The Last Dictators? Kazakhstan and Algeria Enter New Eras

The reigns of two long-standing dictators are, in theory, at an end. Nursultan Nazarbayev has stepped down as President of Kazakhstan having led the country since the dying days of communism in the late 1980s. In Algeria, meanwhile, the ailing and reclusive Abdelaziz Bouteflika has abandoned attempts to serve a fifth term as president after protesters took to the street to oppose him.

Algeria has been rocked by street protests in recent weeks

Both departures – should they be realised – will mark a major turning point in each country’s history and, arguably, these two dictatorships were born out of a necessity that is no longer required.

Nazarbayev has overseen Kazakhstan’s development since the Soviet Union collapsed and, until his surprise resignation, was the only president his independent nation had known. Marshaling a vast, impoverished, country into the 21st century was no mean feat and relied as much on political repression and restriction of civil liberties as it did on profitable oil and gas exports.

Nazarbayev has been accused of fostering a personality cult

Bouteflika, on the other hand, was a seasoned campaigner in Algerian politics when he ascended to the premiership in 1999 in the latter stages of a bloody civil war. Having fought the French during their brutal final stand in the Algerian War (1954-1962) he negotiated an end to the most recent conflict – one that had killed more than 150,000 people – in 2002. Amending the constitution so that he would go on to serve an unprecedented four terms, Bouteflika has generally been successful at preserving a tenuous peace in a region plagued by domestic instability and transnational terrorist violence, aided too by vast natural gas reserves.

Both Kazakhstan and Algeria are deemed ‘not free’ by the Freedom House democracy index. In line with modernisation theory, political development is put on hold until economic prosperity creates a middle class eager for greater representation. For many people  in both nations, Nazarbayev and Bouteflika are the only political voices they have ever known.

Is the time for democratisation now? Kazakhstan’s economic growth rate has slumped from a +8% GDP increase in the years prior to 2013 to a comparatively measly 3.9% in 2017. Algeria was used to 4% growth rates in the post-civil war years but that has since decreased to just 1.4%.

With a younger generation struggling for jobs and perhaps less indebted to the enforced ‘stability’ provided by their dictatorial masters two to three decades ago, perhaps real political change is possible.

Even the tightly-policed Kazakhstan has seen popular protests in recent years as the economy has slumped

But – and there is always a but when it comes to authoritarian rule – slow degradation is far more likely than revolution. Nazarbayev, for instance, has not gone away. He has named his successor as president, elevated his eldest daughter to the second most powerful political position in the country, and been given the honorific ‘Leader of the Nation’. The capital Astana is even being renamed Nursultan! 

It is somewhat different in Algeria where Bouteflika has basically been incapacitated since suffering a stroke in 2013. He has barely been seen in public since and sends delegates to official meetings and international forums. That said, it is under Bouteflika’s watch that the shady ‘Le Pouvoir’ (‘The Power’) has gained increasing informal power. It is thought that a group of military officials, politicians from the ruling National Liberation Front, and wealthy businessmen influence all key government decisions. How much sway Bouteflika has, particularly in his fragile condition, is unclear.

Bouteflika has not spoken in public since 2014

Either way, the state in Kazakhstan and Algeria has been captured by nefarious elites that will persist beyond the reigns of their figureheads. How effective people power and civil society will be in drawing concessions from them remains to be seen.

In Kazakhstan, it will likely take the death of Nursultan Nazarbayev to see whether a challenge to his daughter,and by extension her father’s legacy, will materialise. In Algeria, Le Pouvoir is unlikely to let go whilst the true extent of its reach is unknown, or until a mobilised populace rises up to sweep it away.

In an era of seeming democratic retrenchment, don’t expect these hotbeds of authoritarianism to perish with their leaders.

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How Old is your Pub? Who cares, make sure it stays open!

Walking through the charming Cotswold village of Stow-on-the-Wold last weekend, I was struck by the bold statement on the sign of The Porch House pub. It read: ‘England’s Oldest Inn c.947AD’

I’ve been to Stow on numerous occasions over the years and had never noticed, let alone heard talk of, this claim. Rather disappointed – considering myself somewhat of an expert on the pubs of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire – I wandered on in search of an anodyne tea shop.

There are, of course, similarly triumphant proclamations across the country and the subtle differences between inns, pubs and ale houses all come into the mix.  Yet I had been convinced on travelling to Nottingham several years ago that I had ticked this particular task off my bucket list.

Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem is a pub that knows how to promote itself. Tourists, students and ale connoisseurs alike flock to its quaint frontage against the castle walls for a quick sup…or a quick selfie.  Its founding date is stated as 1189, somewhat coincidental given that this was the year of Richard I’s ascent to the British throne and the beginning of the Third Crusade.  Yet I too was on pilgrimage, thirst and historical intrigue quenched in one alcohol-soaked burst.

Since then I have come across other boozers that defiantly lay claim to an earlier establishment, not to mention the plethora of pubs claiming to be Britain’s ‘Most Haunted’!

But 947AD seems uniquely ancient.  Eadred was King of the English, a Hungarian army invaded Italy, and Al-Masudi completed his masterly The Meadows of Gold.  To think of wayfarers stumbling into a parochial medieval settlement and being greeted with a freshly-constructed tavern, and possibly a flagon of ale or two, is astonishing to say the least.

Eadred: a pioneer of the pub?

However much we may doubt the grandiose pronouncements of the British pub sign – archaeological and historical research rarely verifies them – they are demonstrable of the cultural importance such establishments have had, and continue to have, in the country.

The Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) regularly decries the decline of the old-fashioned pub in an era of inflated prices and fast food.  They are right to; every pub that perishes takes a bit of history with it.  There is nothing more fascinating than sitting in the dimly-lit corner of The Three Pigeons or The Eagle Tavern, or whatever your local might be, mulling over the day’s events or a contentious topic with a glass of beer in your hand.

All the while you are surrounded by the trinkets and bric-a-brac of yesteryear, which would otherwise be confined to an antiques shop or the dusty bottom draw of a former landlord.  Farming implements and silver goblets, extinct currency and brown-stained beer mats, photographs of country markets and horse-drawn wagons, advertisements of long-forgotten brands: ‘Yorkshire Relish: the most delicious sauce in the world’.

What’s not to like?

Britain needs these places, particularly in such days of uncertainty.  Yes many are becoming increasingly expensive, catering for the friendly but oblivious elite whose bottomless pockets and penchant for rural charm lure cash-strapped owners into desperate ‘rebranding’ schemes.  Yes many are chain-owned, their souls threatened with exorcism by standardised beer taps and menus.  Yes many could do with a lick of paint, a livelier ambience, a wider drinks selection.

But they are all unique, they all have stories to tell, and they all offer us a numbing place of refuge from the oft-painful tribulations of reality.

The Great British pub is one of a kind and, no matter its age, it is worth fighting for.

One for the road?