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 régime 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.

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.

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 élite 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.

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?