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21st Century Kazakhstan:
Learning from Tragedy to Live Wisely and Well


By Matt Schaeffer


21st Century Kazakhstanince achieving independence from the Soviet Union at the end of 1991, Kazakhstan has come further faster than anyone ever expected. It has become prosperous, stable, economically developed, and its political and economic successes are reflected in the life and culture of its people.

The Kazakh people suffered from the horrors and bungles of Soviet history perhaps more than any group in Asia. But the worse the catastrophe that was inflicted on them, the more they learned from it and flourished when they were finally given the chance.

Soviet communism inflicted horrific famine on Central Asia, as well as on Russia and the Ukraine, during the mass collectivization of the First Five Year Plan from 1929 to 1933. Hundreds of thousands of Kazakh peasants died.

But after independence, Kazakhstan’s founding president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, boldly embraced globalism, the free market and foreign direct investment (FDI). More than $120 billion in FDI has poured into Kazakhstan since early 1990s, especially to develop its enormous oil, natural gas and uranium reserves. As a result, the standard of living of the entire Kazakh people has risen faster and to a greater extent than at any time in their history.

Almaty, the biggest city in the nation, is now the most thriving business center in the middle of the Asian heartland, or anywhere between Moscow and Shanghai. Today, Kazakhstan’s economy accounts for approximately 80 percent of the entire Central Asian region.

Soviet dictator Josef Stalin used Kazakhstan as a dumping ground for literally millions of people, including Ukrainians, ethnic Germans, Jews, Chechens and many others. They were shipped out in cattle cars and dropped into the middle of the great Asian steppe – freezing cold in winter and baking hot in summer. They were simply dumped on the plains and left to live or die. Only the hospitality of the Kazakh people, in the traditions of their nomadic, traveling and trading past, saved the lives of most of them.

As a result of those deportations, Kazakhstan is today the model nation for multi-ethnic and multi-religious tolerance in Central Asia. While about 80 percent of its population is ethnic Kazakh and Muslim by faith, the remaining 20 percent are Orthodox Christian, Catholic Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, animist and a scattering of other faiths. President Nazarbayev has consistently followed a domestic policy of ethnic and religious tolerance. Racial and religious discrimination and the preaching of hatred are energetically condemned and prosecuted.

Because of these policies, Kazakhstan has been able to draw upon the talents of its now thriving minorities to help accelerate its modernization and rich traditions of culture.

This internal policy of tolerance and harmony is the domestic counterpart of the “multi-vector” diplomacy and economic strategy the President has followed to build close economic, diplomatic and security ties with nations of dramatically different natures surrounding the country. Kazakhstan has been able to carry out this ambitious policy successfully precisely because it has such a diverse national talent pool of its own to draw upon.

Stalin’s successors made Kazakhstan the center of their nuclear weapons-building programs in the 1950s and onwards. Hundreds of nuclear weapons were detonated, first in the atmosphere and then underground in the Semipalatinsk testing area. The cost in human death and suffering from radiation fallout and contamination was enormous. It is still being paid by the Kazakh people today.

Because of its enforced central role in the Soviet nuclear weapons program, Kazakhstan inherited an enormous nuclear arsenal on independence that briefly could have made it a far more powerful military nuclear nation than either Britain or France. But Nazarbayev, in perhaps his boldest and potentially most risky initiative, took the decision to scrap that arsenal. He chose the path of peace over that of amassing destructive military might. Thus, a Muslim nation became the first nation in history to voluntarily scrap its entire nuclear weapons arsenal.

Working closely with the United States and Russia in the early 1990s, Nazarbayev returned all the military hardware to the Russian Federation, the successor state of the Soviet Union, and ordered the decommissioning of all the nuclear warheads and weapons systems. Instead, he made Kazakhstan the peaceful communications and trading hub of Central Asia. This vision, far more original than any dream of strutting the global stage brandishing nuclear weapons, continues to be fulfilled today.

The emphasis on peaceful development that resulted from these crucial decisions permeates Kazakhstan today.

Lenin, Stalin and Khrushchev sacrificed the lives of their own people, including millions of Kazakhs, for their inept dreams of achieving industrial might. But since Kazakhstan achieved national independence, Kazakhstan’s government has pursued a vision of improving and enriching life for ordinary people.

In the first eight years of this century, 350,000 families received new homes. The number of people in Kazakhstan with substandard incomes shrank from 50 percent to 12 percent. More than 650 schools and more than 460 new health-care facilities were built. Life expectancy rose from 65 to 68 years.

