What did I learn about…?
This is the kind of question you ask yourself on long-haul return flights: you’d hope that after 48 or 72 hours in a foreign country you visit for the first time, you’d know it a little better than you did before.
In this case, I had a very easy comparison, as the total of what I knew about Kazakhstan was from reading its entry in the CIA World Factbook.
Of course, I have often complained about the fact I tend to arrive somewhere, see the airport and immigration, cab my way to an hotel, do whatever business meetings I have scheduled, rush out to the airport, security, immigration and… if it wasn’t for the language, you’d never know you left.
My short kazakh trip offered me several improvement over this basic model, the first and main one being having access to Alexandra (Sascha) Shegay as my guide and tutor. Thanks to her kindness and good english, I was able to discover a little bit about this country.
Learnings, the serious ones
- This is a YOUNG country, born about 20 years ago after having been a soviet republic. When you are this young, in many ways you are still trying to find your own place in the world order. How much of the collectivistic past will you retain? But, most importantly, what are the alternatives? We take those for granted, and of course we know that every alternative comes with positive and negative sides, but just think of how easy is to manipulate someone’s opinion when you can, for example, filter out all the positives and only show the negatives.
- This is LARGE country – look it up on a map. With a land mass roughly equivalent to western Europe and a population about the size of Benelux, most of which live in a handful of main cities like Astana and Almaty (better, Alma-Ata), the closest parallel that comes to mind is Canada – replace the tundra with steppe and you get the picture: a vast wilderness where humans are few and far between.
- This is a RICH country: it holds among the largest world’s reserves in oil, gas, uranium. And given the sheer size of the country, there is probably untold riches yet to be found. Not quite clear to me kazakhs (nor their ruling class) really know what to do with all this wealth, but there is certainly an enormous potential.
Central Asia is not as strife-ridden as, say, the Middle East, but it knew and still knows its share of unrest. However, the remoteness and relative isolation made it more difficult to deeply contaminate it with western thinking: in this sense, the Internet plays a key role as it’s probably a much faster access route to western ideas, culture and models than physical travel, for the most part limited to Turkey, Russia and the Gulf. This peace is almost surprising when one considers the great ethnic and religious diversity: in the Soviet era, Kazakhstan was the dumping ground for all kind of “non russians” Stalin felt he could not really trust; together with the native kazakhs, you find uzbeks and kirghiz, but also (a lot of) russians, koreans and jews representing therefore all three monotheistic religions as well as the nomadic nature-oriented cults.
A lot of this relative peace is probably the fruit of a semi-democratic political: president Nazarbayev was recently elevated to the rank of Father of the Nation, meaning he will rule for life; jokingly I told Sascha this probably means the Parliament is split between the party which supports the President and the part which supports the President… very much. While this may not conform to our ideal of representative democracy, it avoided bloodshed and clashes as in nearby, much smaller and poorer Kyrghyzstan.
In this process, young people play a key role: although the ageing ruling class does its best to hold the reins on everything (mmmm, wonder where else I read this), biology is the youngest generations’ best ally: they will study abroad, come back with new ideas and given the small size of the population, these new ideas will spread rapidly.
But even before they do this, I think kazakhs need to find themselves: they need to get rid of a lot of ugly things strewn across their country, from soviet era buildings to arab-garish glass and steel monsters to rotting infrastructure, they need to rediscover their roots which do not start 20 years ago, nor 100 as the bolsheviks would have liked them to believe. They also need to find their place in the great migratory movements of the Middle Ages with mongols pushing huns pushing goths all the way to Italy and Spain: this changed the face of Europe, brought down the Roman Empire, set the stage for the arab invasions and the crusades.
In all of this, they will find beauty and rediscover the ability to dream.
Good luck, Kazakhstan!