Political extremes embrace in Kazakhstan
A media industry conference in Central Asia gives a platform to Steve Bannon and George Galloway. They use it to find common ground
- Text by Matthew Janney
- Almaty, Kazakhstan
Bannon has just spent another day presenting himself as the liberator of the “little guy” and is sitting pleased. He is wearing sturdy brown hiking boots, beige chinos and his trademark two button-up black shirts — “an old prep school habit”, he reveals. His message — like his attire — is full of contradictions, and although clear, clashes with our opulent surroundings.
We are sitting on plush cream leather armchairs on the 26th floor of one of the swankiest hotels in Kazakhstan, a Central Asian country marinated in oil and corruption. A huge flat-screen TV shimmers behind him. Two books, Bully of Asia: Why China’s Dream is the New Threat to World Order by Steven W. Mosher and French Revolution by Ian Davidson are out on an adjacent desk. Revolution is very much on Bannon’s mind, and he says it’s inevitable. He predicts — for the most part correctly — a victory of the far-right in the European elections already underway.
“Literally by Sunday night or Monday, you could have Farage, Salvini, Le Pen heading the three largest individual nation groupings in the European Parliament,” Bannon says. “It is so sweeping what’s happened in two years, that it’s stunning.”
As anticipated, the 2019 EU elections saw far-right and far-left parties making big gains across Europe, in what was the highest voter turnout in 20 years. For the first time in 40 years, the EU’s centrist coalition of the European People’s Party and the Socialists and Democrats lost its majority in Brussels, with pro-EU parties now holding a fragmented majority over eurosceptics. On the far-left, Europe’s Greens increased their number of seats from 51 to 69, thanks to healthy support in western and northern Europe, with Green parties finishing second in Finland and Germany. Meanwhile, Farage’s Brexit Party in Britain and Salvini’s Northern League in Italy scored sizeable wins with 32% and 34% of the vote respectively, while in France Marine Le Pen’s far-right party National Rally pipped Macron’s En Marche by less than 1%.
Bannon puts this increased support for populist parties in Europe down to frustration and fatigue with the establishment, or what he calls the “party of Davos”, one of his many bumper sticker refrains. “These people are globalists,” he adds, “more comfortable going to Paris or Milan or to Shanghai, hanging out with their friends in the Hamptons than they are going to Ohio or Michigan.” He is a slogan savant, adept in creating a language of ‘us and them’ that was so effective in the Trump campaign. He had just feasted on a four-course lunch with the daughter of former President Nazarbayev, and a select group of guests on the top floor of the Ritz-Carlton hotel. While Bannon speaks eloquently about pursuing an agenda of anti-elite economic nationalism for the sake of the “little guy”, he struggles to acknowledge the elite world in which he dwells.
The Ritz-Carlton hotel — where the Eurasia Media Forum was taking place — is a thirty-story glass building that looks over the city of Almaty and across to the Zailiyskiy Alatau mountain range. From its summit you can see the chaos of cars on its main highway, as well as a Huawei logo on the roof of a nearby office building; the story of Trump’s decision to ban Huawei in the US is being keenly discussed among the forum’s delegates. Now in its sixteenth year, the Eurasia Media Forum is one of Kazakhstan’s blockbuster events primarily used to assert itself on the world stage. Inviting politicians, business experts, and journalists to discuss global issues, it’s equally a chance for Kazakhstan — a country still recovering from the collapse of the Soviet Union — to strategically market itself as a potential broker in East-West relations.
Bannon flew into Almaty from Paris, where he had been busy meeting far-right leaders ahead of the EU elections in a bid to unite Europe’s nationalist parties. Flanked by his press secretary and security guard, Bannon looked tired, his eyes bloodshot and watery. He opened his panel with a damning account of the “post-war liberal rules-based order”, a simplified and compelling history of globalization’s failures of the last few decades. Up with populist nationalism and down with globalism.
Sitting stage-right was George Galloway, the controversial former British MP and prolific anti-war activist. A fierce critic of Britain’s involvement in the war in Iraq, Galloway was expelled from the Labour Party in 2003 for bringing the party into disrepute. Following two terms as an MP for the far-left Respect Party, an appearance on Celebrity Big Brother and an abysmal London mayoral campaign in 2016, Galloway has largely fallen under the political radar, considered more provocateur than politician. In a tweet, Galloway announced he was “off to fight Steve Bannon at the Eurasian Media Forum.” What ensued, however, was not the verbal boxing match he had promised, but something quite different.
“I’m a working-class man from the same ethnoreligious background as Steve Bannon,” said Galloway, in a gesture of affinity. Bannon nodded and smiled as Galloway soliloquized in defense of the working class. As the debate continued their language became increasingly similar, in the way that a couple might speak a shared vernacular at a dinner party. Rolling his R’s and sharpening his T’s, Galloway talked about people living in the “rust belt” of England, Wales, and Scotland, as if seeking Bannon’s approval with a term that distinctly refers to the American midwest and is rarely used in Great Britain. They both spoke of limiting power at the “nation-state level”. It was a synchronized waltz, riffing off their unexpected alliance against the global elites.
