Red carpet welcome for Kazakhstan’s strongman President

Nursultan Nazarbayev has been in power since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990 and retains an iron grip of Kazakhstan.

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Picture of President Sauli Niinistö (L) greeting Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev (R) in Helsinki on 17.10.2018 / Credit: TPK

Finland is rolling out the red carpet to welcome Kazakh strongman President Nursultan Nazarbayev on an official visit.

Greeted by his host Sauli Niinistö this morning in foggy conditions outside the Presidential Palace in Helsinki, Nazarbayev – who flew in the day before – inspected an honour guard, shook hands with dignitaries, and headed inside.

During the visit the Kazakh leader, who has been in power unchallenged since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1990, will hold talks with Niinistö about bilateral relations; and international relations with the US, China and Russia according to the President’s office. He will also visit Nokia and lay a wreath at Hietaniemi cemetery.

Press freedoms lacking in Kazakhstan

On Wednesday morning Nazarbayev will also appear at a joint press conference with Niinistö. Facing questions from a free press is something the Kazakh strongman is not used to. The World Press Freedom Index ranks his nation at 158th out of 180 countries. Finland is at number 4.

“The main opposition national newspapers were all banned in 2013, the remaining few are collapsing under the impact of fines, and any new independent newspaper is inevitably closed within months” says Reporters Without Borders in their most recent profile of the Central Asia nation.

“Journalists are often arrested and the internet is now closely controlled, with mass surveillance, imprisonment of bloggers and frequent cuts in access to news websites, social networks and messaging services”

File picture of Kazakhstan flag / Credit: iStock

Human rights abuses

The situation is no better for other human rights issues in Kazakhstan either.

“Authorities suppress independent trade union activity and have closed trade unions and imprisoned trade union leaders. Authorities also target government critics, including journalists, with politically motivated or vague, over-broad criminal charges” says Human Rights Watch.

“Freedom of assembly is restricted, with police regularly breaking up unauthorized protests and arbitrarily detaining and sanctioning participants. The government is considering legislative amendments that appear to propose even further restrictions on freedom of religion. Impunity for torture and ill-treatment in detention persist” says the non-governmental organisation.

Finland’s rationale for feting Kazakhstan

So why would Finland give the five star treatment to a country whose values are so different? Does it confer legitimacy on Kazakhstan’s leadership?

The answer is all about how Finland conducts its foreign policy.

“The Finnish foreign policy is based on the understanding that Finland can be more influential in promoting its goals via dialogue, and face to face meetings also at a high political level rather than via distancing itself from regimes that are not sharing its values” explains Teija Tiilikainen from the Finnish Institute of International Affairs FIIA.

“This understanding seems to be linked with a view according to which a small country can best exert its power by engaging other states to cooperation and in this way, increasing interdependencies with them. This was, for long, the cornerstone of Finland’s policy on Russia. Without interdependencies, or areas of firm mutual interest, a small country is pretty unarmed when trying to affect a larger neighbour, or any larger power, for that matter” she says.

Niinistö and Nazarbayev last met each other in June 2017 at the Astana World Expo in Kazakhstan which was lampooned as a ‘white elephant’ event that attracted little international interest and few visitors.

Previously, the presidents met in Kazakhstan in 2013 and 2015. Nazarbayev last came to Finland in 2009 for a visit hosted by then-President Tarja Halonen.