Kazakhstan, the biggest country you know nothing or little about, has been in the news recently for a grab bag of reasons: indomitable boxing champion Gennady “GGG” Golovkin; gold medal Olympic upsets by its athletes; a massive, $37 billion investment in just one of its huge oil fields; and, in June, the country’s sad taste of terrorism, putting it in a grim fraternity with the other nations that have suffered attacks this summer.
And, of course, underlying it all are the lingering myths from “Borat,” the faux documentary of a decade ago that was for many in the West their first introduction to the quiet giant – and with which Kazakhstan maintains a sort of love-hate relationship.
Amid this tornado of tidbits old and new, Edge Magazine takes aim at what really defines modern Kazakhstan – and what you need to know.
Expect to be Embraced
The suffix “stan” is an ancient Farsi word that connotes country, nation, land – the place of a people. “Kazakh,” in the Turkic language group of which the Kazakh language is a member, means free or free roaming. So Kazakhstan, essentially, means land of the free roaming people: an on-the-nose description of the territory the nomadic Kazakhs called home. It is a common misconception that nomadic people simply wander farther and farther; in reality, Kazakh nomads moved through their massive territory in seasonal cycles, looping back to a set series of camps within their homeland.
In Kazakh nomadic culture, embracing anything “foreign” is a priority; if you’re a guest in a Kazakh household, you’re the VIP, the tsar, the star, the emperor. Your hosts will make sure you leave their house only after a generous meal, 100 cups of tea, you’re happy with life and you’re completely satisfied with their hospitality – it’s a sort of test of their warmth and kindness, and they take it very seriously. Kazakhs will slaughter their last sheep to ensure that a guest does not go without. A Kazakh saying describing this obsession with being good hosts goes: “A 90-year-old man rushes to greet even a nine-year-old child coming from afar.”
Many Westerners in Kazakhstan fall in love with these traditions – and no wonder: you can get addicted to being the visiting star. But Kazakh hospitality has also played a much more important role in its not so distant history, when the nation opened its arms, and homes, to Soviet deportees. Throughout the first half of the 20th century, Kazakhstan received hundreds of thousands of political prisoners, sometimes entire ethnicities ousted by the Soviet leadership from their homelands and thrown to the steppes for survival. Kazakh people took the internal exiles into their homes and shared their last crumbs of bread with them – and their already multi-ethnic nation took on additional hues, as Koreans, Chechens, Germans, Tatars and others peacefully rebuilt their lives with the help of their hosts.
For modern-day Kazakhstan, its multi-ethnic, multi-faith identity is a point of pride. To honour the more than 130 ethnic groups in the nation and their history, President of Kazakhstan Nursultan established the Assembly of the People of Kazakhstan, an organisation that works to promote inter-ethnic cohesion and ensures representation for the nation’s ethnic groups in the parliament.
Look Beneath the Surface
Kazakh people remain deeply connected to their territory, though their nomadic ancestors could not have known what a jackpot they were grazing on. Below the steppes and streams of the country are a periodic table of elements – oil, natural gas, gold, uranium, and many others.
Multinational oil companies have long known about Kazakhstan’s wealth, and are continuing to invest in its mineral future. The massive but troubled offshore Kashagan field, one of the world’s largest, is finally expected to restart production this fall. This summer, Chevron and partners have been finalizing their huge new investment in the onshore Tengiz field – $37 billion to expand production there, a move the country expects to provide a huge boost to their technological production capabilities and to provide a variety of skilled labor and high-tech jobs.
But the country is not using its subsoil wealth solely for its own enrichment. Kazakhstan has developed a particular expertise in the area of uranium mining, processing and storage. It was this experience, plus Kazakhstan’s moral authority as a nation that has renounced nuclear weapons and insisted on using its energy wealth for peaceful purposes, that led the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to conclude that Kazakhstan would be the perfect host for its international Low-Enriched Uranium Bank, a bank of uranium intended to provide a stable supply of non-weapons-grade material to countries with peaceful nuclear energy programs and to discourage nations from establishing their own enrichment capabilities which, absent proper controls, could be diverted for producing highly enriched uranium which is used in nuclear weapons.
