No more than a 15-minute drive down the Kulzhinskaya Highway from the outskirts of Kazakhstan’s rapidly developing capital city is the village of Talapker, population “very small.” A quick left turn brings the car onto what appears to be the village’s main road, but a thick skin of snow makes it difficult to decipher path from grass. A couple of houses down is a small flesh-colored shop with the words, “Store Kerei” in Cyrillic letters painted across the front, above the barred windows and rickety blue door. Inside, a young clerk steps in through the back entrance. Standing amid the bread, milk, beer and Coca-Cola that line the shelves of any neighborhood convenience store in these parts, I ask him about life in the village. He laughs shyly and demurs, pointing me towards his home that stands a foot behind the shop.
I knock on the door of the small concrete block house, its chipped paint exaggerated against the fresh January snow. A burly Kazakh man with a friendly face reddened by the stinging wind appears. Akyn, the young clerk’s father, offers only his first name. At his feet, a dog helplessly jabs its tongue at a frozen bowl of water, a scene that seems to parallel Akyn’s own plight: someone having to make do in this harsh winter climate with limited resources.
Akyn’s “Store Kerei”
We are only seven and a half miles—12 kilometers—from Astana’s gleaming city center where Talapker’s cracked walls and empty main road would be notably out of place. The streets of the post-Soviet capital are being lined at remarkable speed with high-rise apartment complexes, futuristic office buildings, and Americanesque malls. A mini-Dubai, some have called it; others, Manhattan on the Steppe. Yet villagers like Akyn who live on the city’s outskirts without modern amenities seem to bear no resentment. They look proudly to Astana as a symbol of their young country’s success and growing prosperity.
“Why wouldn’t I like it?,” Akyn said. “It’s the place of my birth. Yeah, it’s our city: Astana.”
Kazakhstan is in the midst of an effort to reinvent its national identity in the global arena with Astana as its flashy centerpiece. The move from socialism to capitalism after seven decades of Soviet Communist control brings its own difficulties for a country trying to effect such a radical shift. A successful transformation requires a multi-dimensional approach, involving political will-power, the effective use of natural resources and deployment of human ingenuity. With government wealth and resources being poured most heavily into the presentation of the capital city as a progressive global metropolis, what becomes of the villages and towns the development plan is leaving behind?
With the world as its witness, the aim is for Kazakhstan’s success to illustrate the ability of a post-Soviet nation to move forward, to foster a unique national identity, and to compete among the world’s more powerful players.
On December 16, 1991, Kazakhstan declared its independence from the Soviet Union, making it the last of the 15 former republics to do so. In the 1920s, Soviet authorities attempted to dismantle the core of the country and its ethnic people. “A disaster, almost genocide,” Martha Brill Olcott, a Kazakhstan specialist, called it, with an estimated four million Kazakh deaths, about 25 to 40 percent1 of ethnic Kazakhs, between 1929 and 1933. In the same period of Soviet repression, the forced collectivization of agriculture led to the slaughter or starvation of four-fifths of the country’s livestock. Many wondered whether a nation that had been saturated in 70 years of Communist rule would be able to establish autonomy.
It was hard not to look to the fate of Tajikistan, Kazakhstan’s Central Asian neighbor, which also declared independence in 1991, a few months before Kazakhstan. Less than a year later, a bloody civil war broke out within the country, pitting opposition forces against government supporters. The fighting went on for six years, dominating politics and delaying implementation of “a serious and consistent economic strategy,” as explained in Richard Pomfret’s book, The Central Asian Economies Since Independence. The future of post-Soviet independence looked grim.
In Kazakhstan, the decade following independence was devoted to the first stage of nation-state building, which involved a deep commitment to erasing remnants of the country’s Soviet past. The government took symbolic actions such as renaming streets, public squares and buildings to honor historical heroes and political leaders.
Before Astana became Kazakhstan’s capital, the center of government was the southern Kazakh city of Almaty in the foothills of the Zailiyski Alatau mountain range. The decision to relocate the capital 605 miles to the north to Aqmola emerged from multiple considerations, among them a desire to shed the Soviet reminders of Almaty’s architecture and organization and to enable a new Kazakh urban population to flourish in the northern region of the country. As Edward Schatz of the University of Toronto contends in his paper on Kazakhstan’s capital relocation, “Capital relocation is one of the more innovative tools for building states and national identification.” Also, the location of Almaty amid the Zailiyski Alatau mountains blocked the possibility of further urban expansion and on top of that, the city lies within a zone of seismic activity that could mean disastrous earthquakes.
