. Italy’s international reputation, on the other hand, has certainly been compromised by the Shalabayeva affair: the political and personal friendship of one Italian politician, for a foreign dictator with a record of human rights abuses, has allowed a democratic European state to engage in an act of illegal rendition.
The Italian Government colluded with a Central Asian dictator to remove his political opponent
One would not wish to paint Mukhtar Ablyazov as a man whiter than white – a warrant for his arrest on fraud charges, has been issued by the UK authorities - but, nevertheless, the Italian Government colluded with a Central Asian dictator to remove his political opponent. Even as Ablyazov is becoming less influential in Kazakstani politics, the Nazarbayev government is visibly obsessed with persecuting him, his family, and his political associates. The international pursuit of Ablyazov and his circle – besides Mrs Shalabayeva and her daughter, the Kazakhstani government has also requested extraditions of Ablyazov’s associates from Spain and Poland – is a further indication of the fragility of the Kazakhstani power system. The president’s age, his frail health and unwillingness to nominate a successor have fanned speculation about Nazarbayev’s political succession. Clearly, in hounding Albyazov, the aim of the regime is to prevent his involvement in the political process of a post-Nazarbayev era.
The Shalabayeva affair is nothing new in Central Asian politics; CIS governments have been regularly complying with each other’s requests for the extradition of opponents, and kidnapping and violence have often been used. The governments of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan have had great success with such methods. What is new, is the more unsettling fact that extraordinary rendition is now becoming common practice well beyond the CIS, with European states much less inclined to resist the extradition requests formulated by Central Asian republics, and post-Soviet states); thereby demonstrating scant regard for individuals likely to be tortured or persecuted post-extradition..
Realpolitik is dictating the protection of Western energy interests
The Shalabayeva affair highlights the inherent contradiction underpinning the uncritical relations that Western European democracies, and the wider European Union, have established with Central Asia’s dictatorships: paying lip service to human rights, while posing for photo-calls. Realpolitik is dictating the protection of Western energy interests, and simultaneously protecting the interests of dictators.