From golden handprints of the president to the scene of a massacre, in Kazakhstan Ben Zand experiences the sinister and bizarre sides to living in a dictatorship.
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What do all these very average-looking men have in common?
That's right - they're all dictators.
And that means they love power,
they hate journalists like me
and they are, quite frankly, ridiculous.
I'm on a journey to three former Soviet Union countries
to find out what makes some of the world's most powerful tyrants tick,
and to see the good,
the bad, and the completely mental about living under a dictatorship.
This programme contains some scenes which some viewers may find upsetting.
This time, Kazakhstan - a massive country in Central Asia.
I was starting my journey in icy Astana.
Just arrived, it's seven o'clock in the morning,
and it's about ten times colder than I imagined.
It's minus 16 degrees.
Everything around me is frozen,
including my nose, which is quite an achievement,
cos I have quite a large nose.
Getting into these countries is hard,
so we told the authorities we were making a travel programme,
and none of the interviewees would know
it was actually a series about dictatorships,
for their safety and mine.
Nursultan Nazarbayev has been president of Kazakhstan since 1991.
The funny thing about him is that almost everyone seems to like him,
from the Queen to President Obama to Vladimir Putin of Russia.
Tony Blair even worked for him.
And as far as dictators go, he does look kind of cute.
And yet his government doesn't seem to mind killing people too much.
So how does he manage to be a popular dictator?
I've come to Kazakhstan's capital city to find out.
So I've actually been to Kazakhstan quite a few times,
but I've never been to Astana.
It was created about 20 years ago by the president himself.
He decided he wanted a new capital so he just created this place.
So, to see more of it, I'm going to take a tour bus -
probably the world's coldest one.
In 1997 Nazarbayev, or Naz to his mates,
decided he wanted a glitzy capital -
one that would fit his status
as leader of the world's ninth biggest country.
Before Naz built the city here, there was nothing,
just empty Kazakh grasslands.
Some impressive architecture, that's for sure.
I feel a bit like I'm in the year 3000, being in Astana.
Why are the buildings so crazy, like this one?
Kazakhstan has masses of oil and gas.
It's helped to pay for this place and also explains why Nazarbayev
is so popular.
If the people are reasonably well off,
they're much less likely to hate you.
So the president and his policies are, in effect, an aphrodisiac?
You heard it here first.
If you're hoping to get lucky in the bedroom,
ditch the oysters and strawberries and go for a little bit of Naz.
To continue my tour of the city,
I was heading up Kazakhstan's most iconic building, the Bayterek Tower.
Wow, this is massive, this place.
I am excited.
-Nice to meet you. I'm Ben.
-Nice to meet you, welcome.
The height is 97 metres.
It symbolises the year 1997
when Astana became the new capital of Kazakhstan.
Yes, we have the hand print of our president.
People put their hands into his hands, symbolically.
What do I achieve if I do this?
It's good luck.
You look to the President's Palace, you say hello to the president.
So it's kind of like high-fiving the president.
-Has he literally touched this himself?
He was coming here.
So it's quite a privilege.
You make a wish and it will come true.
TRIUMPHANT MUSIC PLAYS
What is going on?
Wow! MUSIC CONTINUES
Oh, it doesn't stop. It won't stop.
That was impressive.
I feel like...
I made a wish that I could one day also be the president of Kazakhstan.
I needed to be careful what I said.
I'd suddenly noticed someone keeping an eye on me.
OK, so I'm pointing out the window right now to make sure that the guy
behind me with the blue suit doesn't think I'm talking about him.
He's a government minder and he's just shown up
out of the blue, to basically check on what were doing.
He hasn't stopped us yet,
but that's cos we're not doing anything too controversial, yet.
But it is a bit unsettling.
I had to be careful, as Nazarbayev has made it illegal to criticise him
under threat of five years in jail.
One of the biggest criticisms has been
the extent to which he's enriched himself at Kazakhstan's expense.
A few years ago,
when a newspaper claimed he'd stolen the country's oil money,
journalists found a decapitated dog outside their offices,
with a warning that this was their last chance.
All right. So I'm getting on an overnight train to Almaty,
which is the biggest city in Kazakhstan.
It used to be the capital before Astana.
It's about ten hours away.
I'm going to see how the real people live,
if I can get there.
This is the world's longest train, this.
Looks pretty nice, to be honest.
Oh, they check your passport as you go in.
Hello. You have very nice eyes.
-So I have to go left?
-All right, thank you very much.
And we're off.
11 hours and a rough sleep later and I arrived.
Let's see Almaty.
No, thank you, my friend.
With a population of almost two million,
Almaty is far and away Kazakhstan's biggest city.
I wanted to see if I could find some signs of opposition
to Nazarbayev's rule.
I knew it existed, thanks to an incident five years ago
in Zhanaozen, in the far west of the country.
State oil workers had spent months striking for better pay.
Tensions rose on Independence Day,
and culminated in 16 workers being gunned down
and killed by the police.
Dozens more were injured.
I was in Almaty for the 25th anniversary of independence,
which was also the fifth anniversary of the Zhanaozen massacre.
