KAZAKHSTAN BRAVING WINDS OF CHANGE

Oman Daily Observer, Saturday 6 January 2001

The land here is as flat as a table. In the old times the owner of a yurta, a nomad habitation, could see a horseman approaching from a dozen miles, and had enough time to knife a sheep and make a beshbarmak by the time the guest arrived. Any bush or small hill became a landmark serving to verify the way along the endless steppe.

Until the mid-1950s it was a virgin land. The richest black soil covering hundreds of thousands of square kilometres had never been ploughed. Only herds of wild animals and flocks of shepherd tribes wandered across the lowlands searching for food and water. Nikita  Khruschev, obsessed by a passion for revolutionary transformations, began a campaign to master the untouched lands – Tselina. Huge masses of people and agricultural machinery were transported here to assure a powerful breakthrough in grain production. Over a million German deportees, sent to the Kazakh steppes under Stalin, became members of the Tselina epic.

The dusty plain town of Akmolinsk became the administrative centre of the Tselina. Thousands of barracks and standard five storey houses, nicknamed khruschoba lined up in the bare steppe. This rather unattractive assemblage of buildings was named Tselinograd (they say that Khrusciov did not like the translation of the Turkic name Akmolinsk – White Tomb). But this formal name did not last long – three decades later the town was renamed to Astana, which stands simply for a “capital”.

At the entrance to Astana a barrow is raised, at the top of which there is a stele – a monument to the victims of political repression. Thus, the new capital of the Republic of Kazakhstan seems to personify a challenge to its Soviet past. Not only do the constructions have symbolic sense,  everything seems to be a metaphor of harrowing liberation from the grip of the past. New traits are growing through the old profile. Where now  dozens of both local and foreign construction firms are involved in making transformations, the Soviet empire standard still dominates with endless shabby blocks, miserable dusty poplars along badly paved asphalt streets. But the advantage of the buildings that are brilliant with glass and steel are made still more evident. Over two years more luxury hotels, offices, banks, trade complexes and leisure centres have been built here than ever before.

The main engine behind the transformations is the president of the republic Nursultan Nazarbaev. Not every politician would dare to realize such an ambitious project as to build a new capital in a severe steppe, where winter temperatures reach minus 40, and dust storms rage in the summer. This task seems even more difficult in a country that is experiencing a deep economy slump. Therefore, Nazarbaev had to overcome desperate resistance to transferring the capital from the beautiful and comfortable city of Almaty, which is situated in the green foothills far in the south.

Kazakhstan seems an island of stability amid its neighbouring countries that have lived through  wars and attacks by terrorist groups. It has also avoided large scale ethnic conflicts, notwithstanding the multinational composition of the population. Nazarbaev artfully avoids nationalist trials, he is a leader who looks to the future. It is difficult to identify another president so purposefully moving towards the building of a modern state.

The favourite political-ideological terms of President Nazarbaev are globalisation and Eurasianism. If the former is well comprehensive in the west thanks to its frequent use by the high-ranking officers of the American administration, the latter is only truly familiar to intellectuals. Its meaning is that the traditions and the political order of Kazakhstan  reflect its dual nature of a crossroads between the cultures of Europe and of Asia. This is the context that frequent declarations by president Nazarbaev about a particular way for Kazakhstan and about the need for gradual and cautious democratic transformations should be seen in.

At the entrance of the presidential study there are two portraits. One depicts khan Abylay, who lived at the beginning of the 18th century. He headed the struggle of Kazakh tribes against the aggressive state of Jungaria. The other portrait is of khan Abdulhair who in 1731 adopted Russian citizenship, which assured the survival of the Kazakhs in the face of the Jungar threat. It seems logical to interpret the presence of these images in the head of state’s residence as an expression of his devotion to an independent development in close cooperation with Russia.

Last summer Nursultan Nazarbaev was 60. He is a robust man, of above average height, who looks younger than his years. He has an energetic handshake, an attentive friendly aspect, expressive and metaphoric speech. The school of life that this politician has experienced has made him competent in many spheres. A good memory permits him to answer any question confidently. He speaks about the potential of the country’s development for the coming thirty years, about the details of important economic projects, recalling meetings with leaders of other states.

