Europe and Kazakhstan

This article originally appeared in the November 2017 edition of Politique Internationale. Permission to republish has been kindly granted by the author.

Dr Benita Ferrero-Waldner, former Minister of Foreign Affairs for Austria, outlines the growing interdependence of Kazakhstan and the European Union.

In 1991, as the USSR broke up, the republics in Central Asia found themselves in a new and challenging world. The region as a whole has advanced in leaps and bounds since then. Each year, the five nations of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are making greater contributions to global dialogue on issues of critical importance to the countries of Europe. For almost every major sphere of international policy — from energy security to the environment, combating people and drug trafficking, and counter-terrorism — there is an ever-growing alliance with Europe, and the potential for further collaboration is enormous.

A Soyuz spacecraft is transported by train to its launch pad at Kazakhstan’s Baikonur Cosmodrome, where many European Space Agency launches take place.

I have taken a great personal interest in the region since my first visit in 1999 ahead of Austria’s chairmanship of the OSCE, during which we focused on the region in particular.   I was struck then, as I still am today, by the industry and ambition of the Central Asian states, and of Kazakhstan in particular. These qualities have seen the country rise from a very challenging start to become the confident player on the world stage that we see today.

From the early days of its Independence Kazakhstan has adopted a multidimensional foreign policy, and recently set out a “2050 Strategy” which aims to make the country one of the 30 most competitive nations in the world by the mid-point of the century.

Considered as a whole, the European Union is Kazakhstan’s largest foreign trade partner, accounting for 50% in of its total external trade, and the largest investor in Kazakhstan, with a 60% share in its FDI. As for Kazakhstan, it exports 60% of its oil to Europe, making it Europe’s third largest provider of hydrocarbons among non-OPEC countries. In 2015 Kazakhstan and the European Union signed an Enhanced Partnership and Cooperation Agreement — the strongest possible framework of bilateral cooperation between non-neighbour states, which assesses 29 potential areas of cooperation.

The partnership is set to grow further, as witnessed by Kazakhstan’s joining the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) in 2014, the first Central Asian country to do so. Kazakhstan’s landmark election as a non-permanent Member of the United Nations Security Council in 2016 will have greatly strengthened the country’s standing in Europe; as will its accession to the World Trade Organisation in 2015, a development which was strongly advocated by the European Union throughout nearly two decades of negotiation.

A new EU strategy for Kazakhstan and other Central Asian Countries was announced in 2015, emphasizing areas for economic and social development. Since then, European leaders have lauded the improvement in business conditions in Kazakhstan and pushed for further investment and trade in the country. An improved visa regime has been mooted, as has further cooperation in education.

A major priority for both Kazakhstan and Europe has been establishing a partnership in the energy field. Kazakhstan’s vast energy resources are deemed to have played an important role in the development of the Southern Gas Corridor (SGC) project, set to bring vast quantities of gas from the Caspian Basin to Europe. European countries are also aware of the great potential for the production of green energy in Kazakhstan, a territory well-suited for solar and wind energy production. “Future Energy” was the theme of EXPO 2017, which concluded recently in Astana.

Cooperation in international and domestic security is another key component in the Europe-Kazakhstan partnership. Kazakhstan has been fully supportive of EU regional programmes aimed at coordinating efforts in the field of counter terrorism, counter-narcotics and border management. The country’s pioneering policy of nuclear disarmament, and the concrete steps it has taken to prevent nuclear proliferation worldwide, have continued to receive the EU’s full backing since the early 1990s.

As a European diplomat who has followed the rise of Central Asia since the fall of the USSR with great interest, the mutual benefits of an ongoing partnership between Kazakhstan and the countries of Europe seem self-evident. From a European perspective, it is now crucial to build on the momentum for engagement with Kazakhstan afforded by these positive recent developments, and keep strengthening a fruitful partnership based on common interests and shared values. I look forward to seeing what prospects the future holds in this respect.


Dr Benita Ferrero-Waldner is a prominent Austrian diplomat and politician. Ferrero-Waldner served as Foreign Minister from 2000 to 2004 and was the ÖVP’s candidate in the 2004 Austrian presidential election, which she narrowly lost with 47.6% of votes. She has served as the European Commissioner for External Relations and European Neighbourhood Policy, and as the European Commissioner for Trade and European Neighbourhood Policy, and is credited with being the key diplomat in the 24 July 2007 release of five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor imprisoned by Libya. She also worked to improve conditions for children infected with HIV/Aids.

Wu-Stan Clan: Central Asia’s ancient rap tradition

“It’s all about improvising. Who has the sharpest verses with the most musicality and rhythm and wisdom and wit?”