I'm told Independence Day is a pretty big day here,
but it's also a day that quite a lot of dissent happens.
It's one of the rare moments that people actually take to the streets
to protest the government, and good old Naz himself.
So I was hoping to stick around and see some of it.
But it turns out the local authorities have found out
we are in town, and they have very different plans.
They're literally forcing me out of here.
They've booked me a minibus to go on a really random trip -
to a ski resort, to see the mountains,
which I don't necessarily want to do but I really have no choice
in the matter whatsoever.
The bus was waiting for me,
ready to escort me to the mountains.
How long is the trip?
-30, 40 minutes.
-30, 40... OK, that's not too bad.
Take a little cheeky nap.
My abduction had begun.
First stop was an ice rink called Medeu.
Someone from the Almaty mayor's office had turned up
to tell me just how great it was.
So I will just name a few facts about Medeu.
-You know, like, interesting facts.
-Go for it. Hit me with the facts.
OK. So Medeu is the world's highest ice-skating rink.
Each year around 350,000 people come to skate in Medeu.
And Medeu has the world's fastest ice.
This was a new form of dictator torture -
death by a thousand facts.
So now we are about to experience
the longest distance between two stands
-for a cable car.
We headed further up the mountain,
and further away from the protest and dissent
I'd been hoping to see in Almaty.
So, yeah, the day of randomness continues.
I'm now heading up to the top of the mountain.
In the cable car behind me is a big group of Almaty's finest,
most successful youngsters,
who've also been forced to spend a day here
to try and sell the idea of Kazakhstan to me.
How did you end up with us today?
When people asked me I said, of course, yes,
I want to share my gratitude to the country.
How would you sell Kazakhstan to me?
We are in the middle of Central Asia, with beautiful landscape.
I'm the only person up here who's not got skis,
which adds to the pointlessness of it all.
We are really lucky that we have such a president.
It's easy to be sceptical about all the Naz-love,
but at the last election
the president got a whopping 97.7% of the vote.
That might seem like a bit of dictator vote-rigging,
but independent polling's confirmed his overwhelming support,
thanks, partly, to his repression of the opposition
and control of the media.
So, while I've been stuck here all day with these guys,
exactly what I thought was going to happen has happened,
and that's that there was a reasonably big military parade
that's happened in the centre of Almaty,
because it's the 25th year of independence.
And there's reports online of dissidents having police cars
parked outside of their houses
to make sure they don't cause any trouble.
We were experiencing more interference
from the authorities in Kazakhstan than I'd expected.
But, despite their best efforts to keep an eye on me,
back in Almaty I managed to sneak off.
I'm on my way right now to a dissidents' meeting.
We're being told that it's probably being watched by the secret service.
Could even be bugged.
It's the world's smallest room but it seems pretty busy.
The meeting was being held to raise awareness about two dissidents
who were recently sent to jail for five years for organising protests.
But in amongst the dissidents were a couple of people
who seemed out of place.
These two guys, down the end of the corridor,
I'm pretty sure are members of the secret service.
Once we walked near to them they just walked away,
walked down the corridor.
And they were making a lot of phone calls and taking a lot of pictures.
So there clearly is an opposition movement here.
One of the main guys who organised that has agreed to meet me now,
to tell me a bit more about life in Kazakhstan
when you're not so pro-Nazarbayev.
-Hey, nice to meet you.
-Nice to meet you too.
Zhanbolat Mamay runs one of the few remaining independent newspapers
He's been sued three times by pro-government organisations
in an effort to shut down his paper, and he's also spent time in prison.
Despite the government's efforts to silence him,
he'd agreed to talk openly with me.
At your event today I was pretty certain
that I saw two guys from the secret service.
Is that something that you're used to now?
-Is that a kind of daily part your life?
-Yes, of course.
Every political activist in Kazakhstan is living under threat,
because you do not know when you will be jailed,
because you do not know when you will be convicted of some crime
that you didn't commit.
Give me a sense of the kind of personal freedom
you have here to protest.
If I was to go outside the Presidential Palace
with a sign saying "Down with Nazarbayev"...
You will be jailed for maybe three or four years, I think.
Why do you think they don't just kill you to shut you up?
They can kill.
The regime can kill everybody if they think that the person
is dangerous for their safety.
For example, two prominent politicians were killed
and some prominent journalists were killed.
The regime denies involvement in the killings,
but they can't deny the fact
that five years ago the striking oil workers were shot in Zhanaozen.
I'd heard the city was no longer very keen on Nazarbayev.
So would you say then that Zhanaozen is a good place to go
to get a sense of this anti-establishment,
Yes. Yes, I think so.
There is a strong anti-establishment mood there, in this city.
But you must be ready that you will be,
that there will be secret service agents that will go after you.
-But it is very important, I think, to visit this city.
It is very important.
Seems like a good place to go next, then.
-Thanks for talking to me.
-Thank you very much.
-I appreciate it.
Zhanaozen is in the far west of the country,
near the Caspian Sea, almost 2,000 miles away from Almaty and Astana.
