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.”

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.

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?