That’s Alagushev Balai, a Kyrgyz interviewed thirteen years ago by the author Peter Finn. He’s describing aitysh, Central Asia’s adversarial, ad-libbed performance tradition that’s half music and half sick flow.

Didar Qamiev, born 1988, is a celebrated member of Kazakhstan’s new generation of akyns.

Aitysh is a contest between two participants, or akyns. They sit across the room from each other, improvising rhythmic, rhyming rebuttals on subjects suggested by the audience. Though good-natured and often comedic, aitysh has teeth. When one akyn needs to diss another, nothing is off limits: there’s a long-standing custom that allows akyns all forms of slander. They make backhanded political statements, criticise each other’s style, flirt, and flat-out insult one another.

“During an aityshakyns sing their songs in turns,” said Balai. “It is a musical dialogue, like a debate. When one akyn starts an argument, the second one should continue it starting a new rhyme or following the competitor’s one.”

The akyn’s goal is to convince his audience that’s he is the better performer. Just as in a rap battle, a crowd of onlookers is crucial in deciding the victor.

The tradition is artful too, and often cuttingly satirical. Politics and morals have alwasy been central to aitysh, and it’s as philosophical as Dylan, as gritty as Nas, and — sometimes — as egomaniacal as Kanye.

No one seems to know exactly where aitysh came from, but it’s been a fixture for at least a thousand years. In the pre-Soviet days of majority illiteracy, akyns played a vital cultural role. They were the agents of social and historical identity, but also helped each generation to expound its zeitgeist, celebrate its heroes and hold its leaders to account.

During the Soviet period, unusually, aitysh wasn’t entirely scrubbed from Kazakh and Kyrgyz culture, but requisitioned as a way to adapt old legends to the new rulers.

“A lot of attention was paid to akyn and the communists used it as a propaganda loudspeaker,” said Balai. “Akyns sang about Lenin and the revolution and the achievements of the party.”

It was dangerous to be an akyn in Communist Central Asia.

“During the Soviet period, akyns and their poetry were strictly controlled,” the young performer, Aaly Tutkuchev, told author, Elmira Köchümkulova. “The KGB told them to write down the text of their poetry before they went out to sing in front of people.”

So tightly did aitysh come to be associated with communism, that by the collapse of the Soviet Union the akyn art was almost extinct. According to Finn, Kyrgyzstan had only four akyns left in 1991. An influx of Western music — some of it, let’s hope, from Queensbridge and Compton — gave aitysh all the cachet of morris dancing and oompah.

As the new nation states matured, however, young people began to rediscover the tradition. Across the board, by the early 2000s, Central Asia’s cultural heritage gained a new importance. In 2003, UNESCO added the akyns to its list of intangible cultural heritage. In 2001, Kyrgyz public figure, Sadyk Sher-Niyaz, established the Aitysh Public Fund, a charitable organisation that publicises the art and has trained over a hundred new akyns.

Now, Kyrgyz and Kazakh akyns participate in the democratic political process — passing from village to village to deliver a commentary, soapbox-style.

“Akyns have always given heart to the Kazakh people in times of hardship and misery,” Kazak akyn, Didar Qamiev told the researcher, Jangül Qojakhmetova. “During the Great Patriotic War, in 1943, an aitysh in Almaty raised people’s spirits and hopes. Contemporary aitysh enlighten people and enrich them spiritually.”

The natural and unnatural wonders of Central Asia

In terms of space, Central Asia has a lot of it.

With a combined land area of 3,926,790 square kilometres, the Five Stans cover 2.63 percent of the world’s landmass. Although that is an area far larger than India, Central Asia has a population density of just eighteen people per square kilometre. India, by comparison, is 25 times as densely populated. What is in all of that space in-between the people? What does the natural world conjure across Central Asia? In this article we take a trip to six of the most extraordinary centres of the natural (and unnatural) world of Central Asia, to discover how the people of Central Asia are both shaped and shaping the vast environment around them.

Pamir Mountains (Tajikistan & Kyrgyzstan)

It makes sense to begin with the “Roof of the World” — the Pamir Mountains. Written about in the West since the time of Ptolemy, centuries ago three branches of the Silk Road used to cross the Pamirs. Whilst most of the range lies within Tajikistan, its fringes seep into Afghanistan, China and Kyrgyzstan. A diverse array of societies live in semi-autonomous and autonomous areas of the mountains. Many are small nomadic communities of Tajiks, but sizeable populations live in small cities such as Khorog.

Climbers in 1978 pose for a photograph with ‘Peak Communism’, as the highest point in Central Asia was then known.

The tallest peak of the Pamirs — Kongur Tagh — is not in Central Asia, but China. Ismoil Peak is the highest in the region, at a modest 7,495m — the fiftieth tallest mountain in the world. Formerly known as Peak Communism, the mountain was more formerly still named after Joseph Stalin, but gained its current name in the late twentieth century to commemorate the Samanid emir, Ismail Samani.

