Banking on Islam: Central Asia’s future in the world of Islamic finance

Unsurprisingly, things changed in Central Asia after the end of the USSR. Like Russia, industry was privatised and market capitalism embraced. However a less obvious transition is the uptake in Islamic finance (IF) facilities, both as a commercial source of investment and liquidity, and private banking services.

The financial district in Almaty, Kazakhstan, where Islamic has its first foothold in Central Asia.

According to Reuters, Islamic finance growth worldwide has been double-digit since 2000, and this trend is manifesting in Central Asia with the emergence of new facilities and incorporation into wider global IF networks. Islamic finance is structured by, and complies with, sharia law — especially in consideration to the goods and services it funds (for example, pork or alcohol) and the prohibition of particular forms of interest. These institutions have grown in tandem with a global revival of Islamic identity since the late twentieth century, and a disillusionment with ‘western’ banking forms and the perceived regularity of their failure to successfully underwrite risk. In tandem, the Soviet policy of religious suppression once enforced in Central Asia was lifted after independence, creating a regional renaissance of Islamic observation and expression across this Muslim majority region, which further facilitates the enthusiastic embrace of IF.

To varying degrees other Central Asian nations have embraced Islamic finance (most notably Kyrgyzstan), but Kazakhstan leads the way in the development of IF. In 2009 Kazakhstan became the first former-Soviet nation to issue IF guidelines, and in 2010 the first Islamic financial institution — Al Hilal Bank — was granted a license to trade through an intergovernmental agreement between Kazakhstan and Abu Dhabi. Since then, a previously conventional bank — Zaman — became an internationally recognised Islamic Finance institution, and in 2015 the government outlined its policy objectives for the future of IF, with optimistic targets set for 2020. Kazakhstani governmental support for Islamic Finance has included growing multilateral cooperation with more established IF regulatory bodies, including the Islamic Financial Services Board (IFSB), the Accounting and Auditing Organisation for Islamic Financial Institutions (AAOIFI), and the International Islamic Financial Markets (IIFM). Furthermore the Islamic Development Bank (IDB) has committed to financing investment in infrastructure and industrial projects valued at $1.5 billion, demonstrating the impact of global IF networks.

Undoubtedly, the comparatively recent reinstitution of Islam across Central Asia has contributed massively to the uptake of Islamic finance, a new religiosity (not necessary confined to Islam) equally pervading the population and the institutions that uphold these society’s structures. However more pragmatic interpretations of IF’s rise in the region have been mooted by foreign scholars. Sebastian Peyrouse highlights the potential political benefits accrued by established Islamic states (including the Gulf States and Malaysia) through the use of IF as a vehicle for closer economic, political and religious/ideological relations. On the other hand Davinia Hoggarth at Chatham House highlights IF as part of a wider ‘multi-vector’ strategy which, in Kazakhstan especially, seeks to reduce economic reliance on any single foreign partner by embracing investment from a maximum number of sources. Although current estimates suggest that Islamic finance is of minimal scale in Central Asia, the consequences of its growth undeniably are not limited to commercial and financial interests, and IF’s growth will surely be tracked intently by international businesses and governments alike.

Observers must be realistic when noting this upwards IF trend. After all, even as the Central Asian nation with the deepest relationship with Islamic finance, Kazakhstan’s target for total IF banking assets by 2020 is only 3-5 percent of the national , while IF assets today make up only one percent. However Reuters’ outlook for Islamic financial investment ranks Astana as a top rank destination, with multiple internationally trading banks including Al Baraka and MayBank showing interest in Kazakhstan’s bourgeoning Islamic finance markets. The majority-Muslim population of Central Asia is currently an untapped customer base for IF institutions, while governments across the region are realising the investment opportunities of IF as an alternative to Russian and Chinese sources. Though young, Islamic finance seems likely to expand throughout Central Asia in the coming years.

One Belt, Whose Road?

China National Highway 215, a new 641km road in China’s Aksai Kazakh Autonomous County that’s firmly aimed at Kazakhstan.

With remarkably sparse international fanfare and a great deal of nominal confusion, China’s première, Xi Jingping launched the largest development push since the Marshall plan onto the world. The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), an increasingly catchy term, will profoundly impact Central Asia. The Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB) forms the BRI’s key component, it is a development strategy that focuses on infrastructure investment; especially construction materials, railway and highway construction, automobile production, real estate creation, and power grid generation.

At an estimated $900 billion, the SREB project is set to be the largest investment program in human history. The investment billions will be channelled into projects throughout Central Asia, with the official aim being to help them to move away from an export-oriented economic model, particularly in terms of natural resources, along with better connecting China to growing (i.e. Western Africa), as well as established (namely European) markets. Current discussions regarding the project typically focus on what the initiative implies in the context of a rising China. Many overlook the fact that the other participants in the initiative are equally important.

The Belt and Road Initiative promises infrastructure developments on a scale never before seen.

Geographically, the Central Asian states connect Tibet and the Xinjiang province to the Caspian Sea, they also serve as a halfway point between Europe and Africa. In the past, they formed the meeting point of the East and the West; in today’s world, the quantities of undiscovered resources surrounding the region are at the core of competing world powers’ materialistic interests, especially in the context of climate change. Indeed, the first stage of the project indicates that billions will be devoted to establishing rail and road links to Central Asia and across it to Iran, Russia, the Caucasus, Turkey, and Europe. The goal is to minimise physical, technical and political barriers to trade, with a long-term vision of a free trade agreement in the region.

Whether this will empower Central Asian states in their newfound independence, or consolidate them as either vassal states of China (or, if China’s designs fail, and Putin’s Eurasian Customs Union takes root, Russia) remains to be seen.

Certainly, the multilateral ties built through the Initiatives will be very useful in expanding the China’s global soft power capacity. There have been debates on how the SREB symbolises a contest between Russia, China and potentially India in terms of ‘latent’ control over Central Asia. However, coming from an alternative perspective, having the agential power to choose who to support enables different states to become more active in the region. It has been said that the Central Asian states now dare to openly criticise Russia, such as how the President of Kyrgyzstan openly addressed how Kyrgyz migrants have been under attack in Russia because of xenophobia in one of his speeches. Whether this will empower Central Asian states in their newfound independence, or consolidate them as either vassal states of China (or, if China’s designs fail, and Putin’s Eurasian Customs Union takes root, Russia) remains to be seen.