I was travelling with Asel,
a lawyer representing some of the families seeking justice
and compensation for the massacre.
So am I right in thinking that this is probably the last place
in the country that the government want me to go?
You've increased my nervousness levels by about 1,000,000%.
In Zhanaozen we headed for the central square,
where the strikers were based five years ago,
before their protest turned into a massacre.
Can't even imagine protesting in this, day in, day out.
It's absolutely freezing cold.
Asel had found a couple of young men from me talk to,
who were in Zhanaozen on the day of the massacre.
One of them was shot when he says he turned up at the square
to see what was happening.
What about yourself? What happened to you on that day?
You were actually arrested and, what, sent to jail,
even though you weren't even near here?
You actually served time in jail for this?
There are allegations that dozens of young men were rounded up
and tortured in the days after the massacre,
as the government tried to root out troublemakers.
Nazarbayev fired some people he held responsible,
but no police have ever been charged for the killings.
And, five years after the massacre,
the town is still under heavy surveillance.
So a police car has just arrived with a big van full of soldiers.
These guys supposedly come here to this day to monitor the city,
to make sure that nothing is happening.
It shows you just how sensitive it still is, five years on.
And also a little bit scary,
cos they definitely don't want us to be here,
as I've already said, so...
have to make sure that we don't get caught.
The police had pulled up just behind our van,
so we had to walk directly towards them.
Freaking Kazakhstan, always making us nervous.
Oh, my God, they've got police dogs.
This was a bad choice.
They're definitely going to see us.
There you go.
Let's go, Olly. Get in, get in, get in, get in...
We headed back to our hotel.
But we'd been spotted.
So, we finished filming about an hour ago.
I'm currently in the hotel room,
just jumped out of the shower and got this message from Maria,
the producer - probably the most terrifying message
I've received in a long time, saying
"Olly and Ben, go to your room and stay there.
"The police are here looking for foreigners."
Which can only be us.
And it just shows you how serious this is.
I can't... I don't know what they'll do if they'll find us,
and I can't believe that they're here.
But we're now all cowering in the hotel room.
The night is most definitely ruined.
Hopefully nothing else comes from it.
But we are trapped.
After a sleepless night, we left town early,
before the police came back for us.
Yeah, let's hope for the best.
So it seems like we have, hopefully, made it out now.
But I honestly can't believe that five years on...
..we'd still get that much attention from the police, just doing a story.
You do this all the time.
I mean, you must have had that on a whole different scale.
When you say that they were getting into your private life,
what were they actually doing?
They actually hired somebody just to start a relationship with you...
..just to get a video to put online?
I couldn't imagine living in a country where your own government
would film you having sex and then put it online
in order to silence you.
We're now on our way to the airport,
which we're all extremely happy about.
This has been my third trip to Kazakhstan.
The first two times were honestly quite nice.
It's a very beautiful country.
It's full of very nice people.
This time, though, it's been a very different experience.
It's clear that there's a line here
that if you stay on the right side of
you can have a very nice life.
But if you cross it,
the lengths that the government are prepared to go
to shut you up are quite terrifying.
And the fact that there's only one man in charge here and, basically,
no opposition whatsoever means that if you do find yourself in trouble,
you are on your own.
In this episode, Ben Zand travels to Kazakhstan to experience the sinister and at times bizarre side to living in a dictatorship.
Beginning his journey in the capital city Astana, he finds a wealthy country. In the Bayterek Tower - the national symbol of Kazakhstan - Ben places his hand in a golden handprint of the president, where he's told he can make a wish. But he also finds that he's being quietly accompanied by a minder to keep an eye on him.
Deciding to get out of town, Ben takes the overnight train across the country to Kazakhstan's largest city, Almaty. It's Independence Day, celebrating 25 years since the end of Soviet rule, so Ben is keen to see some of the festivities.
But instead, because the government is nervous of protests, Ben is hurried out of town by the local mayor's office, and forced to spend the day being shown round a nearby ski resort where his minders provide him with fascinating facts on the size of the ski lift and the speed of the ice. It's a fun day out, but it isn't really what Ben had in mind. So to try and find out more about the other side of life here, Ben goes to a dissidents' gathering where he meets Zhanbolat Mamay, who runs one of the few remaining independent newspapers in Kazakhstan.
Zhanbolat explains the fear that he lives in, and how journalists and politicians have reason to be scared for their lives. He recommends that Ben travels to the west of Kazakhstan, and a town called Zhanaozen, if he wants to get a real sense of the anti-government sentiment in the country.
Ben travels to Zhanaozen with a lawyer called Asel, who has spent years fighting for compensation for residents in Zhanaozen, many of whom lost friends and relatives, and many others of whom were injured, when the local police massacred 16 striking oil workers in 2011.
Asel takes Ben to meet two victims of the massacre. But as the sun sets, heavily armed police flock onto the streets - even five years after the massacre, the town is still more or less under curfew. When Ben gets back to his hotel, he's terrified to discover that the secret police are looking for him. It's a scary end to a journey in a country where the government still seems to have a lot to hide.