Gates of Hell (Turkmenistan)

‘The Gates of Hell’, which for the past four decades has been a benchmark for ‘The hottest thing in Turkmenistan since…’

From the heights of heaven, we journey to the Gates of Hell. Yes, the door to the underworld can be found in Turkmenistan’s Karakum Desert, 275km north of the country’s capital. The Darvaza Gas Crater emerged in 1971 following a Soviet drilling accident. In an attempt to extract oil, engineers ruptured a natural gas pocket unearthing an enormous crater, and swallowing up the rig. Immediately, toxic gas spewed from the 230 feet-wide crater and animals in the area soon began to perish. In an attempt to cull the spread of methane, geologists opted to set the crater on fire, and thus the Flames of Hell came to Earth. It is not unusual for gas craters to be set on fire but, usually, they extinguish within a few weeks, months, or at most, years; no one knows when, or even if the Darvaza Crater will stop burning. Today, the Gates of Hell is a popular tourist attraction, which Google helpfully informs us is “Open 24 Hours”.

Aral Sea (Kazakstan and Uzbekistan)

The famous ‘disappearing lake’ act.

Tragedy hit Central Asia in the 1960s, in what many experts believe to be one of the greatest ecological disasters of all time. The Aral Sea was one the world’s fourth-largest lake — the second largest in Asia. Covering 26,000 square miles, it truly was one of the natural wonders of the region, dividing a chunk of border between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

Fish, and thus the local fishing industry, has declined immensely since the disappearance of water. This photograph of a beached fishing vessel in the Bay of Zhalanas, Aralsk, Kazakhstan, illustrates the point.

Today, that border requires not a boat to cross, but feet. In the 1960s, as part of the Soviet economic plan to make Central Asia the world’s largest producer of cotton, the two great rivers of Central Asia were diverted for an irrigation project. The Amu Darya and the Syr Darya had fed the Aral, but catastrophic negligence rapidly depleted the sea’s water supply. By 1990, the sea split in two, and by 2003, the depth had fallen by 72 feet. Eventually, the Aral held just one-tenth of its original volume. Fishing ports turned to barren wastelands and dust bowling swept up sand and chemical residues from the now exposed seabed. Although a global effort led by the World Bank has sought to reinvigorate the Northern Aral Sea, many experts believe that the vast majority of this once great lake will remain barren. The Aral Sea disaster provides a stark and rather apocalyptic prequel to the world’s looming water crisis.

Fedchenko Glacier (Tajikistan)

At eleven times the length of Canada’s Athabasca Glacier, the Fedchenko Glacier is the world’s longest non-polar Glacier.

2000km away from the Aral is Fedchenko Glacier, the world’s longest non-polar glacier. First discovered in 1878, it is by far the biggest glacier in the Pamir range and its runoff eventually trickles into what is left of the Aral Sea. The ice on Fedchenko Glacier, found in the east of Tajikistan, is 1000m thick in parts and measures 77km in length. Put in perspective, Canada’s famous Athabasca Glacier is just 7km long. The source of Fedchenko is found in Gorno-Badakhshan province upon Revolution Peak, the highest point in the eastern part of the Yazgulem Range.

Sharyn Canyon (Kazakstan)

Kazakstan’s great Canyon will most likely become grand in the next few hundred million years.

Close to the border with China is one of Central Asia’s more unusual sites: Sharyn Canyon. The valley began to be formed rather recently – just 90 million years ago. Its most famous point—The Valley of Castles—provides the off the beaten track tourist with some truly epic photos for their Instagram. Although it is dwarfed by the Grand Canyon for length, it is still nearly 100km long, and holds some remarkable ecological sites. A prehistoric forest, for example, containing a large number of Sogdian Ash, a particularly rare species of Ash. Sharyn Canyon National Park is 120 miles east of Almaty and the staggering views of the ancient dust-orange rock canyon walls are a key attraction for Kazakstan’s incipient tourist industry.

Chuy Valley (Kazakhstan)

Kazakhstan is the alleged birthplace of cannabis, and in the Chuy Valley, 400,000 hectares have grown wild in amongst the Tien-shan mountains. Ever since the restrictive drug policies of the Soviet Union, this has been something of a political headache; whereas nature was defeated in the Aral Sea, the hardy nature of wild cannabis has allowed the crops to survive multiple eradication attempts, making cannabis Kazakhstan’s most potent perennial weed. Under the cover of night, locals are known to descend into the valley to collect small quantities of wild cannabis – which is famed for a low potency and consequent lack of hangover effects. Large-scale harvesting is inhibited by an annual police crackdown on efforts to organise collection efforts – as such, organised criminals rub shoulders with bohemian enthusiasts, with no groups having a monopoly on the region of natural abundance.

