Sunday, March 25, 2012

Kazakhstan: growing fast, maybe even fast enough to grow out of Borat's shadow

This video just about sums up the problem faced by the Central Asia region. Sandwiched between China, Russia, the Indian subcontinent and the Caucusus, it something of a cipher, so much so that the Borat skits and movies are probably the greatest source of information we have about the movie. It would be one thing if they were even slightly rooted in facts, but they're just nonsensical jokes about a country and a region that we barely understand.

The scenes set in Kazakhstan were actually filmed in Romania, the language we most commonly hear in the movie is Polish, and the Kazakh we see on the screen is actually Russian, and nonsensical Russian at that, nothing more than consonants strung together like somebody mashing his hand on a keyboard.

While it is true that most the Central Asian region has barely changed since the fall of the USSR, Kazakhstan is actually the exception. Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are every bit the dictatorships they used to be, with every bit of the deep, entrenched poverty they suffered during the Soviet era. Kyrgyzstan has made the transition to a democracy, albeit an imperfect one, but a democracy nevertheless, though, like its fellow Central Asian democracy in Mongolia, that has not yet translated to a better life for its people.

It is Kazakhstan that stands out in following the sort of heavy-handed reforms that Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong made, followed by China: a single-minded focus on economic growth at the expense of civil liberties and political freedoms. What makes Kazakhstan a little bit different from these four countries is that their development didn't come about through money from natural resources. It's not exactly a miracle to get rich while sitting on huge oil reserves, but countries in better situations have done worse, so let's give Nursultan Nazarbayev, in control of Kazakhstan for almost three decades now (he was the secretary-general for the Kazakh SSR before becoming president post-independence), just a little bit of credit for not screwing up one part of his country.

So, the comments on the video above, while they're bang on when they talk about repression, are not a hundred percent accurate when they talk about poverty: Kazakhstan is not as miserable a place to live as Uzbekistan or Tajikistan, where the people have neither money nor freedom. In Kazakhstan, they have a little bit of it, thanks to Nazarbayev's megalomanical dreams of turning his country into a regional hub. It is unlikely that Central Asia will become relevant any time soon, but if it does, Nazarbayev will have to deserve at least some of the credit, much as China's dictatorship deserves some credit for the country's ascent out of poverty.

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