Most people in Mexico know very little about Kazakhstan.
In fact, most people in Mexico have never even heard of the former Soviet republic, and if they have, they probably don’t know how to find it on a map or spell its name.
But ever since Kazakh Foreign Minister Erlan Idrissov paid an official visit to Mexico back in 2014, the Enrique Peña Nieto administration has been cozying up to one of the most brutal and abusive dictatorships on Earth, consulting with the north central Asian nation’s oppressive leader, Nursultan Nazarbayev, who in his 25 years in power has fixed elections, imprisoned and murdered opponents, shut down opposition newspapers and siphoned vast wealth to his friends and family members.
In the last two years, the Mexican and Kazakh governments have consulted with one another on a number of global issues, including nuclear disarmament, climate change and the development of renewable energy sources.
And last June, Kazakh Ambassador to Mexico Andrian Yelemessov opened the north central Asian nation’s first resident embassy in Mexico City, with Mexican Foreign Relations (SRE) Undersecretary Carlos Alberto de Icaza González and a parade of other high-ranking Mexican officials graciously in tow.
While no date has been set for the establishment of a Mexican chancellery in Astana, inside sources at SRE say one is in the offing.
The two countries have also signed a reciprocal agreement abolishing visa requirements for official, service and diplomatic passport holders, and in May 2015, a Russian rocket carrying a Mexican satellite was launched from Kazakhstan. (It crashed minutes later due to technical problems.)
For the moment, combined bilateral trade is relatively low, amounting to about $76 million in 2015, according to Mexican government sources.
But there are signs that that figure could increase significantly in the near future.
During the opening ceremony at the embassy, Ambassador Yelemessov pointed out that Mexico is now Kazakhstan’s second-largest trade partner in Latin America, right after Brazil.
But before getting too chummy with Astana, the Mexican government should take a long, hard look at the country and its leader.
In terms of economic development, Nazarbayev has done fairly well for his fellow Kazakhs (and especially for himself and cohorts).
Kazakhstan today boasts the largest economy in Central Asia, and with enormous carbon-based energy and mineral reserves, the country has become a magnet for transnational investors who want to exploit its vast oil potential, many of which are willing to turn a blind eye to human rights abuses in exchange for a share of the petrol profits.
Kazakhstan is also now the world’s largest producers of uranium, the raw material for nuclear energy and nuclear weapons, which is another reason foreign powers are willing to overlook Nazarbayev’s brutal despotism.
But in the last few years, graft and financial malfeasance have taken a big bite out of Kazakhstan’s economic growth, which is expected to remain at zero for 2016, according to the World Bank.
And when it comes to democratic practices and respect for law and order, Nazarbayev gets a failing grade on all counts.
A recent U.S. State Department report detailed incidents of state-sanctioned torture, the muzzling of political opposition and religious freedom, arbitrary arrests and heavy media censorship.
It also all but declared Nazarbayev’s most recent re-election as a total fraud.
Late last June, Kazakhstan won a bid for a coveted spot on the 15-member United Nations Security Council for a two-year term starting Jan. 1, 2017, mainly because the United States and Europe see Astana as a key ally in the fight against terrorism.
Nazarbayev has seized the opportunity to cement his global position and further legitimize his authoritarian regime.
But while Nazarbayev is looking outward, social unrest inside Kazakhstan is mounting.
Last April, thousands of Kazakhs took to the streets to protest a series of proposed land reforms, and as the nation’s economy stagnates, anger is growing against Nazarbayev and his associates.
One of Kazakhstan’s few redeeming qualities in the past has been its political stability.
But seething social discontent in the country may soon explode into a full-out rebellion, leaving Nazarbayev looking for a place to take asylum.
Let us hope he does not seek it in Mexico.
Thérèse Margolis can be reached at [email protected]