The quest for international recognition drives many emerging markets. Kazakhstan has undoubtedly been better at it than many. The country has spent great effort and money building up an image as a modern state whose leaders can sit at the top table with world leaders. This effort at branding has been driven by the Kazakh President, Nursultan Nazarbayev. To some extent those around him have cooperated in bringing the country to international attention.
Building the international image has been nothing less than a national project, to which the resources of the state have been harnessed. Why has Kazakhstan made such an effort to build its image and how has it done so? Can this activity have any form of down side, or is all publicity, good publicity?
The country’s reasons for this national campaign are part political and part commercial. The image building is seen as part of the country’s effort to cement itself as the regional leader and voice. For some time, the President has sought to be the spokesman for the Central Asian area. He earned respect from how he set up of the country as a confidant of the Russian leadership dating back to Soviet times who could sit at the top table. The region’s relations with Russia have largely been handled by Kazakhstan which is also a part of an economic trade zone, comprised of Russia and Belarus.
Important as the relationship with Russia and the region is, this President sees the need for a relationship with the Western community. At one level this may be regarded as hubris, given the fact that the country is still developing its infrastructure and its application of international law. There will be those that will question the sort of reception that Western governments will give such a country, when it makes an approach to host an international organisation, hold a large conference or intervene in a dispute. Will its governance record, for example, tell against it?
The story so far is that the international community is prepared to take a remarkably tolerant approach to Kazakhstan. So in 2010, for example, the country was given the chairmanship of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The OSCE describes itself on its website in these terms, ‘The OSCE has a comprehensive approach to security that encompasses politico-military, economic and environmental, and human aspects. It therefore addresses a wide range of security-related concerns, including arms control, confidence- and security-building measures, human rights, national minorities, democratization, policing strategies, counter-terrorism and economic and environmental activities. All 57 participating States enjoy equal status, and decisions are taken by consensus on a politically, but not legally binding basis.’
Kazakhstan’s efforts to build its bridge to the international community has its ironies. The diplomat who negotiated this prestigious position had left the country under a dark cloud by the time Kazakhstan acceded to the chairmanship of the OSCE. As Kazakh ambassador to Austria and to multilateral organisations , Rakhat Aliyev was regarded as the driving force behind the OSCE role until he was discredited. He died in prison in 2015.
International politicians at the highest level have been recruited to advise the country and its leadership about branding and diplomacy. Tony Blair, for example, the former British prime minister served the president between 2011 and 2017 as an adviser, while his wife’s legal firm also advised the Prime Minister of Kazakhstan. The appointment had a number of purposes: to indicate to the international community that Kazakhstan has the status to hire people of Blair’s eminence; to gain access to someone who could open doors into other Western cabinet officers; to advise the President on building a brand whose key value is modernity; to assist with very specific public relations tasks.
Many other leading European politicians have been recruited to advise the president for similar purposes. These include Gerhard Schroder, Horst Kohler from Germany, Alfred Gusenbauer from Austria, Romano Prodi from Italy and Marcelino Oreja from Spain. The value of international connections is well understood by the President and these leading lights serve as his ambassadors, in country.
Why else is the international bridge so value for Kazakhstan? Key to this, and to an extent to its political development, is the building of economic bridges. The country’s future economic prosperity rests primarily on global trade in energy and minerals with international companies, many of which are close to governments and politicians. An insight into the way Kazakhstan is perceived by these governments is likely to be critical to the development of trading partnerships and routes. Trust is critical to relationships with global concerns and Kazakhstan’s focus on modernisation and development will score highly in cementing this.
Brand values such as trustfulness and responsiveness to international change and standards need not only to be integrated into domestic systems but also to be understood and believed by international parties. Messages carried in the media will only be credible if the customer sees the value integrated into his experience. Failure to see values of integrity and transparency played out in political or business behaviour will undermine the brand’s strength and ultimately the country’s image abroad.
This is why great care is essential in building Kazakhstan’s brand, and why the effort needs to be more than merely applied to the surface of the country’s systems and infrastructure. The values need to go to the heart of the country and its people, to its businesses and to its governance. That way, the best of the modern can be combined with the best of the traditional and the country can win international acceptance as the king of the Silk Road and the modern powerhouse of Central Asia.
WWW.OCAMAGAZINE.COM #26 SUMMER 2017