Nevertheless, beyond the focus on capital provision, the plan inherently carries an ideological meaning. Ultimately, the whole development strategy is deeply relevant to the so-called ‘China model’, with an emphasis on state-led approach. It also reinforces the Chinese investment model that prides itself on not forcefully imposing any conditionality on the receiving parties, as has been demonstrated in a number of African cases. In such circumstances, it is vital to not forget about the lived experiences of such projects. For instance, In the case of Kenkiyak, where the Kazakhstan–China oil pipeline passes through, the town kindergarten has become a hostel for Chinese workers. Moreover, the quality of their living environment has also deteriorated subject to pollutants produced by the project. And as for the allure of promise jobs, the best roles are granted to Chinese workers rather than locals.

The BRI seeks an infrastructure development programme on a scale unseen since the Marshall plan — but will it trap Central Asia in debt?

It is widely acknowledged that Western media has paid limited attention to the Central Asia region. And as this development initiative catches the world’s attention, the region gradually develops its own voice as well. Some may say that such views exaggerate the significance of Central Asia, because the region per se does not cast much impact other parts of the world; Their names are barely seen. However, it is not the case that there is nothing to study or to understand; rather, throughout human history, there has been a tendency to overlook what we deem as inapplicable in or irrelevant to our contexts, often to be proved spectacularly wrong. Situated at the crossroad of the world, the area is embedded with a diverse array of historical stories and buried knowledge. In light of the SREB, it may be high time for us to a rediscover Central Asia.

Manas, memory, and the making of the Kyrgyz national myth

“Truth is not necessarily fact, and fact not necessarily truth” (Haruki Murakami, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle)

The plane ride into a new country makes for a good opportunity to brush up on a bit of local knowledge. For some, that’ll mean drowsily browsing through a handful of helpful phrases on the red-eye shift before a dawn landing. For others, it’ll be a quick peruse through the sites, sounds and tastes proposed by a guide book. For those inclined to the culturally refined, it may even mean a dig into the nation’s house author — every Russia has a Dostoyevsky just as every Nigeria has a Soyinka. Yet, looking at the little orange puffs of the oil fields in the dark expanses on a night-time flight over northern Kazakhstan, I didn’t want to turn on the light for fear of disturbing the gentle chorus of snores from the seats around me. Instead, I found myself listening to Harvest by Neil Young, and pondering whether I was the first to do so in this situation. (I probably wasn’t, but I imagine I’m safely embedded in the first ten).

As such, my ignorance on arrival is somewhat justifiable. As I was to find out, a dive into the Epic of Manas would have served me a better education on the country I was entering. At 500,000 lines though, the Kyrgyz epic poem is no Aeroflot flick — indeed, it is one of the longest epic poems in the world. All the same, Manas is a dynamic, indeed living document on Kyrgyz history — and a touchstone for Kyrgyz identity. So much so, that there exists a special role in society for the bards who perform and pass on the story of Manas, the manaschi.

As an account of the past, it is an “absurd gallimaufry of pseudo-history”… yet this is why it is so damn interesting

Why then, is the story of Manas so important? As a story, it follows the lives of three generations of Kyrgyz leaders: Manas, the skilled horsemen who throws off the yoke of Uighur domination to return his people to their mountainous homeland; and his son and grandson — also respectable warriors. This might be fascinating in its own right, but it does little to justify Manas’s pre-eminence among other stellar tales by Kyrgyz authors.

As an account of the past, it has been described by VV Bartol’d as an ‘absurd gallimaufry of pseudo-history’ — its age is unknowable (although it was likely transplanted, and hence frozen, in writing during the eighteenth century), and it concerns events that occurred between 995AD and 1800AD (albeit, most likely closer to the latter), and its account of these events muddles them considerably. Yet it is this last point that makes it so damn interesting; how can the fluidity of a myth mould and be moulded to the malleable memory narratives of a changing society, and hence tinker, support, and challenge national identity? Just as individuals build their identities on the string of memories that fit their stories, so too does a country. By this process of self-shaping, a nation can look to the past to define its future. As William Faulkner posits, “the past isn’t dead, it’s not even past”.

The Kyrygz composer, Abdylas Maldybaev, here pictured on a Kyrgyz 1 som note, based his first opera, Ai-Churek, on the Epic of Manas.

Here stems an antagonism between historicity; the eurocentric ideal of history as a linear account of verifiable events in a fixed and static past; and narrative, with its focus less on what actually happened, and more on what should have happened. The former approach treats our present reality as a moment created by, but ultimately cut off from, the past. Narrative, on the other hand, is a fluid story that seeks to explain and guide the present. Narratives compete and constantly adapt. Perhaps the most apt example of this is the historic treatment of the Bible — selective interpretations have justified everything from the Jewish pogroms of Russia to the liberation theology of Latin America.

From these two approaches to the past, it’s no surprise that the European world sanctifies written text — but Central Asians have long feared the potential loss of oral traditions, and the living flexibility that comes with them. In The Uses and Abuses of History, Nietzsche decried static monolithic accounts of history, and instead favoured memory as a dynamic and critical exercise: memory makes us, and as such, we should work to make memory.

How does this relate to the Epic of Manas?

Enough theory. How does this relate to the Epic of Manas? To explain this, we should look to the differences between Manas the man and Manas the myth. Sometime during the the 1920s and 1930s, Manas’s apparent tribe ceased to be the Nogay people and became the Kyrgyz. This highlights the importance of establishing an ethnic link around the time that Kyrgyzstan was organising its place as a state in the USSR.

Moreover, although it was widely agreed that the events described in the epic took place  only about 400 years earlier, in 1995 the new Kyrgyz government hosted mass celebrations of Manas’s thousandth anniversary. No doubt linked intrinsically with the collapse of the USSR four years earlier, this disparity between dates emphasises the need in Kyrgyzstan to establish deep historical roots; the legitimacy to hold together a brand new nation state.

Finally, beyond being an adept ruler and a skillful warrior, Manas fought off neighbouring societies to establish the independence of what is now Kyrgyzstan. A powerful counter-narrative to historic occupying powers (indeed, the USSR suppressed circulation of the Epic of Manas on account of its apparent ‘bourgeois-nationalism’), it now acts as a defiant symbol for a free Kyrgyzstan — a nation with a nomadic past and an independent future. Every major town and city is pillared with images, statues, accounts and museums that revel in Manas. Even the flag invokes Manas — its forty rays represent the forty tribes united under Manas. It is through these symbols that interpretations of the past form the identity of the present, and set the course of the future.

