Pickled Horse Innards: Take Two of Hopeful Musings on Astana and Nazarbayev’s Kazakhstan

Posted on June 12, 2012


Many, many people were a bit incredulous about my glowing and garbled review of Astana. Fair enough, fair enough, but it seems to warrant another visitation to the city (after all, we’ve had to tarry here a couple more days in order to get our Tajik visas and our permits to visit the Pamirs, so I’ve still got Astana on the brain).

The suspicion seems to be twofold: On the one hand, almost everyone I know in the west seems to be a little predisposed against Astana and doubt that the city could be so much more positive than the bleak accounts in the press or than the ones they’ve heard from expats. On the other hand, almost everyone who’s heard of him has a bit of a negative view of President Nursultan Nazarbayev, viewing him as a dictator for the fact that he’s been in power for over twenty years and doesn’t allow opposition to survive. So let’s tackle those one at a time.

1. I understand well enough where the criticism of Astana comes from. In part, as I commented in my last post, there’s a long history of failure among planned cities and a certain distaste that said history leaves in the mouth of the observer or resident of such a place. And even five years ago it was very uncertain what would become of Astana, this odd project of unknown provenance.

I’d seen pictures and talked to residents and watched a documentary about the 10 year celebration of the naming of the new capital in 2007. The consensus seems to be that as little as two or three years ago, Astana was not a place one lived—it was an invention, and as such sterile and half alive. It was Frankenstein’s monster: lumbering and advanced, but out of place, absolutely isolated. People hated it here and they much preferred the lived-in feel of Almaty, which had its own culture and history independent of the machinations and agenda of the government and the modern nation of Kazakhstan.

But … well, let’s put it this way: As I was walking down the street today, I saw a middle-aged woman (on the verge of babushka-hood) walking down the street in designer clothes, but a wind-burnt face. And it occurred to me that there is absolutely no frame of reference for us as observers—most who read this from the West—to gauge the level, speed, or scope of change that Kazakhstan has experienced within the lifetime of this woman. The standard of living, the political, social, and ethnical mores and values of the nation, the face and intrusion of power, and the very meaning of citizenship and identity has altered itself rapidly and repeatedly to a degree that we cannot comprehend.

Most people saw Astana when it was freshly baked, around 2005 to 2007—when the houses were empty and the construction was slowing down and the trees were still small and on dusty soil. But, as G.A., the man we’re staying with, says, the city has changed utterly in the last two or three years. The population has boomed and services have arrived. The town, under the leadership of a new mayor in place since 2008, has started to develop a character and a sense of independent being outside its status as a national symbol.

The speed of development here is such that I wonder what it will be like in five years, though. This is still a city in the process of finding itself. And while many people have started to flood in from the south and from the countryside, now seeing this as a desirable and lively place to live, it’s far from a solid sense of place and identity. I’ll end this part with a couple of joking conversations Mike and I had, pretending to address Astana’s city planners:

Looking at a giant water truck rolling through a park.
Mark: “Why not just install sprinklers here, with all the money they have?”
Mike: “Psh, sprinklers. What if we want to put a skyscraper here later? What will we do with sprinklers then? Use them to water our grass floors … Hey, man you’re a genius! Grass floors! Thank you for coming to Kazakhstan, here’s a tub of Legos. Go over there and tell us what else you come up with.”

Mike: “Shit, was that building even there yesterday?”
Mark: “Of course there’s a new building. It’s Monday. What are we, lazy?”

Mark: “Is that … the Death Star?”
Mike: “Nazarbayev must just be into Star Wars.”

2. Yes, I am fond of Nazarbayev. I think he’s doing a brilliant job, and the bulk of Kazakh citizens seem to feel so as well. We have a certain prejudice as citizens of a democratic state that any form of government that deviates from democracy cannot yield equal or greater gains to democracy and that with the trappings of the authoritarian must come all the shortcomings of tyranny.

It’s true that there is a large personality cult here. Nazarbayev has a museum dedicated to himself (although it does have one room devoted to Boris Yeltsin, and he runs another museum of Kazakh culture, which includes the pickled innards of a 4th century BC horse … so, yep). There’s an imprint of his hand in gold in the central monument of the new city and there’s a five meter monument to him in bronze on another monument. He’s quoted in almost every newspaper article. His presence and his sense of mission dominates this city and this nation and blots out all others.

But he’s not some crazy despot. He’s a very savvy and moderate leader who runs the nation with great talent. Speaking with a young Kazakh the other day, I learned that this man had been a critic of the president for some time, but had recently come around to liking him when he noticed the new level of efficiency and politeness of government officials and the massive advances in infrastructure and other such government programs over the past several years. The Kazakh nation focuses on providing its citizens with basic freedoms and a high quality of life and it succeeds by a great degree of pragmatism and prudent management of its resources, which is more than one can say of certain other nations.

Many, many Kazakhs genuinely love Nazarbayev. Many express disappointment and distaste with Western journalists who try to press them into saying something negative about Nazarbayev and the notion of political stagnation/oppression. And the journalists are likewise frustrated when they cannot pull a story like Turkmenbashi from Kazakhstan. And I think he knows well and appreciates that such sentiments would change to the detriment of the government, the citizens, and the nation if the Nazarbayev regime were to fail to procure a good life and a sense of meaning and future for the nation. So it does so with great acumen.

You can raise points about corruption if you’d like, but most every government is corrupt. American government is rank with corruption, although we often give our scandals and corruption more genteel names and lesser coverage than when we slam the more visible and obvious transgressions of developing world leaders. I actually personally find more intricate and better hidden corruption the more devious and disgusting, but that’s another point. In the end, we don’t think of America as a corrupt nation in large part because we do not encounter corruption—bribes and such—in our daily life and corruption does not reach such a level and penetration as to interfere with the quality of living for most American citizens. And it seems that what corruption there may be in Kazakhstan is similarly non-lived corruption. So what does it matter if there is corruption if your nation is doing well and you have one man who embodies all you can thank for that?

This is not to endorse strongman rule. Turkmenbashi and others have proven what a bad, bad idea such can be with an idiot at the helm. But … well, I am a fan of FDR. I can see the merit in strong leadership within the confines of democracy especially in times of crisis and transition. Let’s not judge the man for the nature of his regime, but rather let’s judge him on what he has done with his nation, how he is viewed genuinely by his people, and how he reacts in his position to public demand and then see if the nation transitions to greater democracy or continues onwards with success in the future. Although that may not be a popular opinion. And again, it does not excuse the problems of the regime. But Kazakhstan is a nation in progress, as Astana is a city in progress, so we cannot judge it by its rough edges but rather by the manner in which it acknowledges and seeks to handle progressively, sequentially, and pragmatically those rough edges.

I reiterate, now with my positions more fully fleshed out:
1. I do not think there is one path for a nation, and I do not think that globalization is necessary or, when adopted, uniform in any aspect of scope or process.
2. I like Astana. Except for the expense.
3. I like Kazakhstan (same caveat of finance) and I’m eager to see where it will go, although I’ll hold out on unbridled optimism or pessimism for a few years yet.

Next post will probably be out the nightmare trip that Mike and I took to get here, which may help to explain our appreciation of Astana. It will also be commentary on one of my favorite pet peeve topics: the overly simplistic and misleading notion of the flat, globalized world. Then, most likely, something from Karaganda and the Kazakh steppe.

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