Natalie Thomas is a Geopolitical Consultant, specialising in risk, strategy and corporate intelligence. She is also the former head of risk analysis at G4S Risk Consulting.
Recent events across the world, from the Paris attacks to the Beirut and Baghdad bombings, show the need to build a broad international coalition to tackle threats to our security.
We need reliable partners with the ability, but most importantly the will, to stand shoulder to shoulder with Britain in what will be a lengthy battle. But we must choose our partners carefully, in both security and commercial objectives.
Too often, we have failed to seriously question those regimes we choose to work with; regimes which remain at odds with the values of this party and country. After all, he who sups with the devil should sup with a long spoon.
All healthy and robust relationships need honesty at their hearts and this applies as much to geopolitical relationships as human ones.
This includes the ability to speak frankly to our international partners about fundamental democratic failings, encouraging change and resisting the temptation to proceed with only a short-term outlook.
Security is now at the forefront of the debate as Britain, and it’s long-term allies, seek stable partners to stem potential terror threats.
Kazakhstan, for example, offers one of the most stable environments in a challenging region, but this is built off the back of being one of Central Asia’s most repressive regimes.
The country is ruled by former Communist Party leader Nursultan Nazarbayev, who has won every single post-Soviet election by implausibly high margins, usually over 95 per cent. As recently as April, he claimed nearly 98 per cent of the vote in a hastily brought forward election.
Nazarbayev is the Kazakh state. He relies on a powerful web of patronage and virtually total control over all three branches of government, dictating policy and commercial conditions.
Under his autocratic government freedom of movement, association, and the right of assembly are all restricted in Kazakhstan.
A lack of independent media curtails the freedom of expression, with defamation of President Nazarbayev a criminal offence. Religion is treated with suspicion and censorship is widespread, with further draconian legislation implemented last year.
The state security apparatus is too often directed at regime critics and dissidents, rather than elements which could pose a threat to international security. These issues also raise problematic moral, ethical and reputational questions for those seeking to partner with Kazakhstan.
Commercial opportunities are also rightly considered when engaging with international partners. However, opportunism overseas should never be at the price of our values.
Yet the Kazakh regime continues to use the lure of its substantial natural resources to court powerful international advisors and foreign investment.
Tony Blair, Romano Prodi and Gerhard Schröder are just some of Kazakhstan’s cheerleaders, lending Nazarbayev a veneer of respectability, yet all believed to be handsomely rewarded. If they are supping with the devil, their spoons are made of silver.
Corruption is endemic within Kazakhstan’s intertwined political and commercial environments, where doing business requires connections to those wielding power. Contrary to Nazarbayev’s recent promises, many of the planned reforms to tackle corruption have been kicked into the long grass.
Despite a facade of change, the Kazakh regime is still not so far removed from its Soviet predecessor or Russian contemporary: rife with political risk and with serious democratic and economic failings.
This is not a partner we can yet rely on, but it is one in a phase where the right type of engagement could result in longer-term progress. But talk of a partnership with the UK is secondary to Kazakhstan’s real interest in playing two sides of the fence.
Firmly within the Russian sphere of influence – including as the base for all Russian space missions – following Putin’s expansionism in Ukraine, Nazarbayev is fearful of similar encroachments in a country which is also home to a sizeable ethnic Russian contingent.
Kazakhstan may be looking to broaden its partnerships with Europe and China, but a shared history, necessity, and cultural and economic ties mean the alliance with a fickle Moscow runs deeper.
Yes, engagement is needed to try and steer such regimes towards a more open and democratic system, where British businesses can prosper in new frontier markets and we can rely on security partnerships, but it is fraught with dangers. We have seen this type of diplomacy, often tied to commercial deals, in action in Burma, with growing success.
Yet in Saudi Arabia we have also seen the danger of an unquestioning partnership with a state that fails to espouse the same type of conservative, or even universal, values as us.
From liberty to the rule of law or free markets, it is more difficult to effect change when you’ve supped with the devil for too long, and if we have to then it should be with a very long spoon, preferably feeding on the soup of conservatism.