The Epic of Manas, even in English translation, is by no means light reading for a airline journey into Kyrgyzstan. Yet a quick dive into the history of the epic could explain why, four hours by plane from Moscow, one might find oneself touching down amidst the last of the winter snow on a chilly March morning at Manas International AirportBishkek.

The main terminal building at Manas International Airport in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.

Fact File: Kyrgyzstan

Name КыргызстанQırğızstan
Population 6,019,480 (2016)
Capital city Bishkek
Official language Kyrgyz (official), Russian
Religions Islam (80%), Russian (17%), other (3%)
Life expectancy 67.2 (men), 75.1 (women)
GDP $7.061 billion (2017)
HDI 0.655 (120th)
Gini 27.4
President Sooronbay Jeenbekov (incoming)

 

Almost entirely covered by the Tian Shan range, around 90% of Kyrgyz territory rests over 1500m above sea level. Nestled beneath smog-shrouded summits of the Ala Too mountains, Bishkek acts as the cultural and political hub of Central Asia’s most open democracy. With a rich nomadic culture tangled with a Soviet history, Kyrgyzstan is in a period of cultural transition as it forms a new identity going into the twenty-first century.

A track leads to Issyk-Kul, a Kyrgyz landmark and endorheic lake, which sits beneath the Tian Shan mountain range.

History

Each society needs its foundation myth — where issues of what should have happened are priotised over what probably happened. This is no different in Kyrgyzstan: the forty rays stemming from the sun on the Kyrgyz flag represent the forty tribes united under the epic hero Manas, who (at some point between 1000AD and 1800AD), conquered the Uighur to the east and the Afghans to the south to define the land of the Kyrgyz

The 500,000 line Epic of Manas, which outlines this tale, has been updated and changed at various points (especially during the early twentieth century), has been used as a tool to shape and mold Krygyz national identity through collective memory.

In 1876, the land that is now Kyrgyzstan was integrated into the Russian empire. Come 1917, this warranted a direct transition into the USSR — although given the remote nature of Kyrgyzstan, Soviet control didn’t reach Bishkek until 1919. During this period — agriculture was collectivised, education was standardised, and the ethno-cultural dynamics of Kyrgyzstan fundamentally changed; in 1989, only 22% of Bishkek was ehtnically Kyrgyz.

Bishkek’s palatial state-run bus terminal lies mostly unused now that enterprising minicab operators have out-priced intercity buses.

Following the implosion of the Soviet Union, the former USSR regional powers retained control of governance — yet in 2005, the ’Tulip Revolution’ saw the overthrow of the uncontested presidency, and the instillation of a more competitive democracy. Riots — fuelled by corruption allegations — led another president, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, to flee the office. In 2017, Krygyzstan saw Central Asia’s first successful competitive democratic handover of power.

Culture

Focal to Kyrgyz culture is its nomadic history. Traditional sports — typically equine based — are still popular, with national holidays often entailing various horseback sports, such as Tyin Emmei, where riders attempt to pick up a coin from the ground at full gallop. Falconry, both for sport and as a part of life — remain central to Kyrgyz culture. Moreover, the yurt (an intricate nomadic tent), remains so integral to Kyrgyz identity that a bird’s eye view of a yurt is featured on the centre of the post-independence flag; indeed, the Kygyz nomadic games team holds the world record for yurt assembly, in just over two hours (knocking almost 24 hours from the previous record).

A hunter takes a midday break in the highlands above Issyk-Kul with his horse, hound and eagle.

Nowruz, the Persian new year, is celebrated each year between 21 and 23 March, with a series of musical and culinary festivities. Typical central Asian dishes, such as plov and samsas, are popular throughout Kyrgyzstan — with the southern city of Osh acting as an official culinary capital. Moreover, certain Kyrgyz-specific meals, such as Naryn (something to the effect of horsemeat with noodles) bear a notable presence. Of the Kyrgyz national beers, Arpa, is surprisingly popular amongst beer connoisseurs — notably for its hoppy pale ale characteristics (rather than being a simple larger). Cognac is also very popular in Kyrgyzstan, yet given the expensive price of imports, Nash Cognac (‘our cognac’) is distilled in Kyrgyzstan. Naturally, vodka retains a strong presence as one of many Soviet hangovers.

Some corners of Kyrgyz culture remain somewhat controversial. Although not strictly ‘traditional’, bridal kidnapping remains prevalent throughout rural Kyrgyzstan, yet given its illegality and growing unpopularity, attempts have been made to eradicate the practice.

Politics

In 2017, Kyrgyzstan became the first Central Asian country to have a successful competitive election, with the ruling Social Democratic Party candidate won just over half of the popular vote in the first round of elections, meaning that there will be a peaceful handover of power in January of next year, a notable step for a country that has had two popular revolutions since independence in 1991. Kyrgyzstan formally operates as democratic unicameral government, however, pervasive Russian influence, restrictions to free speech (such as anti-gay rights advocacy laws) and certain weaknesses in the rule of law — cause Kyrgyzstan to be considered only a ‘partly free’ country by Freedom House, with an index score of 37 (compared to three in Uzbekistan, or 78 in Senegal).

Conflicts between Uzbek and Kyrgyz ethnic groups have often flared into violence over recent years — occasionally rising to a level that threatens civil war. However, these issues have been broadly quelled over recent years.

Kyrgyzstan remains the most open of central Asian countries, with comparatively expansive journalistic freedoms, and visa-free travel to and from many other countries. However, the state tax collection base remains slim, thus squeezing public expenditure possibilities and leaving open a large informal economy.

Economy

Kyrgyzstan remains the second-poorest Central Asian nation, and despite comparatively high levels of equality, per-capita income remains low. This is largely a consequence of having lost the Soviet Union as a large export market. Moreover, it seems that most Kyrgyz people have not benefited from the transition to a market economy, indeed, many have found their standard of living to have fallen as public service quality has declined. Nonetheless, profitable Kyrgyz export industries, such as a mining and prospecting, have allowed for the inflow of foreign currency, if not foreign investment. It remains to be seen whether this capital inflow will generate many jobs.

Rice fields near the village of Choyunchu, Leilek District, Kyrgyzstan. Agriculture remains a backbone of the Kyrgyz economy.