Leading the defense of the globalists were Benita Ferrero-Waldner, Austria’s former secretary of state and Mark A. Siegel, a former deputy assistant to President Carter. They spoke of reform not revolution, criticized the populists for trying to “break down” democracy, and warned of the “rule of the jungle” if nationalism spread throughout Europe. Against Bannon and Galloway’s triumphant fanfares, their diplomatic pleas seemed stagnant and labored. At one point, Ferrero-Waldner had to remind Galloway not to shout.
At a lunch following the panel, news of Theresa May’s resignation flooded in. My colleague witnessed Bannon and Galloway embracing, as if claiming a shared victory. During their elaborate meal at Almaty’s most luxurious hotel, Galloway stood up six times and walk around the table to show Bannon something on his smartphone. During the interview later, Bannon is dismissive of Galloway: “I didn’t like some of his anti-Americanism,” he tells us.
It’s a question about Russia that leaves Bannon stumped, the only noise in the room now the soft snoring of his press secretary who has succumbed to jetlag. “[Russia] is a kleptocracy, run by bad guys with a lot of weapons,” he admits reluctantly. “I do think that they respect what Putin has done in some of these issues like embracing some of the more traditional values of the Judeo-Christian West.” Bannon refuses to engage with questions about Russian support for Europe’s far-right, including Le Pen’s loan from a Kremlin-linked bank, pushing to discuss “brother Macron’s financing” instead.
Bannon says his nationalist agenda is global, taking him beyond Europe to Central America, Japan and now Kazakhstan. Since Nursultan Nazarbayev’s announcement that he would step down as Kazakhstan’s authoritarian leader, after nearly 30 years as president, the country has seen a worsening of media freedoms as pro-democracy protests have increased in the run-up to the election. “During public protests we’ve seen blocking of the internet, we’ve seen blocking of certain websites and we’ve seen disruptions to 3G and 4G coverage,” says Joanna Lillis, author of Dark Shadows: Inside the Secret World of Kazakhstan. “We’ve really seen what was already a very embattled situation deteriorate markedly.” In 2019, Kazakhstan came 158th out of 180 countries on the World Press Freedom Index published by Reporters Without Borders.
These issues barely come up in a flurry of soft interviews with Kazakhstan journalists that follow his panel. Bannon showers them with flattery, telling a Kazakh TV presenter that “he is better than any journalist in New York” and commends the gender balance of his pop-up press conference. “One thing I’m most enthusiastic about,” Bannon says, is “how many young women journalists are here. If I was in the White House 75 percent would be men. I can go back to America and tell people, they’re all killer journalists and they’re all female.”
Bannon seems disinterested in answering the charge that his presence in kleptocratic Kazakhstan might be contradictory, given his supposed concern for the “little guy”. “[Nazarbayev] is an international hero,” he says about the recently resigned dictator. “He has done things that have been monumental in human history.” We press him with specific stories of corruption and inequality among the Kazakh people, he responds: “you guys have your heads up your asses.”
We finish by discussing the academy Bannon is building in the Trisulti Monastery in Rome, what he’s hoping to turn into a “cadre” and media training center for the far-right. “I’ve taken the model from Soros,” he says. “I disagree with Soros’ ideology, but I admire the way he’s done it.” He talks about the components of the self-funded academy but seems more enthralled by the media attention it has garnered in a matter of months. “Of all the stuff I do, from China to everything: Trump, The Movement, everything I do, if you add it up and doubled it, that’s only half the stuff I get — this academy has got the guys in full meltdown,” he exclaims.
Bannon’s grand ambitions for his academy are not widely viewed as plausible. According to Le Pen, Bannon — who was last week staying in an €8,000 per night suite in Paris’s plush Bristol Hotel — had no role in her recent EU election campaign. His political influence in Europe has not matched his loud media splash; Farage ignored his advice against setting up the Brexit Party that went on to dominate the EU elections in Britain, while a senior official in Salvini’s party Northern League, told Politico Europe “Bannon was not on the radar”. If his influence in Europe is under question, the purpose of his European project is not — it is the logical sequel to his work in the Trump White House promoting his agenda of economic nationalism and the destruction of the administration state. What was more perplexing, however, was his presence in Kazakhstan.
When pictures of Galloway and Bannon’s embrace circulated on Twitter, the familiar responses rained in noting the former Trump adviser’s “fall from grace”. Was his sojourn in Kazakhstan the political equivalent of a has-been rockstar on a stadium tour in oil-rich states? His press secretary was vague about their next stop, admitting things were fluid. Whether it’s back to the Hotel Bristol in Paris or a Ritz-Carlton somewhere else, there’ll be private jets, cameras, attention, as his fight for the “little guy” rolls on.
Additional reporting by Natalia Antelava.