Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are among the world’s dictatorships benefiting from the services of lobbyists in Europe’s corridors of power, a new report alleges.
“Repressive regimes outsourcing their diplomacy to public relations firms, lobbyists, and front groups, is increasingly big business in Europe,” claims the study by the Corporate Europe Observatory, a campaign group that seeks to “challenge the privileged access and influence enjoyed by corporations and their lobby groups in EU policy making.”
It singles out the regimes of Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan – which uses a host of international PR firms, including that of former British prime minister Tony Blair, to buff its international image – and Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan – which benefits from the services of a powerful European trade lobby with links to the country’s controversial cotton sector – as among the beneficiaries.
Nazarbayev’s “strategic use of PR and lobbying, particularly via Tony Blair’s network of influence, has to be one of the most successful examples of a dictator whitewashing his image,” the report claims.
Tony Blair Associates says its work for Astana on a multi-million dollar contract since 2011 “focuses on supporting political, economic and social reform.” Critics say it is more about spinning the regime’s atrocious human rights record—including tips on how to handle the international fallout from the fatal shooting of protestors in 2011.
Astana – which has stepped up efforts to promote soft power lately – employs a host of PR firms including Portland Communications and BGR Gabara, which “has allowed the country to achieve a series of near-Orwellian high profile successes on the international scene,” the report says.
It adds that Astana also harnesses lobbying power through Nazarbayev’s International Advisory Board (consisting of “a veritable club of former European prime ministers,” including Blair, former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, and former Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi) and bodies such as the Eurasian Council on Foreign Affairs, a new Brussels-based think-tank that is basically “a front for Kazakhstan.”
Co-founded by the Uzbek embassy in London and including prominent British MPs as members, the British Uzbek Society bills itself as promoting cooperation in business, education, and the arts. As the report points out, the society’s president, Lord Frederick Ponsonby, is famous for once hailing a parliamentary election in dictatorial Uzbekistan as “independent,” while another member, academic Shirin Akiner, “produced a report that absolved the Karimov regime from responsibility for the 2005 Andijan massacre in which security officials opened fire killing several hundred protesters.”
The society’s members include oil companies like Exxon Mobil and Tethys Petroleum, leading the Corporate Europe Observatory to describe it as an “UK-Uzbek friendship association with a whiff of petrol.”
Energy companies like BP, Exxon Mobil, and Shell are also members of the UBTIC, a trade association spearheaded by the British and Uzbek governments. Another member is Uzbekistan’s state cotton industry association, Uzpakhtasanoat, and the report highlights UBTIC’s links with Uzbekistan’s controversial cotton sector, “despite the continued coercion by the state of slave child and adult labor in the Uzbekistan cotton harvest.”