Fact File: Kazakhstan

Name Қазақстан Республикасы
Population 17,987,736 (2016 estimate)
Capital city Astana (moved from Almaty in 1997)
Official language Kazakh (official), Russian
Religions Islam (70%), Christianity (26%), other
Life expectancy 62 (men), 73 (women)
GDP 133.7 billion USD ‎(2016) (42nd)
HDI 0.788 (56th)
Gini 26.4
President Nursultan Nazarbayev

 

As the largest, richest and most well-known of the Central Asian nations, Kazakhstan is often referred to as ‘land of the wanderers’.

From the icy-climate of Kazakhstan’s industrialised north to the oil-rich lowlands of the country’s western frontier, the country’s geographic diversity has been a blessing and a curse. The country’s enormous mineral wealth, despite the challenges presented by its vastness, have helped to off-set some of the pains of a post-Soviet integration into the global economy. Greater ties to the US and China have followed investment in the oil-economy.

The Mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yasawi in Hazrat-e Turkestan, one of only three UNESCO World Heritage sites in Central Asia.

The national flag of Kazakhstan, chosen in 1992 after the collapse of the Soviet Union, was designed by Kazakh artist Shaken Niyazbekov. It depicts a golden sun shining above a golden steppe eagle in full flight. The steppe eagle is an important cultural symbol for the Kazakh people. It is a migratory species, but breeds on the central Kazakh plains. As for many nations, it represents freedom, strength and dignity. Both symbols are placed on a sky-blue background, a colour central to Ancient Turkic religious belief. On the hoist-side, a ‘koshkar-muiz’ (the horns of the ram), a traditional ornamental patter, is presented.

A short history

  • Between the first and eight centuries both Turkic-speaking peoples and Mongol tribes settle in modern-day Kazakhstan.
  • By the late fifteenth century the Kazakhs emerge as an identifiable ethnic group.
  • During the eighteenth century the Khans of the Three Zhuzes become a de facto Russian protectorate.
  • In 1917 following the October Revolution in Russia, civil war breaks out in Kazakhstan.
  • By 1920, Kazakhstan becomes a self-governing republic of the USSR.
  • Between 1954-62 around two million people, mainly ethnically Russian, settle in Kazakhstan as part of Soviet-leader Nikita Khrushchev’s ‘Virgin Lands’ project.
  • In 1986, thousands protest the appointment of an ethnic Russian as head of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan by Mikhail Gorbachev.
  • In December 1991, Kazakhstan declares independence from the USSR following the landslide presidential election of Nursultan Nazarbayev, who has remained in power since.
  • May 2004 sees a deal signed with China over the construction of an oil pipeline from Kazakhstan to China.

Culture

With just under 18 million people, comprised of 131 ethnic groups, spread out over a million square miles (making Kazakhstan the largest landlocked country) — Kazakhstan understandably has a remarkably diverse cultural composition. Despite a brief interlude of state atheism under the Soviet Union — Islam has remained the dominant religion in Kazakhstan since the eight century AD. Islam, however, is one of many tenets that comprise a Kazakh cultural history rooted both in its position as a global crossroads, and the distinctly nomadic and pastoral quality of historic Kazakh life. As such, while globalised sports, such as football, are popular (the Kazakh football team came twenty-second at the 2016 Rio Olympics, narrowly beaten by Uzbekistan), traditional nomadic sports — typically equine based — remain alive in Kazakh society. One such game, Kyz kuu, (chase the girl) is an elaborate game of kiss chase on horseback.

Riders play the traditional Kazakh game of ‘Catch the Girl’ in a demonstration of their equestrian heritage at the opening ceremonies of Central Asian Peacekeeping Battalion, 2000.

Kazakh cuisine often reflects nomadic traditions centered around the rearing of livestock; with meat and dairy acting as the lynchpin of typical dishes. Variations on pilaf (plov) are popular in Kazakh meals, and are usually accompanied by soups and various appetisers. Fermented mare’s milk is a popular alcoholic beverage — the Central Asian Forum makes no judgement as to its taste

Politics

Kazakhstan operates as a bicameral unitary republic – with the president Nursultan Nazarbayev as the head of state. The president is required to renew their mandate through national elections every five years. Whether by charm, luck, skill or otherwise, Nazarbayev — the former Soviet première of Kazakhstan – has won each election since independence with over 90% of the vote. Nazarbayev’s Otan party currently hold a majority of seats in both houses.

For nearly two decades of his twenty-six year tenure, Nursultan Nazarbayev’s (centre) Russian counterpart has been Vladimir Putin.

Economy

As the economic powerhouse of the Central Asian region, Kazakhstan carries significantly more economic clout in the international scene than her neighbour stans. Economic growth has been driven primarily by exports of minerals and fossil fuels. However, efforts have been made post-independence to break Kazakhstan’s reliance on external demand for raw materials by diversifying their economic activity. One such effort has been the Nurly Zhol ‘path to the future’ policy, which has sought vastly increased infrastructure spending so as to foster economic rigidty in the face of changing global circumstances. Kazakhstan 2050 is an economic development project announced in the 2012 annual presidential address — it is a multifaceted programme which seeks to establish Kazakhstan amongst the world’s ’top-30’ economies by 2050, it follows on from a similar Kazakhstan 2030 scheme.

Mining and steel production remain important in Kazakhstan, and are dominated by ArcelorMittal — a company with strong British ties.

Hair-Clips and Hierarchy

What ‘Mambetka’ means for Kazakhstan in the Age of Inequality

Walking home through the streets of Almaty as a young girl, I remember seeing a girl with the most beautiful hairdo pass by. As was the style in the early 2000s, her head was covered in dozens of butterfly clips. It also followed an intricate circular pattern, and every clip on her head was a colour of the rainbow. My young and impressionable mind was so fascinated by what appeared to me as bold and elegant fashion statement that I instantly started to plan a craft project of my own.

The minute my mom unlocked the door I ran off into my bedroom and started constructing my masterpiece. I wanted it to be even better than the hairstyle I saw on the street, so I decided to grab all the elastic bands, hairclips, headbands, scrunches and butterfly clips that I could find – and arrange them intricately in my hair. To complement the look I put on my puffiest, pinkest and snarkiest ball gown and a feather boa. With a proud posture and my head held high, I descended into the kitchen to showcase my magical creation to my parents.

Nowadays, calling a person from a village Mambetka is one of the many ways that urbanites reaffirm superiority over rural Kazakhs.