The bank is expected to begin operating in the autumn of 2017 at the Ulba Metallurgical Plant. “I think it’s a real compliment to Kazakhstan; it’s a vote of confidence by the international community in Kazakhstan, in terms of locating the fuel bank here,” said former U.S. senator and current CEO of the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) Sam Nunn in 2015 when the agreements between the IAEA and Kazakhstan were signed in Astana.
Unite Against Terrorism
Kazakhstan was deeply shaken by the terrorist attacks in Aktobe in June, as the leadership and the vast majority of the population actively reject extremism and violence and, indeed, see their nation’s peace as an integral part of their identity. But now, like France, Belgium, Turkey and several other nations this year, Kazakhstan has seen that it isn’t immune to the global scourge, and is reviewing its security protocols in this light.
Even before his country was attacked, Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev was calling for a more united fight against terrorism at the UN General Assembly and other international events, including setting up a UN global network against terrorism and creating a UN budget for counteracting the promotion of extremism.
Closer to home, EdgeKz interviewed some locals and foreigners to find out how safe they feel in their adopted homeland and if their lives had changed in any way after the attacks.
“I still feel safe here, even compared to some [British] cities. With all of these things, common sense needs to prevail, such as where you go at certain times of the day,” said Gareth Stamp, senior visiting lecturer in design and international relations at Nazarbayev University.
“Obviously, any attacks are horrific and worrying, but often these days the instant media glorifies things. It makes them seem bigger. In these cases, my thoughts honor the families of those killed, especially those who lost their lives doing their jobs to protect others. I find Kazakhs to be the most friendly and helpful people, which is why I have been [here] so long and genuinely call this home. There is tolerance and understanding and this country deserves the same in return. I hope these recent events will not change Kazakhs too much – there is already rapid change and development that we need people to focus on. Terrorism and negativity just get in the way! I do think it is important that there is positive support and encouragement for the next generation and that fear … dies and does not prevail.”
“The recent attacks change nothing for me,” said Chloé Loviconi, who is doing an internship in Almaty as part of her French Alliance Master’s Degree. “When I was in France there [were] two attacks just near my home in Paris. I continue to live and to love [Kazakhstan] with its people and my plans to [stay] here don’t change.”
“For me, Kazakhstan is a peaceful country because of its history. After [the dissolution of] the USSR, people just wanted to develop and increase the economy. For this, they need immigration and acceptance. [They] live together – a mix of Asian and Slavic cultures, Turkish and occidental influence, Muslim and Christian. Or more concretely, Kazakhstan refused to have nuclear weapons and decided to stay a neutral country,” Loviconi added.
The French native explained that nothing has changed after the attacks except she would be more vigilant. “People are surprised and shocked because it’s the first one, but it happens everywhere all the time. … People just have to be more careful,” said Loviconi.
“Living in Kazakhstan, I thought, was quite safe, with the exception of sometimes seeing some soldiers in some corners of the city, because I’m not used to it as in Spain,” said Anna Acuña Canals, a resident of Barcelona, Spain living in Almaty. “Overall, I always explained to my friends from Spain that Kazakhstan is a peaceful country and that it is safe over here. However with the recent events, I felt for the first time in my life that I was not secure and felt really nervous on Monday. On Tuesday, though, I felt I was ok again.”
Acuña Canals noted the traits that make Kazakhstan a peace-loving nation. “I think what makes Kazakhs look so peaceful is that they like foreigners and are usually really kind to us, with the exception of those who try to take advantage of us,” she said laughing.
“Most of the time when they know you’re a foreigner, they look really interested and want to be friendly and nice with you. I think Kazakhs also take care of those who are around them, their family and friends, and this makes this country a better place as people try to be supportive with each other. The most important thing, and the one I love the most about this nation, is how different nationalities can live together in the same place and how much respect they show to each other. There is no racism and this is an amazing trait.”