Yet, both international and domestic observers questioned the drastic $400 million move during what was a time of economic distress in the 1990s. President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s choice of location was a barren industrial steppe town layered with deteriorating infrastructure and overwhelmed by temperatures that dip during long, unforgiving winters, to as low as the negative 30s Fahrenheit. Since as early as the 19th century, Soviet authority and policy had influenced the ethnic makeup of this northern stretch of Kazakhstan, overwhelming the area with ethnic Russians. Even after the Soviet collapse, the population in Aqmola and the surrounding northern region was about 63 percent ethnic Russian. Thus, the government’s relocation decision was also a strategic means of reclaiming that territory, hoping that a new urban center would attract more ethnic Kazakhs to leave their rural homes for the opportunity it presented.
There are still remnants of the old Aqmola on the right side of the Esil River, where bleak blocs of housing complexes, coined “Khrushchevkas,” remain as a stark reminder of the years of Soviet control.
A khrushchevka standing on the right side of the river.
Yet a quick drive across a fluorescently lit bridge is a venture into a futuristic metropolitan utopia; a globally competitive center of commerce, entertainment and culture that dominates the Central Asian steppe. This was the personal vision of Nazarbayev, the only leader that this petrodollar-fueled country has known since its declaration of independence. For him, the offbeat town presented hope of new beginnings, weather notwithstanding. In this light, the city became the symbol of a newly independent post-Soviet nation and in 1998, “Astana,” the Kazakh word for “new capital,” became its fitting new name. In 16 short years, with its cutting-edge structures, Astana has matured into a fantastical destination that both adorns and overwhelms the surrounding steppe.
Yevgeniy Zhovtis is a Kazakhstan human rights activist who directs the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law. Astana makes him think Kafka. “When you are looking at the big buildings built by [British architect] Norman Foster or somebody else on the steppe and at the same time, looking at the small apartments where the ordinary people or you are going out of Astana and looking at the absolutely poor villages, it looks like Kafka,” he said. “You’re living in some kind of opposite world.”
A view of the Ak Orda Presidential Palace, the official workplace of the President.
On Astana’s main avenue is Bayterek Tower, designed by Nazarbayev himself. “Bayterek Tower” translates to “tall poplar tree” and was inspired by the Kazakh myth of a magic bird, Samruk, that laid a golden egg on the tree of life. The golden spherical structure rests atop a tower that is 106 yards or 97 meters in height, to represent the year 1997 when Astana became the country’s capital. It serves as an observation deck with views of the main avenue and the greater cityscape. From this perch, the Ak Orda Presidential Palace, the official workplace of the President, is in perfect view: a building, similar in style to the Capitol building in Washington D.C., with a blue and gold dome, topped with the sun and steppe eagle that adorn the Kazakh flag. Across the river from the Presidential Palace is the Palace of Peace and Reconciliation, a glass pyramid structure designed by Foster and Partners, conceived as a center for religious understanding and human equality. The four sides of the structure represent the world’s four main religions: Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Judaism. It is also the permanent venue for the Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions. At the other end of the main avenue stands the world’s tallest tent, the Khan Shatyr Entertainment Center, made of a transparent material suspended on web-like cables strung from a central spire. Inside are shopping and entertainment centers, a man-made river for boating, an amusement ride, and a mini golf and indoor beach resort within an area that stretches to the size of ten football stadiums.
“It’s a new capital and it looks like one,” said Carolyn Kissane, who teaches at New York University and directs its Center for Global Affairs. “It has definitely improved since my first visit in 1998 for the unveiling. The architecture reminds me of Dubai and the UAE—a bit showy but I think there’s intention for that. It’s not meant to be subtle.”
Astana’s main avenue with Baytarek Tower in the distance.
Although the capital still has its share of modest little convenience stores, some not so different from Akyn’s shop in Talapker, flashy malls have become a commercial and social staple. Images of New York City’s skyline decorate mall cafes that serve Caesar salads and Americanos. On a typical Friday night, teenagers swarm in to munch on KFC chicken sandwiches in a scene that could be plucked from any New Jersey food court.