“Sweetie, you look like a mambetkamy mom chuckled the minute I appeared in the doorframe.

I slowly realised that my mom didn’t really dig with my avant-garde fashion choices, yet mambetka part of the feedback confused me, I wasn’t really sure what it meant. Although gentle, her mockery brought tears into my eyes as I tried to defend my beloved creation.

After all, what should I feel guilty about? The vision of an angel-like figure on the street with butterfly clips in her hair passed through my mind once again… My posture slowly regained its confidence.

Calmly, as though I knew a secret about life my mom was yet to discover, I deftly tilted my head and said, “Mama, mambetka bolayinshi” — “Mom, let me be a mambetka”.

Years later I uncovered the reason this story from my early childhood became a go-to anecdote in the family gatherings. You see, mambetka, or a mambet for males, was (and still is) a slur that so many of the sophisticated city gals and guys call people from the village. The term became popular during the Soviet rule and was enforced by the government as a way to segregate Kazakhs to educated and uneducated groups.

Nowadays, calling a person from a village Mambetka is one of the many ways that urbanites reaffirm superiority over rural Kazakhs claiming that so many of the so-called mambets don’t have the “city smarts”.

No one in their sane mind would choose a status of mambet by their own free will

But some villagers come to the city and discover an immense variety of products modern capitalism provides, it becomes an overwhelming experience; speaking Kazakh on the daily makes it their actual mother tongue, unlike the urban majority, for whom Russian is their lingua franca.

Growing up in the Kazakh steps, caring for the cattle, riding horses and cherishing tradition – they seem out of place in the stone-cold concrete jungles of the city. Hence, mambet in Kazakh society is synonymous with “bad taste”, “bad language”, and “bad manners”.

No wonder that the playful acceptance of the mambet status coming from the Almaty’s finest seemed to be so…. funny. No one in their sane mind would choose a status of mambet by their own free will because it almost guarantees job discrimination and a constant state of negligence in the hierarchal system of Kazakhstan. Yet, we – the alleged intelligentsia – uniformly ignore that none of the mambets chose their status of economic and social disadvantage; rather, they were born into it.

And yes, poverty and inequality are different, but they are much like the “Buy One – Get One Free” deal – they often go hand in hand. According to the United Nations “inequalities in income distribution and access to productive resources, basic social services, opportunities, markets, and information have been on the rise worldwide, often causing and exacerbating poverty.”

So what if my curious five-year-old mind unknowingly discovered a secret? Imagine living in a world, where instead of dividing ourselves and reaffirming superiority over mambets, we would actively choose to work together.

This pattern can be observed directly; from unequal distributions of school funding across regions – to higher poverty rates in rural regions when compared to urban ones. In fact, this poverty gap is so prevalent that according to an IMF report, the share of people with an income below the subsistence minimum in 2014 varied from 1.7% in Astana, the country’s capital, to over 10% in south Kazakhstan, a predominantly agricultural region.

As I dive deeper into my research I uncover that this hostile behaviour towards rural populations is not unique to Kazakhstan. On its Eastern border lays a country, wherein Hukou, a household registration system, lawfully restricts access to each city’s educational and healthcare system if an individual happens to have been born in a rural area.

For China’s economy these migrants are essential as they account for half of urban workforce and create half of country’s GDP; yet, they are the most marginalised and vulnerable group of the population. Meanwhile, India has adopted the most recent addition to its post-colonial caste system based on linguistic discrimination; universities, government jobs and corporate sector all require fluency in English, yet only the ruling elite and middle class can afford to send their children to private English schools.

‘Divide and conquer’ they say  — and it seems as if the elites of the world are employing this technique to create artificial privileges. The go-to mambetka bolayinshi anecdote seems innocuous at first, yet its meaning in a broader context of marginalization has far-reaching implications. So what if my curious five-year-old mind unknowingly discovered a secret? Imagine living in a world, where instead of dividing ourselves and reaffirming superiority over mambets, we would actively choose to work together to ensure that no one has to suffer from the economic disadvantages that lie behind “bad manners” or garish hair-clips.

Fact File: Turkmenistan

Name Түркменистан
Population 5,662,544
Capital city Ashgabat
Official language Turkmen (official), Russian
Religions Islam (89%), Eastern Orthodox (9%), other
Life expectancy 65.74 years
Population growth 1.7%
GDP $36.18 billion (2016)
HDI 0.692 (2015) (111th)
Gini 0.41
President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow

The ‘Doors to Hell’ – a collapsed Soviet oil rig – has been burning for over 40 years, far longer than the anticipated few weeks.

History

Bordered by Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Iran, and the Caspian sea, present-day Turkmenistan has been at a crossroads of world civilizations for a millennium. The city of Merv was one of the great Islamic cities, and until the fifteenth century was an important stop on the Silk Road, a trading route that connected Europe, Asia, and Africa. This region of cultural milieu was further emphasised by a history of different rulers, including Alexander the Great’s Persians, Islamic rulers, Turks, Mongols, and finally Russians in the eighteenth century. Despite figuring prominently among regions opposed to Bolshevism, Turkmenistan became a Soviet republic in 1924 and only gained independence at the break-up of the USSR in 1991. A recent history of Russian rule has meant that like other central Asian states, Russian language has remained the Lingua Franca post-independence.

Culture

Although there have been attempts to homogenise Turkmen identity since the 1930s, culture still has distinct unique clan-based characteristics, each with their own dialect and style of dress. As a nation, Turkmenistan’s most famed cultural export is its Turkmen rugs (often known as Bukhara rugs in the rest of the world). Throughout Turkmen material culture, clan differences can be observed in the styles and colours employed, most obviously in clothing, jewelry, and domestic decorations. Another distinctive manifestation of Turkmen culture are the large black sheepskin ‘Telpek’ hats often worn by men, somewhat resembling an afro hairstyle. Although the national cuisine of Turkmenistan possesses strong continuity with the rest of Central Asia, one unique element is the elevated position of melons; once the major supplier to the Soviet Union, melons are a subject of national pride, and are commemorated during the Melon Day holiday.

A woman displays a series of intricate carpets at a market in Balkanabatt. Carpet weaving forms such an important part of Turkmen culture, that carpet design is even featured on the national flag.

