Kazakhstan is a nation booming on the back of optimism

A largely unknown quantity, Kazakhstan is the focus of the latest book by former British politician Jonathan Aitken, who reveals a nation buoyed by a western outlook after years of control from Moscow.

Kazakhstan: Surprises and Stereotypes
Jonathan Aitken
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The sun is streaming down across the immaculate lawns of the campus. Serious young men and women rush from one building to another, carrying handfuls of books. They are an impressive bunch, with their perfect English and shy, thoughtful manners: teenagers in a hurry, preparing to be scientists, engineers and economists.

This is the campus of Nazarbayev University in Astana, Kazakhstan's only English-language university and a place that is swiftly becoming an incubator of a new elite. They are in some ways a self-conscious bunch. One, a 19-year old called Aizhan, says she intends to pursue further studies in the West after graduating.

"We look to Europe as our peers," she says, "our country's politics was always dependent on Russia, and that is changing. We focus more on Europe in our studies. Even the emphasis on learning English shows we are moving closer to Europe."

To understand how astonishing that statement is requires some background on this Central Asian country. For while Kazakhstan is changing rapidly, the most unusual change is impossible to see.

In 1997, the capital city was merely a small town called Akmola. Since being designated the capital and renamed, the swiftest changes in the country have taken place here. Now, with billions spent on construction, Astana is a gleaming, 21st century city.

It's most iconic building is the enormous Khan Shatyr, a shopping and entertainment centre built in the style of a transparent tent. Expensively dressed young people pour out of SUVs and shop for international brands. On the roof is an artificial beach. There are similar scenes repeated in high-end boutiques across this city and its larger sister, the commercial capital Almaty, far to the south.

These are the visible changes of a transformation. The numbers also tell a remarkable story. Since wresting independence from a collapsing Soviet Union in 1991, Kazakhstan has changed beyond recognition. GDP per capita has soared from around US$700 in 1993, to more than $9,000 in 2010, putting the country firmly in the fold of middle-income countries, far richer than every Central Asian country that surrounds it. Or take poverty, which remains a serious problem across Asia. In 1996, 34.6 per cent of the population had incomes below subsistence levels; by 2009 that had been reduced to 8.2 per cent.

How far and how fast the country has changed in the past 20 years is the subject of Jonathan Aitken's latest book, Kazakhstan: Surprises and Stereotypes. In the book, the journalist and former British cabinet minister (and one-time prison inmate) tours the nation, from prisons to the presidential palace, to show how it has moved on since independence.

Aitken starts from the premise that the outside world has a tendency to look at countries like Kazakhstan through particular prisms. Afghanistan and Pakistan are viewed through the lens of security. Discussion of Kazakhstan is often accompanied by questions of authoritarian rule and political participation. Yet, he contends, these countries, as with all nations, are repositories of diverse people and complex policies, of optimistic ideals and realistic plans.

Part of the difficulty of trying to assess a nation like Kazakhstan is that while the country has taken enormous strides over the past two decades, it has remained stagnant in some areas. The question, looking from the outside, is whether to focus on the progress or the shortcomings.

That is not a small question. Focusing on the progress can be seductive but it can miss how much more could have been achieved. Focus on the shortcomings can seem churlish, given the odds stacked against succeeding.

Aitken appears to have decided early on that the glass is half full. He puts his faith, or at least his credulity, in the good intentions of those - particularly officials - that he interviews. He often refuses to condemn a particular policy outright, preferring to search for the small things that went wrong, or how the intention went askew, or how things are gradually improving and need time.

That, to be fair, is an attitude shared by many Kazakhs themselves, who see the remarkable progress that has been made in their country, compare it to the trajectory other regional countries have taken and feel it is churlish to complain.

But that attitude begins to grate. Aitken sometimes seems more Pangloss than Candide; not critical enough for the matters under scrutiny. He is sometimes even flippant. A discussion about the criminal justice system and allegations of torture is summed up with: "To paraphrase Bob Dylan and Elvis Presley ... the times they are a-changin' in Kazakhstan. The leading criminal justice agencies are getting all shook up."

Often it is simply a case of not asking the right questions, or looking for answers in the wrong places. This problem is illustrated by a chapter about Astana, the capital, and Almaty, the largest city, in which Aitken waxes lyrical about the cultural glories of Almaty and the economic future of Astana, yet never once mentions the rest of the country.

For all the progress made in those two cities, there remains a vast country where parts have not experienced the same rapid progression. Outside of the main cities there is still real poverty - and the criticism that government spending has been disproportionately allocated to urban areas is valid and doubly meaningful in a country where the population has historically been nomadic, and where almost half the population still lives in rural areas.

Or take an anecdote Aitken tells about the visit of President Nursultan Nazarbayev to a court in a small town. Two young men were found guilty of stealing a $100 (Dh367) stereo. Because they could not afford to pay the victim compensation, the prosecutor demanded a three-year sentence. At that point the president stood up in the public gallery and asked why the sentence was so harsh. He was told that was what the law demanded, if they could not pay compensation. The president paid on their behalf and the men were given a suspended sentence.

The anecdote, while instructive about the mentality of the man who leads the country, is not the starting point for a discussion of the criminal justice system - it's the end. The detail of a court system that enforces such laws, of how those laws are formulated, of whether they can be effectively changed, of how or if there are systems of appeal against such harsh sentences - none of the topics are tackled by Aitken. The author often seems happier to discuss the sunshine in Astana than the shade elsewhere.

What comes out of Aitken's pages, and from my own reporting from the country, is the difficulty of shifting an entire mentality and how, gradually, that change is occurring: slowly, through enlightened officials, through small changes, through big projects, the ideas that underpinned Kazakhstan for so long are being discarded and new institutions and ways of thinking are taking root.

That is what makes the attitude of Aizhan, on the campus of Nazarbayev University, so interesting. When she says that her peers look to Europe, it goes against the decades of domination by Russia, which continues to be the great power in Central Asia.

When she speaks of studying abroad, the thought carries with it a certainty that that aspiration will be fulfilled in due course: further education in the West is not cheap, yet, for those students at NU, it is a strong possibility, due to grants and scholarships from the government, and also, crucially, it is likely to lead to jobs.

Most of the NU students I spoke to were studying science or finance - they were equally certain they would find work in those fields after leaving.

That optimism in their future and the future of Kazakhstan is impossible to mandate. In one way, building a country is easy: with enough money, anything can be built. The institutions and the politics of creation are harder. And the attitude, or mentality, is hardest of all.

Aitken's book is, in the end, rather better at looking at Kazakhstan's progress rather than examining its shortcomings. It is laden with optimism, although he never answers the detail of how this mentality is created. It bodes well for Kazakhstan, however, that it has been created.

Faisal Al Yafai is a columnist for The National.