The first president of Kazakhstan spent his childhood in a picturesque mountain locality in the south. His father was an agrarian and a passionate hunter. Together with his father, young Nursultan stealthily approached dangerous mountain cliffs toward careful and strong argali – the progenitors of home sheep. This hunting requires durability and courage. The powerful beast (it is many times bigger than its tamed relative) exceeds man in everything – in sharpness of sight, in scent, in speed. Only few hunters succeed in catching an argali. In this they are similar to only one member of the animal kingdom – a bars (panther), representative of the cat family, brother of the tiger and the leopard that lives high in the mountains. Only a bars capable of fighting an argali.

From his youth the image of a beautiful, strong and freedom-loving animal became for Nursultan Nazarbaev the incarnation of high moral ideals. Becoming a head of state he expressed his understanding of a dynamically developing independent state in the short formula ‘a Central Asian BARS is an analogue of the ‘Far Eastern tiger.’

Long ago Nazarbaev began his working life as an employee at a  metallurgic factory. He graduated as an engineer, then worked as a party official at different levels, and finally at forty something became prime-minister of Kazakhstan when the republic was still a part of the Soviet Union. Gorbachev planned to make him vice-president of the superstate and considered him one of the most talented people in the then Soviet elite. History chose another scenario, but Nursultan Nazarbaev turned out to be one of the most outstanding leaders even in the new era. He has an original way of thinking and sees the future through the prism of proper images, like the one of a proud Bars that lives on the snowy mountains.

The resources of the huge state (Kazahkstan is almost 3 million square km in size) now assure the speedy rate of building up Astana. Tomorrow, as Nazarbaev foresees, they will guarantee an economic boom for the republic. Kazakhstan is one of the richest countries; there is plenty of petroleum, gas, copper, lead, gold and many other valuable minerals. But Nazarbaev considers a favourable geopolitical position, making Kazakhstan a bridge between the West and the East, a still a greater wealth. It was here that the legendary Silk Road, which in antiquity tied China with Europe, passed through.

This year for the first time considerable production and GDP growth has been posted, resulting from the reasonable investment policy conducted by the leadership of the country. Foreign companies have found a favourable investment climate and many spheres of application for their capital. One example of the involvement of big corporations in the Kazakh economy is the Caspian Pipeline Consortium project. Major petroleum companies from all over the world joined in the building of a pipeline from deposits in the Kazakh deserts to the Russian Black Sea port. The investments required are estimated to run into billions of dollars, but the incomes will also make up an astronomical sum. Construction of the pipeline is slated to begin next summer.

Nowadays petroleum brings in about a third of state budget revenue. However, volatility on the world energy market can prevent Nazarbaev from realising his plan to transform Kazakhstan into a Central Asian panther. Thus, Kazakhstan set itself a three-year development plan with the goal of posting just seven per cent industrial output growth. This year the fulfilment of a five year plan, with larger-scale aims, will begin. On the question of how he sees Kazakhstan in 2030, Nazarbaev answers that it will be a developed country with a numerous and influential middle class as a base for stability, where there will be no poverty and shocking social contrasts. As a supporter of market economy, Nazarbaev favours an active role for the state in market regulation with the help of legislative tax measures and tariff policy for the state power and gas networks and the railroads.

Besides economic difficulties, Nazarbaev is faced with social obstacles to dynamic development. Corruption is a familiar phenomenon in the power structures of Kazakhstan. Nazarbaev is not a magician, he is not capable of transforming the mentality of the army of functionaries, who grew up in a time when bosses were almighty and citizens were deprived of rights. He is perfectly aware of the danger of uncontrolled authorities for reforms and for the future state. He is also worried about the struggle against criminality that plagues the former Soviet states.

Nazarbaev considers stability in the Central Asian region a condition for successful development. Therefore, he pays a great attention to foreign policy, trying to interest the most influential states in the affairs of the region and to involve them in economic and political interrelations. Much of his foreign policy is aimed at making the most of the good geopolitical position of the country. For example, a treaty on the borders between Kazakhstan and China that for some decades had been an object of dispute between the Soviet Union and China has been signed.

The policy of openness and peace brings its fruit, with stability inside the country and in foreign policy gaining the trust of external investors and international financial institutes.

Rather considerable aid is given by friendly states, especially Islamic ones.

If the entire republic develops at the same rate as the new capital, the dream of the president Nazarbaev of the “Central Asian Bars” will soon become a reality.