Politics

Despite elections taking place in 2012 and 2017, it is widely agreed that Turkmenistan is an autocratic single party presidential republic, demonstrated by current president Berdimuhamedow’s ability to win over 97% of the vote. A constitutional amendment in 2016 allows lifetime presidency. Human Rights Watch have designated Turkmenistan as ‘among the world’s most repressive and closed countries’, where the ‘president and his associates have total control over all aspects of public life’. This includes access to information, where the state controls all print and electronic media, and where journalists who attempt to publish material contrary to government sentiment are at risk of imprisonment and/or violence. Political dissidents are commonly incarcerated or forced into exile, and even in exile, there is risk of government reprisals for continued open government dissent. A supreme legislative body known as the Halk Maslahaty, comprised of up to 2,500 delegates (some of whom are elected by popular vote) is entirely made up of members of the Democratic Party of Turkmenistan, and is chaired by the president for a life term.

A giant golden statue to Turkmenistan’s first president – Saparmurat Niyazov – stands overlooking Ashgabat.

Economy

Extensive natural gas reserves, the fourth largest in the world, mean that since 1993 citizens have received electricity and natural gas free of charge by the government. These vast reserves also dictate the country’s international relations. A pipeline connecting China and Turkmenistan has ensured China is the nation’s most important economic partner, however plans for a trans-Caspian pipeline that would carry gas to Europe and a pipeline heading towards South Asia are demonstrating a desire to expand exports beyond Iran, Russia, and China. Despite these ambitions, and a positive balance of trade, Turkmenistan is still considered a particularly isolationist state. However, Turkmenistan remains one of the fastest-growing economies in the world, and has become one of the top ten global producers of cotton in an attempt to diversify. Centralised state ownership of the economy pervades most large industries including finance and natural resources, however since Turkmenistan’s independence there has been a movement towards privatisation in trade, catering, and consumer services, and private sector ownership forms the majority in agriculture, trade, and transport.

Fact File: Uzbekistan

Name Oʻzbekiston Respublikasi
Population 32,979,000 (2017 estimate)
Capital city Tashkent
Official language Uzbek (official), Russian, Tajik
Religions Islam (88%), Eastern Orthodox (9%), other
Life expectancy 68.45 years
Population growth  1.7%
GDP  $67.22 billion (2016)
HDI  0.701 (105th)
Gini  0.45
President  Shavkat Mirziyoyev

History

Bordering the other four Central Asian “Stans”, Uzbekistan has a rich and colourful history of movement, conquest, and resistance. After Alexander The Great conquered the region in fourth century BC, Uzbekistan witnessed several distinct phases of external influence. Turkic nomads arrived in the sixth century AD and by the eight century Islam was introduced by the Arabs. Perhaps most famously the Mongol Empire, under Genghis Khan, consumed the region in the thirteenth century. With the steppes united, trade, communication and even diseases spread massively in the following centuries. Uzbekistan’s major cities, such as Bukhara, reaped the benefit of reinvigorated East-West trade links.

The Mongols and the Silk Road put the country firmly on the map, but it wasn’t until the early sixteenth century was invaded by the Uzbek. Under the leadership of Abdullah, the empire took in parts of Afghanistan and Persia, but soon broke down. That lack of unity left the Uzbekistani principalities at the mercy of the expanding Russian Empire in the latter half of the nineteenth century. In the wake of the Russian Revolution, the Uzbek fractured between Soviet supporters and the Basmachi, with the latter eventually succumbing to Stalinist policies. Collectivisation, industrialisation, and indigenisation were all pursued by the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic during the twentieth century. Soviet industry shifted from vulnerable positions in Western Russia to Uzbekistan during WWII, whilst in the post-war years a drastic drive toward mass production of cotton led to several major ecological disasters. With the collapse of Communism in 1989, Uzbekistan eventually secured its independence in 1991, after several centuries of Russian rule.

Artwork on the rooftop of the Tilla Kari madrasa in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. Photo by Patrick Riggenberg.

Economy

Uzbekistan is currently witnessing a momentous period economic growth. According to the World Bank, Uzbekistan’s economy is set to grow faster than any Central Asian or Eastern European nation between now and 2019. State investment in gas, gold and cotton production has created a booming export economy. The future fortunes of exports are largely tied to the performance the Chinese and Russian economies, and their general downturn has concerned Uzbekistani policy makers. Yet even with that considered, a strong small business sector has lifted large sections of the population out of poverty and into employment, a sign that the country’s economy is shifting toward a greater reliance on internal rather than external markets.

Food

The meal is a central pillar of Uzbek culture. Tandoor baked bread (tandir) holds a sacred place at the meal, and can only be torn by hand and never thrown out. Palov (plov or pilaf) is perhaps the most famous dish in the region—and across Central Asia. Often considered to be the oldest dish in Uzbek cuisine and it is believed Alexander the Great was served palov after capturing Marakanda. Cooked in a large pot, palov is a rice based dish cooked with lamb, raisins, and entire bulbs of garlic, seasoned with turmeric, coriander, and cumin.

Pilaf (plov) is a popular dish throughout Uzbekistan and the Central Asia region. Photo Jarda Pulao.

Music

Music is omnipresent in Uzbek society. Whispers of the ancients can be heard in traditional recitals at funerals and commemorative ceremonies, distinct from European music in its monophonic texture. Uzbekistan boasts some incredibly influential musicians in the region. Ari Babakhanov is amongst the most famous. Known for his immense contribution to traditional Bukhara music, he also transcribed and noted down extensive amounts of Persian poetry and popular Uzbek and Tajik works. Today, Uzbekistan has a diverse music scene, with rock and rap the most popular forms.

Customs

Close friends or family of the same sex greet each other with a kiss on both cheeks. At a meal, guests are expected to take a turn as toastmaster, praising the host for welcoming them into their home. Family and community is of immense value in Uzbekistan. Communities are governed by the mahallya, a self-governing unit of neighbours and families supporting one another. Most girls marry before the age of 21, and weddings involve the entire community; hundreds of guests are typically invited.

A ‘sweet plov’ salesaman at a Nowruz festival between 1865-1872

Politics

2016 witnessed the election of a new president, Shavkat Mirziyoyev in Uzbekistan. Prior to Mirziyoyev’s election, the nation had been ruled by Islam Karimov, a deeply controversial who was consistently criticised by the international community for extensive human rights abuses in the country. For example, the United Nations has found torture to be institutionalised in the country. Press censorship remains a major issue and many western news outlets are not allowed to function in the country. However, whilst human rights abuses remain a key issue, the government has taken steps to eradicate human trafficking and cultivation of opium for export purposes.