A ‘high’ valley in Kazakhstan. Photo: Mariusz Kluzniak.

There is your heaven to hell then — a whistle-stop tour of the natural wonders of Central Asia. Though it would rarely come to mind when we think of the epic of our natural environment, Central Asia possesses some of the most remarkable examples of the undiscovered, the unbelievable, and unfortunately, the unnatural. Whilst the Darvaza Gas Crater is an example to poke fun at, the Aral Sea disaster is not. Perhaps the great measure Central Asia’s natural wonders is, then, humankind’s utterly fragile relationship to the natural world.

Cheques through the mail: the changing nature of Central Asia’s remittance economy

Central Asian nations must supersede historic economic ties with Russia both by fostering employment and investment links elsewhere, and by generating a meaningful internal economy.

A worker moves fish at a processing plant in Aralsk, Kazakhstan.

The economies of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan are heavily dependent on remittances from migrant labourers in Russia. Tajikistan is the most remittance-dependent country in the world, with four in ten adult males seeking employment abroad. The increased movement of people across post-Soviet Eurasia echoes the historical connectivity and cross-cultural interactions within the region. These young workers have found employment in low-income jobs industries such as construction sites and natural resource extraction.

According to the World Bank, remittance inflows in Tajikistan represented 42% of the country’s GDP in 2014. At an individual level, remittances support the daily subsistence of poor families, and act as a medium for domestic consumption. In turn, this improves the balance of payments by providing governments with tax from goods purchased through remittances. However, remittances to Central Asia have begun to diminish.

Country 2015 2016
Uzbekistan $3 billion $2.74 billion
Tajikistan $2.2 billion $1.9 billion
Kyrgyzstan $1.5 billion $1.7 billion

Remittances from Russia to Central Asia, www.eurasianet.org

The above figures demonstrate the decline of remittances from Russia to Central Asia. This fall is linked to developments in the global economy. The global plunge in oil prices has caused a slump in the Russian economy, triggering a recession.

“Migrant workers from Tajikistan and Uzbekistan face tougher immigration laws as the two countries do not belong to the Eurasian Economic Union”

Western sanctions imposed after Moscow’s annexation of Crimea has further compounded the economic crisis. These two developments have resulted in a devaluation of the Rouble and thus the value in dollars of remittances. The weakness of the rouble has resulted in the falling of real wages in Russia. Economic deterioration in Russia has, in turn, lowered demand for Central Asia labour, forcing migrant workers to return home. Moreover, migrant workers from Tajikistan and Uzbekistan face tougher immigration laws as the two countries do not belong to the Eurasian Economic Union. This phenomenon has also affected migrant workers from the Caucasus. It will be interesting to see if the lack of employment opportunities in Russia precipitates a flow of migration to other countries in Europe or Asia.

Beyond Russia’s economic travails, a remittance-dependant economy signals low levels of investment (and thus a lack of productive non-primary jobs), declining terms of trade, and persistent vulnerability to the vicissitudes of the global economic climate. Moreover, the iterative waves of emigration serve to undermine the fragile national consciousness in nascent democracies and cause a variety of social fractures as a consequence of widespread absenteeism. Hence there is a need both to move away from Russian dependence, and the remittance economy itself.

“Increased foreign direct investment (FDI) from China and Turkey highlight the geopolitical shifts occurring in the region.”

The structural over-reliance on remittances have created an economic dilemma for Central Asian governments. Lower remittances have engendered a fall in economic growth as the purchasing power of citizens diminish. Taking into account the excessive debt affecting these countries, governments are forced to increase spending, thereby exacerbating fiscal deficits.

However, the combination of established migrant communities from Central Asia in Russia and the ease of assimilation via a shared language act as recalcitrant barriers to swift transitions in the nature of Central Asian remittance economies.

Clearly, these countries must seek alternative solutions and diversify their economies. Increased foreign direct investment (FDI) from China and Turkey highlight the geopolitical shifts occurring in the region. Increased investment in infrastructure will reduce the dependency on remittances and stimulate the employment market in a region that offers cheaper labour than its neighbours. The pursuit of alternative currency inflows signals a region willing to adapt and evolve to changes in the global economy.

China is currently the largest investor in the region. Its Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB), established in 2013, offers an alternative to economic strategies oriented towards Russia. Likewise, the Beijing-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank represents a novel source of funding for economic development and infrastructure-building in Central Asian states. As Central Asia re-orients itself in the global economy, it is faced by a plethora of opportunities, challenges, and potential traps. Will leaders look beyond Moscow and seek friendship elsewhere?

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.