The success of Kazakhstan during its first two decades of independence springs directly from the life lessons learned by its founding President Nursultan Nazarbayev.
Like the Kazakhstan that reemerged into independence at the end of 1991, Nazarbayev was a product of nomadic Kazakh culture and of the challenging new world of science and engineering that came to Central Asia in the 20th century. He grew up on a collective farm in the village of Chemolgan where his father was an experienced herdsman. He showed aptitude early for mathematics and science and was fast-tracked through the Soviet educational system.
Nazarbayev’s background reflected the country he grew up in. Kazakhstan suffered terribly in the first half of the 20th century under the nearly 30-year rule of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin. Hundreds of thousands of people starved to death there during the forced collectivisations of the early 1930s.
Compared to those experiences, the 1950s and 1960s when Nazarbayev grew up was a time of peace, recovery and hope. But there were other dark shadows over the nation. As a rising engineer and young father in the 1960s in the city of Karaganda, Nazarbayev often had to comfort his young daughters when they were scared by the ominous thunder of the underground thermonuclear, or hydrogen bomb tests, at nearby Semipalatinsk. In later years, as he rose through the government structure of Kazakhstan to become its prime minister and later first secretary of its Communist party, a de facto head of the republic, under the Soviet system, he became familiar with the horrible toll in cancers and frightful mutations that the Soviet tests were inflicting on the inhabitants of the Semipalatinsk area.
The memory of being a father comforting his terrified little girls when the earth heaved and roared during those endless underground nuclear tests continues to drive and inspire Nazarbayev today. It explains why he played such an active role in the April 2010 nuclear non-proliferation summit hosted by U.S. President Barack Obama in Washington, DC. And it explains why Astana hosted in October 2011 a highly successful nuclear forum to advance efforts to create a nuclear weapon free world.
Nazarbayev also achieved early success working in Kazakhstan’s mining industry. This gave him an invaluable background allowing him to lead the prospecting for and extraction of hydrocarbon energy resources in the 1990s.
However, Nazarbayev was also horrified by the working conditions miners in the nation’s metallurgy industry had to make do with and he worked hard to alleviate them. This experience showed him the dark underside of the Soviet communist system and its inability to ameliorate the sufferings of the people it claimed to protect.
Nazarbayev’s background as a mining industry engineer also led him to recognize the long-term value of investing in sustainable light industry, and not to narrow Kazakhstan’s long-term future to just oil, gas, uranium and other non-renewable energy resources. That is why he has instituted a 20-year programme to diversify the country’s economic base and eventually make it the leading light industrial, food processing and financial nation for the region.
After Nazarbayev, then 44, became prime minister, or chairman of the Council of Ministers of the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic (KSSR) in 1984, he had to deal with another ecological catastrophe brought on by incompetent Soviet planning. In the 1950s, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev implemented a plan to grow wheat on millions of acres of so-called “virgin land” in Central Asia. Khrushchev and his successors also constructed a series of hydroelectric dams across Central Asia.
But after only a few years, the new wheat fields in semi-arid land failed. This led to massive and widespread soil erosion which created a gigantic dust bowl more ruinous than the one that plagued America’s heartland through the Great Depression. And the new dams, and the excessive use of water from the two largest rivers of the region, Amu Dariya and Syr Dariya, for cotton irrigation, from emptying into the Aral Sea, which literally died.
Nazarbayev had to deal with the consequences of these catastrophes and they had a lasting effect on his thinking. When he launched a successful programme five years ago to revive Kazakhstan’s potentially enormous agricultural sector, he sought expert advice. The country has since imported breeding stock and expertise for its grain and cattle sectors from leading international experts.
When Central Asia, Russia and Ukraine suffered huge harvest shortfalls in 2010 because of drought, Kazakhstan’s shortfall was far less than its neighbours and it was able to provide crucial grain exports to Russia, Ukraine and other nations to stave off crisis in the region. Kazakh farmers and planners attribute this success to their introduction of widespread contour plowing and other practices to reduce soil erosion while expanding production.
Other life lessons Nazarbayev has brought to his governance of the country include his witnessing of the dysfunction of communism during Soviet times. It was a dysfunction witnessed by many of his countrymen and is behind the widespread support he enjoyed after independence when he defied the Kremlin to implement a series of environmental, human rights, democratic and free market economic reforms.
Nazarbayev came late to the international free market system but learned fast and implemented what he learned. He quickly realized the importance of providing a secure, welcoming environment for foreign direct investment (FDI), especially for international energy majors whom he needed to develop the Caspian Sea’s then still-almost-untapped oil and natural gas.
Nazarbayev has also not forgotten that he has risen all the way from a collective farm to the new President’s Palace in Astana. And he has been determined to give that same opportunity to new generations of Kazakhs. The country now has the best educational system in its history. New universities and scientific research institutes have been opened. Resources are being continually poured into kindergarten and primary school education as well.
Nazarbayev has succeeded in Kazakhstan because he embraced the wider world. He has travelled widely in his two decades as president and created close relations with nations as different as the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, China, Russia, Israel and Iran. And every year, Kazakhstan sends up to 3,000 students to study at the world’s top universities.
Nowhere was Nazarbayev more progressive in his thinking than in his determination to scrap all nuclear weapons and bomb testing and make his country a global centre for the peaceful development and use of nuclear energy. By 1995, he had completely scrapped or shipped back to Russia the enormous nuclear arsenal Kazakhstan inherited from the Soviet Union. This included more than 1,000 nuclear warheads and state-of-the-art missile delivery systems that had left Kazakhstan at independence as a far greater military nuclear power than China, Britain or France.
But Nazarbayev wanted none of it. He wanted Kazakhstan to find its identity as the new Silk Road, the peaceful hub of global commerce between East and West, North and South across Eurasia. And the first step to this was winning American and European trust and good will. Thus, scrapping the nuclear arsenal led directly to the flood of FDI (136 billion dollars since independence at the latest count) that is now rapidly making Kazakhstan one of the world’s leading oil and natural gas producing and exporting powers.
The success of the policies instituted by Kazakhstan’s founding president over the last 20 years are unequalled throughout former Soviet Central Asia. They are also all in accord with the history of the nomadic, exploring, and wide-trading Kazakh people, and they are deeply rooted in Nazarbayev’s own life story. That is why he has succeeded in making his country a beacon of prosperity, growth, modernity and tolerance throughout Eurasia.