Fact File: Tajikistan

Name Republic of Tajikistan
Population 8,734,951
Capital city Dushanbe
Official language Tajik, but Russian is widely used in the governmental and business sphere
Religions Sunni Muslim (85%), Shia Muslim (5%), other (10%)
Life expectancy 69.7 Years
Population growth 1.62%
GDP $6.9 billion
HDI 0.627 (129th)
GINI 30.8 (133rd)
President Emomali Rahmon

Geography

Situated in the heart of Central Asia, the Republic of Tajikistan is bordered by Uzbekistan from the west, Kyrgyzstan from the north, China from the east, and Afghanistan from the west, which provides a politically significant location to the country. Its complex landscape is paired with a sharply continental climate, including areas with desert and subtropical climate. Ninety-five per cent of the surface is covered with mountains, the two most significant being the Pamir and the Alay Mountains, which are the sources glacier fed rivers, upon which the country’s hydropower economy is built. Tajikistan is rich in other natural resources as well, such as uranium, which allows for an influential political standpoint, a variety of precious metals, namely gold and silver. Its environmental features considerably influence the challenges Tajikistan faces, particularly frequent flooding and landslides coming from the melting glaciers due to climate change.

The Pamir Mountains, viewed from the Pamir Highway, Tajikistan.

History

Tajikistan has always been at the crossroad of magnificent cultures. The Tajiks emerged as a distinct ethnic group in the eight century. At the same time, Arab invaders conquered Central Asia, introducing Islam to the region, which still has a prominent influence today. Eastern, especially Chinese cultural effects influenced the region through the trade on the Silk Road, which had three main routes crossing the current territory of Tajikistan. During the course of centuries a wide variety of cultural forces influenced the area as a result of its annexation to the Persian, the Mongol, and the Timurid Empire, before falling under Russian rule in the 1860s, and becoming part of the Soviet Union in 1921.

After more than a hundred years of Russian domination, pro-democratic protests emerged in Dushanbe, and with the fall of the USSR, Tajikistan declared independence on the 9 September in 1991. As a result of the protests, the first direct presidential elections were held. However, a year later, anti-government protests swept through the streets of Dushanbe escalating into a civil war which took 20,000 lives, and demolished the industrial and agricultural sectors of the economy. Subsequently, Emomali Rahmon became the new head of state, and is still serving as president to the present day.

Culture

The government actively promotes defining and defending the traditional Tajik culture. Russian-style surnames are outlawed, and even though 85% of the population is Sunni and 5% is Shia Muslim, Arabic-style beards and hijabs are banned, as they don’t reflect religiosity, and people should ‘love God with their hearts’. Women are encouraged to dress in traditional, bright coloured cotton dresses and long skirts, while men wear caps lined with black lamb skin.

An early colour photograph by Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky shows Tajik boys and men, probably around 1910.

The Tajik culture, with its legendary hospitality, is very family centric. Weddings were historically celebrated over the course of seven days, however this is now restricted by the government as a result of the huge expenses such festivities incur. Today, the most widely celebrated festivals are religious ones, such as the Muslim New Year, or Qurban Eid, for which entire villages get together and prepare traditional dishes, such as the ‘kabuli pulao’, which is a rice based dish with shredded yellow turnip or carrot, meat, and olive oil. The Tajik culture has different music for different occasions, but traditionally, there is a solo instrument, such as the ‘daf’, for percussions, that can be traced back to the fourteenth century, accompanied by singing. The classical national dance, which is emotions driven and energetic, is also an essential feature of celebrations.

The Tajik literature is a prominent component of the culture too. Whilst during Russian rule, literature had to comply with the official views; producing pieces about the civil war, industrialisation and collectivisation; the most well-known epic poetry originates back to long before the USSR, to the tenth century. Shahname, translated as the Book of Kings. It is the world’s longest poem created by a single poet, Firdowsī. His piece has been the inspiration for many Tajik movies made in the country’s own film studio, which was established, along with numerous theatres and museums, by the art-favouring Soviet Union. Tajik people are fond of sports as well, the most popular being football, with the national team competing in FIFA. Given the geographical conditions, hiking, climbing and skiing are favoured as well.

Politics

The state of Tajikistan is a presidential republic with a dominant party system. The head of state is Emomali Rahmon sice 1992, who has recently declared himself a Leader of the Nation. Originally, presidents are elected for a maximum of two terms, each which lasts seven years, however, Rahmon has held a referendum which allowed him to serve four consecutive terms. Elections are internationally criticised as neither fair, nor free, especially since banning the main opposition party. The president captures every opportunity to consolidate his power, which is also expressed by building a tea house worth 1% of GDP, a new city in the desert, and setting up the tallest flag pole. Moreover, independent press is restricted, along with web content.

Due to the unstable domestic politics, education and public healthcare are not sufficiently supported. Access to education is limited by individual resources, and healthcare is only present in the urban areas, pushing most people into primitive living conditions. With regards to international politics, Tajikistan is geopolitically significant. The state has co-operated both with Russia, with respect to counter-extremist and drug-trafficking measures; and the United States, in providing non-military assistance for their operations in Afghanistan. Moreover, their trade in resources with China has perked both political and economic interest in Tajikistan. Islamic extremism — especially as a result of spillover from the Afghan war, has become an increasing security threat in Tajikistan. Counter-measures, such as curtailments of cultural expression, have often been repressive, and potentially counter-productive.

Economy

Tajikistan is the poorest country in the Central Asian region. However, it has secured an exemplary track-record in alleviating poverty, having halved rates of indigence since independece. Almost half of its GDP is made up of remittances sent home from over a million Tajiks working is Russia and Kazakhstan, making Tajikistan the most remittance-dependent country in the world. Hence, the economic uncertainty of Russia poses a great threat to the Tajik economy, leading to socio-political instability, if the migrant workers have to return home.

The main economic sectors are agriculture and industry. Two-fifth of the population works in agriculture, which is mainly focused on cotton production, raising livestock, and cultivating fruits, vegetables, grains, and rice. In spite of the significant role of agriculture, food insecurity is a fierce challenge for the country, relying highly on food import. With regards to industry, light industry is centered around agricultural production; hence, textile and food-processing sectors are critical to the internal economy. Heavy industry predominantly concerns coal mining and oil extraction. The energy sector is the principal investment sector in the Tajik economy, and it has garnered increasing international attention over recent years, especially from China. Chinese investments have promoted economic development and trade in the region, largely in order to promote and maintain socioeconomic stability. One recent projects to this end is the One Road, One Belt project, which aims to reconstruct the Silk Road, and build up a trading link running from China to Europe, through Central Asia.