21st Century Kazakhstan

Throughout Soviet history the practice of religion was first repressed and later seriously discouraged. Following independence, however, the number of mosques in Kazakhstan grew to 2,500. Today, twice as many people attend religious services every Friday in the spectacularly beautiful Blue Mosque in the capital Astana as can fit inside, even though the Blue Mosque has a seating capacity of 14,000 people.

The Muslim religious traditions of the Kazakh people follow the tolerant Hanafi school, not the more austere Wahhabi traditions of Saudi Arabia. The growth of Muslim religious sentiment in Kazakhstan, therefore, has been accompanied by a parallel and complimentary process of modernization, tolerance and greater engagement with both the Muslim and non-Muslim worlds. Kazakhstan will chair the 57-nation Organization of Islamic Countries in 2011, which represents almost one-third of the world’s
population.

The tolerant, humane traditions of Islam in Kazakhstan are almost unknown in the West. During World War II, still remembered in Kazakhstan, as elsewhere in the former Soviet republics, as the Great Patriotic War, Muslim religious leaders throughout the country preached a jihad, or holy war. They called for jihad to defeat the Nazis as they were the embodiment of evil.

Hundreds of thousands of young Kazakhs fought with distinction throughout the war in the Soviet Army and played an especially crucial role in the two most decisive battles of all, Stalingrad and Kursk. They paid an enormous price. As many as half the adult men in Kazakhstan between the ages of 18 and 45 died between June 22, 1941, and the end of the war in May 1945.

Those memories continue to shape Kazakhstan today. The government remains dedicated to combating and eliminating racial, ethnic, and religious hatred and intolerance. Too many Kazakhs sacrificed their lives to help rid the world of the evil regime that embodied those dark forces.

Kazakhstan’s woes did not end with the defeat of the Nazis or the death of Stalin. In addition to the hundreds of thousands of cancer victims from the nuclear tests at Semipalatinsk, the republic was also forced to be the testing ground for Nikita Khrushchev’s crackpot “virgin lands” projects in the 1950s.

Wheat was recklessly sown for years in succession on thin soil in the dry, marginal steppe-lands, on the edge of the desert, that were not remotely suited for it. Consequently, in the early 1960s, Kazakhstan suffered the devastation of a huge dust bowl, much larger and more destructive than the one that swept the American Midwest and Southwest in the mid-1930s.

As a result of this experience, the Kazakh people and their government today embrace modern ecological studies and practices.

The impact of the current Central Asian drought in Kazakhstan has been greatly reduced by the widespread practice of contour plowing, and light, surface soil plowing and by the planting of trees and other vegetation as wind breaks to reduce soil erosion. The current plans to expand agricultural production and make Kazakhstan a global exporter and supplier of meat and grain—comparable with Argentina, Canada and Australia—stem from a combination of the ancient Kazakh agricultural traditions, with an embrace of renewable, sustainable development inculcated from the sufferings of the Soviet period.

That commitment is already bearing humane and welcome fruits: In the current Central Asian drought crisis, Kazakhstan has successfully continued to produce surpluses of grain that have averted the threat of famine and hunger in other former Soviet republics.

As oil, energy and other investments have flooded into Kazakhstan over the past two decades, the Kazakh people have blossomed in an explosion of culture and the enjoyment of life.

Almaty is one of the most flourishing television and movie studios between Moscow and Mumbai. The movie industry was originally established in late 1941 when Mosfilm, the main studio of the Soviet Union, moved there to escape the Nazi invaders.

Theaters and concert halls throughout the country combine rich programs of Western classical music, taught at the grassroots in schools and community centers across the country, with the revival of traditional Kazakh forms of music, opera and dance.

The spirit of the new, outward-looking, go-getting and confident Kazakhstan is most striking on any summer evening on the embankment that swings alongside the Ishim (Esil) River in the new capital, Astana. A spectacular complex of new hotels, office blocks and apartment buildings, colorfully lit at night, makes the cityscape alongside the river one of the most spectacular in Asia, if not the world.

On warmer nights people of all ages throng the embankment by the hundreds and thousands, eating ice cream and listening to street entertainers. They radiate a sense of optimism that life is not only good but still getting better, and that, within the boundaries of tradition and moderately practiced but deeply cherished religious faith, life is there to be enjoyed.

None of this was expected by even Kazakhstan’s allies and friends at the end of 1991, when the nation embarked upon its great experiment of national independence. But today, Kazakhstan has become the often-envied and increasingly copied model for its neighbors and nations farther afield. It is a living example of the benefits that tolerance, openness and free-market reform can bring emerging nations.

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