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ALMATY, KAZAKHSTAN – “We need a new name,” a senior official in Kazakhstan told me. “People keep confusing us with all the other crazy “stans.” We are not like them.

Quite right. Compared to neighboring Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan is an island of tranquility and quiet development.

Eric Margolis in Kazakhstan

Eric Margolis in Kazakhstan

Kazakhstan is the world’s 9th largest nation in size, some 2.7 million sq. kilometers, but has only a modest population of some 18 million people spread from the Caspian Sea in the west (from where Russia just launched missile strikes at Syria) to the border of China in the east. To its north is Siberia and to the south, India and Pakistan. Snow-capped mountains border the old capitol, Almaty, known in Soviet days as Alma-Ata.

The Kazakhs, unlike their neighbors, have been fortunate to have good government. Former senior Communist Party official Nursultan Nazarbeyev became leader of Kazakhstan in 1991 after the break-up of the Soviet Union and has ruled it ever since.

Interestingly, I recall when covering Moscow in 1990-91 that the widely admired Nazarbayev was called the best political leader of any Soviet republic and expected to succeed his friend, Mikhail Gorbachev. But the Union collapsed before Nazarbeyev could take charge. Instead, he held on to the USSR for as long as possible, then became the last republic to leave and go independent.

Ever since, the wily Nazarbeyev, known as “the leader,” has ruled his nation with a firm hand and wise head. He has kept on good terms with Moscow and Washington and even his unruly neighbors. Money from the nation’s moderate oil reserves has gone into infrastructure development, education, modernization and the glitzy new-built capitol, Astana.

The leader routinely wins theatrical elections by more than 95%. Unlike his neighboring rulers, he is actually quite popular among Kazakhs as a sort of national father figure. He is equally popular among the nation’s ethnic Russians, 20% of the population.

Russian remains the lingua franca of business. Kazakhs are happy to speak both languages. I saw no evidence of linguistic or religious tensions. The border with Russia barely exists as the two nations are much closer than, say, the US and Canada.

But like too many other strong rulers, the 75-year old Nazarbeyev has not allowed a new generation of leaders to grow up around him. The youthful prime minister, Karim Massimov, is capable and popular, but lacks deep roots among the nation’s tribal society or urban elite. As Kazakhstan seeks large amounts of foreign investment the troublesome question remains, “what will happen after Nazarbeyev departs the scene?” No one knows. This makes foreign investors very nervous.


Kazakhs can look south at Turkmenistan, long ruled by the late Sapurmurat Niyazov, one of my favorite nutty dictators, who had gold statues of him erected across the country and proclaimed him a demi-deity. To war-torn Afghanistan. To scary, US-backed Uzbekistan where political opponents are boiled to death. To tiny Kyrgyzstan, which has been rent by civil war for two decades. And to Iranian-speaking Tajikistan, the main opium and heroin corridor to the north.

The US, India, China and Russia all vie for influence in this vast Central Asian region where once the fabled Silk Road ran from China to the Black Sea.

It’s hard to believe that out of these endless kilometers of emptiness came the closest thing the world has ever seen to nuclear war: Genghis Khan and the great Mongol invasions of the 13th century that extended from the Great Wall of China to Germany and Gaza.

Two tribes of the Kazakh steppe, the Cumans and Kipchaks, combined and joined the Mongol horde that terrified and ravaged Europe and the Muslim world. Today, there is no overt sign of the nomads who terrified the globe. Today’s Kazakhs are invariably kind, friendly and often charming as I found after days in a nomad camp in a yurt. But they still have a hard core that makes them a formidable people.

(Republished from by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Central Asia, Kazakhstan 
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  1. Kiza says:

    “…scary, US-backed Uzbekistan where political opponents are boiled to death…” Oh what a surprise!? The main US client in Central Asia is the leading democratic leader of the region. He does not chop-off arms and heads as his Saudi co-member of the US alliance, he just boils the opposition. This makes the opposition quite clean, I bet.

    Perhaps the best definition of the game for Central Asia is the corruption and government change know-how of the US versus the Chinese investment. The ego-maniacs of the region will take the former, the leaders wanting prosperity for their nations will take the latter. Who will win the game? The bets are on.

  2. The US recently installed an ambassador in Kyrgyzstan and at the same time pulled out the Peace Corp. Said it was too dangerous. Sounds like we will soon hear of an uptick in the civil war. Keep tuned in.


    August 27, 2015 – 11:49am, by Peter Leonard
    EurasiaNet’s Weekly Digest

    Kazakhstan’s long-standing opposition to the proliferation of nuclear weapons is culminating with the signing of an agreement to build a nuclear fuel bank in the northern city of Oskemen. . . .

    “A lot of work must still be done, but after the signing of the relevant documents today, the legal framework is fully in place and we can move ahead with full-scale implementation,” IAEA director general Yukiya Amano said. . . .

    Although Kazakhstan has for many years been an ardent proponent of the fuel bank, the firmest impulse for its actual creation came from US investment magnate Warren Buffet and the Washington-based anti-proliferation organization Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), which put up $50 million in 2006 to get the project going. . . .

    NTI Co-Chairman Sam Nunn, whose name became a byword for the battle against nuclear proliferation during his 24-year career as a US senator, also attended the signing ceremony in Astana. NTI and Buffett’s multimillion-dollar commitment to the initiative was contingent on the IAEA sourcing another $100 million, which it did in 2009 by pooling contributions from Kazakhstan, the European Union, Kuwait, Norway, the United Arab Emirates and the United States.

    Russia, the United States, Germany, France, the United Kingdom, and the Netherlands are the main countries providing LEU to the Kazakhstan-based LEU bank. The agreement was signed between the IAEA and the Kazakh government on August 27. (Photos: ROSATOM; Government of Kazakhstan)

  4. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    He is equally popular among the nation’s ethnic Russians, 20% of the population.

    Only because his power is the only thing that, for now, keeps Russians and Ukrainians in Kazakhstan relatively safe from ethnic cleansing. Post-Soviet era, proportion of non-Kazakh population decreased by about 60%.

    Russian remains the lingua franca of business.

    Only because so many Kazakhs are not fluent in their own language. Which does not prevent them from being incredibly assertive in demands that everyone should be learning Kazakh.

    I saw no evidence of linguistic or religious tensions.

    Which only means that you have absolutely no idea about realities in Kazakhstan.

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