Torn between two worlds — how Social Media is impacting Kazakhstan’s development

The harsh din of my alarm bursts rudely into my dreams and drags me slowly back into the real world.

Yes, 15 minutes before my actual wake up time, I look to my smartphone to ground me from my hazy state, and I slowly come-to by catching up with all the global and personal updates that happened overnight. As I scroll down endless messages, Instagram updates and Facebook notifications I realize that this sentence is supposed to be relatable to all of us, who have a privilege of living in the information technology age.

Panoramic view of Almaty from the hills of the Kok Tobe.

This transformation is truly global; it impacts everything from the disruption of traditional industries and creation of new ones to the questionable imprint of globalization and changing patterns of personal interactions. In Kazakhstan, these changes not only shape the nature of economy but also have a significant influence on one’s identity and self-image.

Over the past decade, Kazakhstan has witnessed a staggering increase in Internet users from merely 3% in 2005 to more than 55% in 2016. And whilst my grandma is quite an active Facebook user, a majority of Internet users in Kazakhstan are urban millennials located in two major cities — Almaty and Astana.

In fact, the split between rural and urban areas is so prominent that while more than 70% of the urban population has access to the Internet, only 45% of the rural population gets covered by national providers. This issue only highlights the ever-pressing problem of an urban-rural split in Central Asian region.

Having been born and raised in Almaty, the biggest Kazakhstani metropolis, I always had a privilege of being surrounded by clean streets, trendy restaurants and shiny malls. It was only later in life that I have discovered the beautifully constructed image of my hometown not to be a full reflection of the nation.

For most rural Kazakh citizens; having access to clean hot water, heating during winter, education and healthcare is a daily struggle to overcome. Poorly implemented agricultural policies combined with the sudden collapse of the Soviet Union have resulted in poverty and ill health of its rural population. Similarly, limited access to worldwide knowledge in rural regions fosters a pre-existing income inequality and hinders social mobility for the young.

On the other hand, while the Kazakh healthcare system is collapsing with underpaid and overworked doctors and nurses; the inherent kindness in Kazakh culture, combined with the age of social media, has created a unique type of non-profit organisation. In essence, these NGOs consist of online-operated charities such as Dara and Kus Zholy, which are providing people with second-hand clothing and food — and have created crowd-funding pages to help sick children get access to world-class healthcare, along with supporting children with special needs. All this is being made possible because of generous donations from community-minded private citizens, who often live on the brink of poverty themselves. This unique generosity is deeply intertwined within Kazakh traditions, but is also influenced by Kazakh ego and self-image.

Uyat boladi” is a phrase that I, as a Kazakh woman, grew up hearing on daily basis. This almost always meant the end of a discussion. For a foreign ear this phrase, which is being repeated in each and every single household several times per day, sounds harmless and almost poetic. Yet, its translation — will be shamed — combined with an already self-conscious nature of social media, serves to create harmful effects.

Bigger exposure to Kylie Jenner types on Instagram has fuelled a new wave of insecurities faced by Kazakh women. Now expected not only to be an example of a modest and saint-like bride to all the neighbours, the Kazakh woman is now forced to become two-dimensional: her worth is also determined by the number of likes and comments she gets on an Instagram post. Being constantly pressured to be the perfect Stepford wife with a perfect body and perfect manners; young women enter a vicious self-depreciating cycle fuelled by a stream of negative comments. All the while, they are forever torn by the tug of two polar opposites: the hypersexualised female body, so normalised in the media; and the “Uyat boladi” conservative and patriarchal mindset.

Seeing glorified Western lifestyle on their feed, young people strive for everything Western — from Caucasoid facial features right through to the way they dress and speak. Majority Muslim, Kazakh society is now undergoing a transformation. This comes as no surprise to me; adverts, clinics, and cases of operative adjustments — such as double eyelid plastic surgeries — are becoming omnipresent, not just in Kazakhstan, but throughout the East Asian region as well.

Although harmful to the self-esteem of the young, social media has undoubtedly boosted Kazakh economy. According to CNP Processing, an international business research firm, the e-commerce sector of the economy has generated more than $5million in 2010 on advertising; while overall the sector has generated $300 million in sales in 2012, and the figure has been on the rise ever since. Online businesses such as Lamoda and Chocolife were very quick to spot the untapped potential that a sparsely populated and tech-savvy nation promised. Meanwhile, a niche of independent online retailers mostly operated through Instagram caught onto the wave, and in doing so generated jobs and fostered the country’s economy.

As e-commerce markets grew and online news consumption became conventional, another transformation emerged — Kazakhstan developed a profitable blogger sphere. Facebook’s live streaming allowed independent voices to be heard, while YouTube provided a legitimate and user-friendly platform. One of the most prominent examples of these independent voices is Yerzhan Rashev — a creator and host of the Rashev Show and an occasional live streamer, who not only freely expresses his opinions about the nation’s development but also is explicit about corruption within the branches of government. He champions for transparency, a good moral code, and self-improvement; all delivered in an articulate manner that encourages discussion and further debate (usually in the comment section). Younger comedians — teams Yuframe and Jokeasses, highlight important social issues in a more light-hearted manner, but yet again encourage their audience to be better than the generation of post-Soviet turmoil with its prejudices and “Uyat boladi” mindset.

Social Media is already making its impact on Kazakhstani self-image as young people are becoming more tolerant towards each other’s differences; it also fills them with hope for a better future by bringing the sum of human knowledge in the world to their fingertips — and hopefully by extension helping them to learn to think critically. Social media and the Internet have just started to penetrate the Kazakh market, and there is a lot of progress to be made in terms of digital freedom and censorship of the information. I can’t help but wonder what would the future entail for a young and progressive Kazakh society? Would the progress made in the last decade and the kind inherent in Kazakh culture be enough to create a modern, democratic and open-minded society — or would social media continue to harm self-esteem of the young while also widening the economic inequality between urban-rural populations? Yet again, Kazakhstan is at the crossroads. The question is: what path will the nation choose to take?