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.
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.