For the capital’s overall design, the government staged a nationwide competition in the mid-1990s but then scrapped the winner’s neo-classical design and mounted a second contest soon after, this time international in scope. From a group of 27 competitors, Japanese architect Kisho Kurokawa prevailed. Among his previous commissions are the Van Gogh Museum’s exhibition wing in Amsterdam and Tokyo’s National Art Centre.
The decision to use an internationally known architect was “a marketing strategy, in my opinion,” said Kassym Ulykbanov, a Kazakh architect who divides his time between Astana and London. “A famous architect designing a master plan for a new capital will draw considerably more media coverage and attention than a local architect.”
Kurokawa’s vision, as Ulykbanov explains in a 2012 paper about Astana, was to present Astana as a place of “economic openness,” a post-Soviet capital with appeal to foreign audiences2. Kurokawa’s unique design included three main elements: “Metabolic City,” “Master System,” and “Symbiotic City” which together were meant to symbolize flexibility, adaptation, and function.
Nurmakhan Tokaev, who also played a significant role in the construction of the capital from the years 2000 to 2004, is a professor at the International Academy of Architecture in Bulgaria. He is also the chief architect of the new administrative center in Astana and a member of the International Academy of Architecture of the East. In an interview, Tokaev conveyed the importance of President Nazarbayev’s approval of any construction plan, and said that the leader’s vision “dictated the architecture in the city.”
“He has seen a lot of things--he goes there and he goes here,” Tokaev went on. “ . . . the President sees something abroad and says, I want the same stuff,” which has led to the capital’s eclectic mix of architectural styles and flavors.
Significant attention from western media outlets has followed, from big screen parodies to photo essays that document the capital’s innovative architecture. Sacha Baron Cohen’s 2006 comedy, “Borat,” fictionally portrayed the country as backward and ramshackle, while articles in prominent broadcasts and publications such as CNN World, The National Geographic and the New York Times, have focused on the country’s quirky major city under headlines such as, “Astana: The World’s Weirdest Capital City” and “Tomorrowland.”
The sun sets across the Palace of Peace and Reconciliation.
More international attention is sure to come in the lead up to the EXPO World’s Fair, which Astana will host in 2017, making it the first post-Soviet territory to mount an exhibition of this magnitude for global as well as national audiences. The exposition has as its central theme Future Energy or sustainable energy development. Organizers expect representatives from more than 100 countries worldwide although the majority of visitors, an estimated 85 percent, are likely to be domestic.
As the EXPO’s director of communications and marketing, Asel Kozhakova, put it: “Internationally, the goal is to speak of Astana and to put this city on the map.” The EXPO’s two key “communication stones,” she said, are entertainment and innovation. However, for the international visitors, there is a third element: the Kazakhstan experience.
“We are working closely with the Committee on Tourism,” Kozhakova said. “We are selling [the international visitors] the tourist packages,” that include the opportunity to venture 125 miles outside of the city to see attractions such as the picturesque Baravoy district. “By having EXPO in Kazakhstan,” she added, “we are also hoping not only to raise the image of Astana, [but] to have the tourists’ impact on that.”
At this point in our conversation, I couldn’t help but think about the villages on the outskirts of Astana, like Talapker, and how international tourists might view this still somewhat Borat-ian spectre after having experienced the gleam and glimmer of the capital’s city center.
Despite the obvious developmental disparities, Kozhakova thinks Kazakhstan has nothing to hide, nothing to brush under its exquisite Bukhara carpets. “Anybody, even if they don’t come to EXPO, they can visit both Astana and the suburbs, I mean, and the other regions,” Kozhakova said. “So it’s not a secret.”
Key in the facilitation of Kazakhstan’s rapid growth has been the country’s enormous wealth, bolstered by its rich oil production and direct foreign investment. Eurasia Review, an independent analytic journal, predicts that with the continued development of Kazakhstan’s massive oil fields, the country, currently the second largest oil producer among the former Soviet republics, will at least double its current production by 2019, driving it into the ranks of the world’s top five producers.
As measured in 2012, the country’s GDP per capita exceeds $12,000, the sixth highest value in Asia. Although not a direct measurement of standard of living, GDP per capita is used as an indicator with the assumption that all citizens benefit from increased economic production. However, GDP per capita, calculated by dividing the national output by the population, does not account for income disparities among various demographic and geographical groups.
In the past two decades, the gap in living standards has widened between the urban and rural populations, and rural dwellers account for some 45 percent of the general population. Results of a 2011 sociological self-assessment reveal that almost half of the urban households, or 38 percent, consider their conditions as “better than average,” but only six percent of rural households think their living conditions are “much better than average.”
A villager named Nursultan in the village of Zhibekzholy, only six miles from Astana’s city limits, complained to me about the painful mismatch of low income against the cost of basic goods. An average salary of a village resident is around the equivalent of $160 to $350 per month, with the cost of food comparable to prices in the United States3. The struggles to purchase even the essentials of bread, eggs, and milk leave villagers like Nursultan agonizing over his family’s immediate survival. Yet even he expressed hope for his country’s future more generally. “Everybody thinks about the present day because everyone has their own problems,” he said. “I think there is a bright future for Astana, but I hope Kazakhstan is waiting for a bright future as well.”
Suarev Kasera, an economist who has done research on Kazakhstan’s economic policies, now leads the development effort at Supersmelt, a privately held group involved in the manufacturing and trading of natural resources. His personal brief is global expansion, trading and risk management. In his view, the concentration of government spending in the capital reflects the government’s desire to “consolidate their power and support base.” Thinking rationally, he said, it would seem that the government should be spending much more in its densely populated poverty-stricken areas. However, he explained, “Kazakhstan is a little different because population is scattered—so poverty is scattered—therefore the government has no incentive to spend as it does not help them to consolidate their power base.
“The demographics of Kazakhstan,” he said, “provide a perfect setting for government as they are not scared much of any major uprising.”
His view was supported by Zhovtis, the best known of the country’s human rights activists. Just as in the Soviet-ruled days, he said, Kazakhstan “is still the country where the people are waiting for the state to do something.” He said people see the government as “something over us,” as something they can neither compete with nor challenge. “This is the public psychology,” he said, adding that prospects for ideas of reform to germinate at the grassroots level remain slim.
In the underdeveloped areas surrounding the capital, I got a strong sense of resignation from villagers like Alena, an ethnic Russian, who was born and reared in the village of Zhartyrkol, not far from Nursultan’s village, at a time when the area was flush with cattle farms. She has observed a decline in the village’s development in recent years. “Right now, everyone is sitting in their houses,” she said. “Mainly women sit in the houses, but men have jobs in the fields or they have to travel to Astana to work. There is almost no work here in the village.”
And yet, she is mindful of how much better things are since the end of the Soviet era. “Overall I am fine because there is no war,” Alena said. “I am happy about that. Even when I compare my life here to other places—they can’t even lift their heads. The children here are studying. People are more hospitable here.”
A western diplomat argued that the seeming complacency of villagers such as Akyn and Alena is a direct reflection of their painful memories of the 1990s, when the country experienced a precipitous economic decline following the declaration of independence. In 1995, real GDP dropped to 61.4 percent of its 1990 level and inflation climbed to an annual rate of up to 3,000 percent. “It’s not that there’s no poor people,” the diplomat said, “but I think people are comparing—well, it’s at least better than what we had before.”
Alena recalls that things were bad enough for her to consider leaving Kazakhstan altogether. But what stopped her were frequent visits to her sister in Russia. It made her realize the advantages of Kazakh life. “Even with business, it’s much better here,” she said. “Here, government allows you to develop your business but it’s a different situation in Russia. An average person cannot open a business in Russia . . . but here it’s fine.”
Many of the villagers I spoke with believed that development in the villages will come with time. After all, Rome wasn’t built in a day, or as Dinmuhammad, a Michurino village resident and university student, put it: “Moscow wasn’t built at once.”
However, as Zhovtis argues, the country’s relative youth is not enough of an excuse. He blames the nation’s political climate for its deficiencies, especially in the establishment of democratic ideals.
In 2010, Zhovtis was convicted of vehicular manslaughter and sentenced to four years imprisonment. At the time of the accident, the victim was walking along an unlit rural road. Zhovtis was neither speeding nor under the influence of any drugs or alcohol. According to The Huffington Post, the trial’s court judge “refused to allow [Zhovtis] to testify or to consider their evidence . . . In effect, the Kazakhstani system robbed [Zhovtis] of the right to defend himself,” the HuffPost said.
His clash with the Kazakh government does not seem to have interfered with his advocacy work for political rights and civic freedoms. Currently, the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law is managing a project that monitors the implementation of new legislation on religious association and activities as well as LGBT rights. Zhovtis grew up in a country first under Soviet control and then in transition to becoming an independent nation. When I asked him where Kazakhstan stands in terms of human rights now, he chuckled. “Very good question,” he said. “Somewhere between North Korea and Norway.”
As if to underscore his point, Human Rights Watch ranks Kazakhstan with a poor and deteriorating record on human rights, and cites “authorities cracking down on free speech and dissent through misuse of overly broad laws” and how commonplace torture is in sites of detention, despite a new law designed to prevent such actions. Other reports from the organization spotlight the violent December 2011 clashes between police and demonstrators, including striking oil workers, in the small town of Zhanaozen in western Kazakhstan. It resulted in the deaths of 16 people and numerous injuries. A criminal investigation of the incident brought about charges against five officers for use of lethal force to quell the mass unrest. However, the limited media coverage of the event and its aftermath has made it impossible to assess the extent of the allegations which include accounts of torture or other forms of ill-treatment.
Zhovtis points to the absence of an opposition in the Parliament and the lack of any major oppositional or independent media to support his contention that the country fails in its implementation of democratic rule. “It’s clear that it could not be done in one day or one night, but you have to accept the conceptual basis,” he said. “You have to accept the principles and we’re still not accepting the principles . . . It’s a question of political will.”
He presents recent history like this: Once the Soviet Union crumbled, the newly independent Kazakhstan transformed its economy into a market economy with the right to private property. An elite few, introduced to power during the Soviet days, controlled this privatization and then essentially divided the wealth among themselves and their associates rather than spreading the new opportunities among the population at large. Nazarbayev himself was Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party in Kazakhstan during the last few years of Soviet rule.
Nonetheless, many of the country’s citizens look up to their President as the honorable father of the nation. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, he has made strides in establishing inter-ethnic stability, economic development, and international legitimacy. At the time of independence, ethnic Kazakhs made up only about 44 percent of population, with the remainder consisting of 37 percent ethnic Russians nationwide and another 90 nationalities also widely dispersed throughout the country. Many doubted whether Kazakhstan would succeed as an independent nation, fearing that ethnic violence would surge across the territory. So far it has not. Yet in the view of Martha Brill Olcott, a leading expert on Kazakhstan, “unless prosperity eases tensions between Kazakhs and Russians, the outlook for long-term political stability in Kazakhstan is dim.”
The national government has taken action to alleviate these ethnic tensions. As far back as 1996, Nazarbayev introduced the 2030 strategy, which declared a commitment to equality among ethnicities. Evidence of its impact can be observed on any average day in Kazakhstan with, for example, the respect that’s been shown to the sizeable Russian minority. Although Kazakh is the state language, almost all Kazakhstanis speak Russian, which has equal official status. A typical street scene is two mothers, strollers in hand, conversing in Kazakh within earshot of a group of teenagers teasing each other in Russian slang.
The contrast in political and economic advancement between Kazakhstan and other post-Soviet nations also tells much of the Kazakhstani success story. Those on the borderlands of the European Union, such as Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova, exhibit the weakest economic figures of all post-Soviet regions, dwindling populations, and falling life expectancy rates. Moreover, Ukraine is in the midst of a political paralysis, split between the Russophone east and the nationalist west. In March of this year, Russian President Vladimir Putin, signed a treaty that finalized the annexation to Russia of the multi-ethnic Crimea region and its port city of Sevastopol after a tense standoff between the two countries that involved the operation of Russian troops in the region. The crisis as of this writing is deepening.
And yet a few countries to the east in Central Asia are among the most contented of the post-Soviet nations, according to the Happy Planet Index. Economically, both Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan have expanded their economies more than 400 percent since the Soviet collapse.
Part of Kazakhstan’s relative success in this post-Soviet atmosphere is its ability to attract foreign investment, from which the rapid development of Astana has so clearly benefited and powerfully demonstrates. Galymzhan Kirbassov, a Kazakh lecturer at Columbia University, sees Astana as a concrete representation of the country’s aspirations for a new national identity. “To support that identity,” Kirbassov said, “They need to show results—pure, physical results.” In addition, Kazakhstan has attracted $170 billion worth of Foreign Direct Investment since 2005, proving it to be one of the most attractive to foreign investors among all former Soviet nations.
One of many construction sites scattered across the city.
In a 2010 interview with Euronews, Nazarbayev acknowledged that Kazakhstan has further to go. “It happened in Russia, if you remember. Forty percent of the people were poor and unemployed, but everywhere there was a talk about democracy,” he said. “When our neighbors in Kyrgyzstan tried to establish complete freedom of democracy, it led to such cataclysms that they still can’t recover. We see this in Ukraine, we see this in Georgia. Our people see it. We say the economy first, then politics. We need to move gradually.”
Yet consider the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, which all have successfully transplanted the tall trees of democracy onto post-Soviet soil. These three are doing well economically also. Their success was best expressed by the former Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt. At a celebration of Estonia’s 20th anniversary of independence in Tallinn back in 2011, he remarked that 20 years ago, a person who could imagine these three countries as the “economic success stories in Europe . . . full members of NATO . . . full members of the European Union” would have been seen as “a fairly likely candidate for lunacy.”
Kanat Baigarin is the CEO of Nazarbayev University’s Research and Innovation System. He argues that although there are threads of corruption within Kazakhstan’s political framework, this is characteristic of a nation in transition. As new generations of leaders take their place within the country’s political structure, he said, Kazakhstan will begin to carve a path towards a more democratic, globally competitive future. “I think many developed countries, they did pass this [transition] period,” he said.
Baigarin believes that with the country’s focus on its energy sector, specifically on the implementation of alternative energy programs, Kazakhstan will be able to diversify its economy and achieve national and global progress, inclusive of the so far neglected rural populations. EXPO-2017, with its future energy theme, could allow for Kazakhstan to share its plans for a cleaner, more progressive economy, especially for a nation known for its oil reserves. As Kozhakova, the EXPO marketing director, said, “We want to be the leader, at least, in the Central Asia, showing that we are the first country that switched to the green economy.”
Currently, government officials and experts in Kazakhstan are discussing the strategy for 2050, which covers the issue of energy usage and production. Baigarin said the goal for 2050 is to produce 50 percent of the country’s consumption through alternative sources. The size of Kazakhstan and its windy climate provide an environment suitable for alternative energy, which he explained in an emailed message as “all types of energy resources which are [to] replace duty coal.”
With the installation of solar panels and wind mills at a local level, which generally require less maintenance than traditional generators, operation costs will be reduced. Moreover, an active renewable energy industry could mean more jobs when compared to fossil fuel technologies which are typically mechanized. In 2009, the Union of Concerned Scientists analyzed the economic benefits of a 25 percent renewable energy standard by 2025 in the United States. The union found that the policy “would create more than three times as many jobs as producing an equivalent amount of electricity from fossil fuels--resulting in a benefit of 202,000 new jobs in 2025.”
Baigarin also mentioned Parliament’s recent approval of a renewable energy law that requires that big energy-producing companies buy clean energy from smaller firms at a price that is two or three times higher than the price of conventional energy. This, otherwise known as a “feed-in” tariff, creates incentive to produce solar, wind, and other alternative energies. Depending on the source, the tariff can vary in profit compensation by two or three times. In other words, because solar energy is the most expensive to produce, the big companies are required to pay up about three-fold the price. Whereas wind energy will be compensated with about two-fold the price.
Baigarin believes that in producing clean energy internally, the nation’s capacity to export oil will also increase because less will be required to fill domestic demand. However, he argues that it will be difficult for Astana to transition to alternative energy as it is a major consumer of heating oil, especially during its brutal winters. So he sees promise in the rural populations in the city’s outskirts, whom he believes will maintain an important role in the country’s transition to alternative energy sources.
As of 2011, about 46 percent of Kazakhstan’s people lived in its rural areas. Baigarin thinks that these traditionally agrarian communities will be valuable to the future of the country based on his prediction that with time, the agricultural sector will flourish into one of the world’s largest markets. Therefore, easy access to alternative energy sources in these outskirt villages could act as incentive to disrupt rural to urban migration and encourage the exurban population to stay put.
The present rural and urban divide, as Narek Mkrtchyan argues in the December 2013 issue of the International Journal of Humanities and Social Science, is intermeshed with the question of identity. The creation of new urban areas, he contends, is “very crucial to examine not only that transformation of post-Soviet Kazakhstan’s economic institutions and infrastructure but also Kazakh identity.” Migration to the city creates new rules for the division of labor in a Kazakh population that historically existed alongside an agrarian lifestyle, he said. “The rural environment provided continuity of Kazakhs’ cultural traditions and ethnic identity.”
For his part, Baigarin believes that retaining agricultural skills in the villages should be a priority as it will also allow the nation’s economy to grow and for the political focus to spread further out into the rural areas. However, he believes it will take another generation or two for this to happen.
He does appear to be right. As of 2012, the average age in Astana was a mere 32. Young professionals continue to flock to the country’s capital in search of career opportunities.
“I think for a lot of people, like when you talk to young people about what they want, people see a lot of opportunities for themselves,” the western diplomat said. “There’s opportunity to make money and to have a nice standard of living.”
The large youth factor has made education an important element of national growth. In 2007, Nazarbayev proposed major educational reform. He pledged to open 100 new schools, and called for a system to assess teaching and learning and an educational accreditation method to ensure that schools align with international standards. One of the outcomes of this effort has been the Nazarbayev Intellectual Schools secondary school network, organized with the assistance of faculty members from the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education. It has locations in several sites throughout the country, including Astana. The program enlists expatriate English-speaking teachers to teach and collaborate with local Kazakhstani teachers, providing instruction in Kazakh, Russian, and English.
At Nazarbayev University, founded in Astana in 2009, instruction is entirely in English. Moreover, the University collaborates with institutions and universities from across the globe, such as University College London, Duke University, University of Pittsburgh, Cambridge University, University of Pennsylvania and University of Wisconsin-Madison. The integration of western teaching and thought as part of the country’s educational reform could potentially create a more open discourse within the country for coming generations of political leaders. “I think one of the missions of [Nazarbayev] University,” Baigarin said, “is to establish background for the new generation to develop the country.”
Qualified students also have the option to study abroad through the “Bolashak” program, which in English translates to “Future.” Launched in 1993, the mission of this expense-free presidential scholarship program is to “train future leaders in business, international relations, law, science, and engineering,” at the world’s leading educational institutions. Upon completion of the program, recipients return to Kazakhstan to perform in the government sector for a period of five years.
Nurgul Imangali, who is currently completing the five-year work requirement for the program, studied Biosciences at the University of Manchester. The program has allowed Imangali to connect with other Bolashak scholars through young professional associations. She is currently taking part in the “Expert Network for Biotechnology,” where she and her colleagues “share the most novel investigations in the world and discuss the projects that could be implemented in the future,” she said.
Studying in the United Kingdom allowed Imangali to reevaluate her view of Kazakhstan and its political, economic, and social systems. She took note of the characteristics of a developed nation that have yet to be implemented in her home country. Her experiences studying abroad led her to understand “that many things still have to be changed, and the [Kazakh] government has already started to improve some aspects. In the past twenty years,” she said, “Kazakhstan has developed a lot, and now with the help of the Bolashak program, it has constructed a solid foundation for the future development.”
Zhovtis, the human rights activist, counters that the country’s developmental issues run deeper than generational gaps, and believes that reform will come from within the more progressive and pragmatic part of the current ruling elite rather than from subsequent generations.
“It’s a question of understanding the interests of the elite itself,” he said. “If they want to make the country modernized and competitive and to make it stable . . . you need reforms . . . I’m more convinced that it should be and could be much more effectively done by the current President or at least by the current President preparing for the future. It’s not a question of replacement.”
Although governmental efforts directed at the rural areas around Astana have been meager, there are some little-publicized programs underway. “Fund Damu,” for example, provides financial support for enterprises in small towns. Ulykbanov, the Kazakh architect, has observed minor development in his own hometown of Aktobe, located in western Kazakhstan. “Singing fountains” and a huge flagpole that mimics the one in Astana have been installed and there’s been significant work on the town’s river. “I don’t know if other towns are doing anything similar,” Ulykbanov said.
As foreign diplomats such as J. Brian Duggan, Deputy Political and Economic Counselor at the U.S. Embassy in Astana, see it, Kazakhstanis have a generally hopeful outlook. “When they ask Kazakhstanis: how is your life right now? Almost all of them say, it’s okay. And they ask, how do you think your life will be a year from now? Almost all of them say, better,” Duggan said. “There’s an optimism that the country is growing and people feel that they have a chance at doing better. If you ask them, do you think your kids will be better off? Almost all of them: yes, of course.”
Akyn in front of his home.
Back in Talapker, I asked Akyn if I could snap a photo of him. As I prepared my camera, my eyes followed the lopsided stairs toward the decaying wooden door to his home, and then back to his face. With one click, the photo I took captured him with a kind, sturdy smile, an ever-so-slight curve of contentment.