On the surface, all seems well in this ethnically, linguistically and religiously diverse country of some 18 million, occupying a space roughly the size of Western Europe.
During a recent visit, my guide concluded a tour of Astana, the country’s new capital since 1997, by quoting Paulo Coelho, the Brazilian novelist whose novel The Zahir partly takes place in Kazakhstan, as having said that the city was “like a wildflower rising from the steppes.” Indeed, Astana is an architectural marvel, a once backwater village that has become a 21st century urban icon in less than two decades. That said, I would reframe Coelho’s quote to characterise the country as a whole.
The population appears to be genuinely proud of what Kazakhstan has accomplished in its quarter century as an independent state and more than prepared to buy into President Nazarbayev’s vision of Kazakhstan as a multinational construct undergirded by tolerance across its 130-odd ethnicities and focused on making the country one of the world’s top thirty economies by 2050 (currently ranked 57th).
If the older generations of Russians did not receive any instruction in Kazakh in their youth, now in both the Kazakh and Russian language schools, the second language is taught. The younger cohort of Kazakhs and Russians is growing up bilingually and often trilingually. This is a testimony to the realisation that increasingly the best opportunities will go to those who can communicate with not only their fellow citizens in their language but also with the internationals who in growing numbers have come to find treasure in Kazakhstan’s booming economy.
The numbers speak for themselves. Since 1995 – despite serious downturns in 1999 and 2009 – Kazakhstan’s average rate of GDP growth has been around five to six percent. While energy resources and precious minerals have been fuelling this growth, the effort to diversify into other sectors has grown apace.
Overall, President Nazarbayev, in power since 1989, deserves credit for his stewardship. While promoting Kazakh as the national language, he has been a champion of the country’s diversity. He has systematically defended the notion that Russian, the lingua franca of the Soviet period and still ubiquitous, should serve as the language of inter-ethnic communication. Just recently, he cautioned government functionaries that the target date for civil servants to be operational in Kazakh was the middle of the next decade and that efforts to advance this agenda were counter-productive. He has presided over the construction of a Palace of World Religions that since 2003 has organised every three years an international colloquium focusing on the need for religious understanding, renunciation of violence, and the promotion of faith and human equality. The commitment to unity through respect for diversity is also brilliantly on display in the new National Museum that opened in Astana in July of this year.
In addition, President Nazarbayev has removed bureaucratic barriers to growth in Kazakhstan’s economy. According to the World Bank’s Ease of doing Business Index, Kazakhstan is now ranked 50 out of the 189 states whose performance it assesses. In contrast, Russia is ranked 92.
The President has also pursued a multi-vector foreign policy, as befits a country that is wedged in between Russia and China, and encouraged foreign investment from further afield. The EU, the US and Canada are now all important players in the Kazakh market.
Nazarbayev is no democrat, but as authoritarian leaders go, he takes top marks for being both enlightened and thoroughly committed to his country’s future. Kazakhstan’s current trajectory brings to mind similar processes in other Asian countries, such as South Korea, Singapore, and Indonesia. In their own ways, they all transitioned from being authoritatively run to becoming, slowly but surely, fledgling democracies: weak and dysfunctional, to be sure, but offering their populations a choice.
These views tend to be corroborated by the last major opinion polls carried out by foreign NGOs in Kazakhstan, namely in 2011. The President received very high ratings, with between 70 and 80 percent of the population approving of his performance, numbers that were equally strong among Kazakhs and Russians. The respondents were mainly preoccupied by economic issues such as inflation, the cost of housing, the risk of unemployment and the like. Less than five percent identified ethnic relations as a key concern. With the booming economic growth of the past three years, these results will likely have become stronger in the interim (unless, of course, Putin’s muscled nationality policies have begun to take their toll.)
Will Kazakhstan hold course? My short answer is yes, but only if the domestic and regional environment remains stable. Unfortunately, Kazakhstan faces serious challenges on both fronts. For more on this, see the second part of this post.