The two faces of Tony Blair

The former PM's Faith Foundation champions religious freedom. So why is he doing deals with a despot who persecutes believers?

In the centre of Kazakhstan's new capital, Astana, jostling for attention amid gleaming skyscrapers built on profits from the country's vast oil and gas fields, a glass pyramid stands on a hill overlooking the Presidential Palace.

Designed by the British architect Norman Foster, the £36m "Palace of Peace and Reconciliation" is the brainchild of Kazakhstan's autocrat president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, who commissioned a building where religious leaders from around the world could meet and find common ground.

The irony of the building's construction was not lost on local human rights activists who have documented an increasingly hostile attitude towards religious groups in Kazakhstan – and raised serious questions about the recruitment by Mr Nazarbayev of Tony Blair as an adviser to the nation.

The most serious assault on religion was unveiled this month, just days before it was revealed that the former British prime minister, who runs a faith foundation, had been taken on by the Kazakh government in a role he has not yet fully explained.

A new law, rushed through the country's parliament and announced by Mr Nazarbayev, forbids prayer rooms inside state buildings, orders all religious groups to re-register or face liquidation through the courts, bans foreigners from setting up faith groups, and severely limits where religious literature can be bought.

For Mr Blair – who set up his eponymous foundation after leaving Downing Street to promote religion as "a powerful force for good in the modern world" – the timing of the law is embarrassing and piles on the pressure to explain the exact nature of his business dealings with the regime.

The Kazakh government has admitted that Mr Blair – through his business Tony Blair Associates – has set up an office in Astana. His former spin doctor, Alastair Campbell, and former chief of staff, Jonathan Powell, have also been hired for consultancy work inside the Central Asian republic which has been run by Mr Nazarbayev since the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

A coalition of human rights groups has now called on Mr Blair to use his friendship with Mr Nazarbayev to encourage the Kazakh leader to make democratic reforms rather than simply polishing the image of an increasingly autocratic state.

In statements sent to The Independent, both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have launched critical attacks on Mr Blair's involvement in Kazakhstan and – in particular – his silence on Astana's repression of religious communities.

"There are numerous human rights issues in Kazakhstan that Tony Blair needs to be frank about with his hosts, and one of them is the lack of religious freedom in the country," said Kate Allen, Amnesty's UK head.

David Mepham, the UK director of Human Rights Watch, said: "Blair should press Nazerbaev to lift his latest repressive measures and bring Kazakh policy into line with international human rights standards."

Mr Nazarbayev has insisted that the new religion law is necessary to combat the emergence of a small number of radical Islamists on the western edge of the nation, which is 70 per cent Muslim. But critics say the government has always been hostile to any organised religion other than the Orthodox Christian Church and a handful of approved Muslim organisations.

Born in the chaos of the Soviet Union's collapse, Kazakhstan sits on the northern edge of one of the most autocratic regions in the world. In contrast to its neighbours – in particular Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan – it is a business friendly country that has welcomed international investment it its huge oil and gas resources. The country's rich elite has swollen in cities like Astana and the former capital Almaty, where Range Rovers fill the streets. This new Kazakh elite also has an increasing presence in London, not least through Prince Andrew, who counts the glamorous energy tycoon Goga Ashkenazi among his friends.

But many Kazakhs complain that they see little of this elite's newfound wealth in a country that has been condemned for its endemic corruption and lack of democratic progress. An ongoing strike in western Kazakhstan has seen thousands of workers at oil and gas facilities demand better conditions.

The state has responded with arrests and beatings. Natalia Sokolova, a lawyer who represented the striking workers, was recently sent to prison for six years for "inciting social disorder". A number of key activists have been shot with rubber bullets by unknown assailants.

According to one presidential advisor, Mr Blair has been hired to consult on "the question of social-economic modernisation" of Kazakhstan. He and potential investors will no doubt keep a close eye on the strikes if they spread.

There was no response from the former prime minister's spokesman, Matthew Doyle, who was asked to comment on whether Mr Blair was concerned about religious repression inside Kazakhstan and whether he would use his advisory role with the Kazakh government to promote democratic reforms. Mr Blair has previously released statements stating that although he has helped "put together a team of international advisers" in Kazakhstan, neither Tony Blair Associates nor Mr Blair personally are profiting from the deal.

Tony's cronies: the Blair network

Kazakhstan

The details of Mr Blair's consultancy work in Kazakhstan are shrouded in mystery. In statements released to the media Mr Blair has said he has "put together a team of international advisers" in Kazakhstan but insists neither he nor Tony Blair Associates are making a profit. Mr Nazarbayev's top presidential adviser, Yermukhamet Yertysbayev, said Mr Blair would work on "the question of social-economic modernisation of Kazakhstan". Relations between Britain and Kazakhstan are booming and the country's new wealthy elite, which includes the oil tycoon Goga Ashkenazi,below, are making London their second home.

 

Kuwait

Tony Blair Associates has a contract to provide advice on governance for "several years". The tiny oil-rich Gulf country was the first client of Mr Blair's consultancy business and the Emir, Sheikh Sabah al-Sabah, counts himself a close friend of the former British prime minister. Mr Blair became popular there after he backed the removal of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and the invasion of Iraq.

United Arab Emirates

Mr Blair has fostered a range of business interests in the Gulf kingdoms including acting as an adviser for Mubadala, the sovereign wealth fund which invests Abu Dhabi's oil profits. Mubadala's interests included oil exploration contracts in Libya.

 

Libya

During his time in office Mr Blair – alongside MI6 and Foreign Office staff – was instrumental in bringing Colonel Gaddafi in from the cold. Following his departure from Downing Street he made a number of trips to Tripoli. Critics have accused him of visiting Libya to promote the business interests of JP Morgan, which hired Mr Blair as a consultant. Mr Blair has firmly denied this and said his trips to Libya were part of his ongoing initiative to improve governance in Africa. Documents uncovered in Tripoli after Gaddafi's fall show how Mr Blair flew in the Colonel's private jet twice to Tripoli, in June 2008 and April 2009. At the time Gaddafi was threatening to withdraw his country's business interests in Britain unless the Lockerbie bomber Abdelbasset al-Megrahi was released.

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Compensation and Benefits Manager - Brentwood - Circa £60,000

£60000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Compensation and Benefits Manager - Compensat...

Finance Manager - Recruitment Business (Media & Entertainment)

£28000 - £35000 per annum + negotiable: Sauce Recruitment: We have an exciting...

HR Advisor - North London / North West London

£30000 - £35000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Advisor - North London...

Finance Manager - Recruitment Business (Media & Entertainment)

£28000 - £32000 per annum + negotiable: Sauce Recruitment: We have an exciting...

Day In a Page

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker