Unknown Territory What You Didn’t Know About Kazakhstan

By Julia Rutz

The country of Kazakhstan is not small. In fact, it’s territorially the ninth largest nation in the world. And its strategic geographic location between East and West, along with its vast energy and mineral resources have made it a key player on the world stage. It was even once the fourth largest nuclear power in the world before unilaterally disarming after gaining independence from the Soviet Union.

Yet, despite its size — roughly that of Western Europe — and geopolitical importance, Kazakhstan remains one of the most unknown and mis-perceived countries.Relatively few people in the West, other than smart business people, government officials and travelers, have visited Kazakhstan. And even though the movie Borat was filmed largely in Romania, its impact on shaping a distorted international image of Kazakhstan was significant.

Many assume that because Kazakhstan was once a Soviet republic that it still must have an old-style Soviet economy. Or that because the name of the country ends with a“stan,” that Kazakhstan is similar in culture, landscape and politics to countries such as Afghanistan.However, for those who spend even a day exploring its cutting-edge cities or lush, diverse landscape, those myths quickly disappear. But if you haven’t made it there yet, then read on to find out the realities behind the myths.

Myth 1: Kazakhstan is a Strict Muslim Nation

Reality: Kazakhstan is a secular, multi-religious and multi-ethnic society where Christianity and Judaism flourish alongside the Muslim faith. It celebrates freedom of religion for all.

Far from being repressive and intolerant, Kazakhstan is among the world’s most multicultural and multinational countries. The nation is a home to more than 120 nationalities and 40 faiths. It pursues a policy of equal treatment of all cultures and religions and allows no preferential treatment.Kazakhs and Russians are Kazakhstan’s largest ethnic groups. But long-established communities of Ukrainians, Germans, Poles, Koreans, Tatars and Chechens also live side by side and flourish there. To be a citizen of Kazakhstan is to be tolerant, welcoming and inclusive. Hospitality and getting along with others have been core cultural values since Kazakh nomads and traders roamed the great steppe.

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Dozens of ethnic communities foster unique heritages and cultural lives through a host of ethnic cultural centers and associations. And each May 1, Kazakhstan celebrates People’s Unity Day. The celebration highlights the country’s diverse array of traditional dances and songs. With adherents of more than 40 religions, Kazakhstan is truly the crossroads of civilizations.Kazakhstan’s largest religion is Islam, which has been practiced peacefully and tolerantly for more than a thousand years across the Kazakh steppe. However, the national culture is not defined as Islamic, PavelKoktyshev, CEO of the Institute for Development and Economic Affairs (IDEA) and co-founder of the country’s Club of Young Entrepreneurs, told EdgeKz.

“In comparison to other Central Asian nations, Kazakhstan is not a one-religion country,” he said. “There are a lot of religious communities of many different faiths that are recognized and thrive freely. That’s why the religious situation in Kazakhstan is stable and all the religious groups here can express themselves in security and freedom.”

The county’s culture is also very different from the one you would find in other ‘stans’ known for strict Islamic societies. Stroll the streets of modern Kazakhstan and you’re more likely to see clothing reflective of a Paris runway than an Islamic text. Women in Kazakhstan, unlike some Muslim countries, also drive, vote, run government ministries and head up major corporations.

The nation’s food and drinks also follows an international flavor. When the workday is done or the weekend comes, Kazakhstan residents can be found sharing toasts over quality German beer, Irish stouts or an array of traditional vodkas. Nightlife thrives and is one of the enjoyable aspects of life in Kazakhstan. And a good pork sausage can be found in most supermarkets and on most appetizer menus, along with Thai, Italian, Korean, French and a whole host of other international cuisines.

Myth No. 2: Kazakhstan is poor and largely agrarian

Reality: If there is anything Kazakhstan is not, it’s poor. The country is a major oil producer and exporter. It’s already a top 20 gas supplier, the world’s largeST uranium producer and exporter and recently started exporting significant amounts of agriculture and rare earth metals, necessary for the production of smart phones and other electronics. And though these resourses are still often in their development stage and work needs to be done to increase the size of the country’s middle class, Kazakhstan’s gross domestic product per capita is 12 times higher today than it was when the country gained independence 21 years ago. The country has also worked hard to create a business-friendly environment, which has resulted in approximately $160 billion in foreign direct investment since 1991.

The Energy Information Administration of the U.S. Department of Energy predicts that by 2020 Kazakhstan will be one of the top five oil producing and exporting countries in the world. Kazakhstan also recently signed a deal with China to provide the fuel for China’s new generation of nuclear power plants into the middle of this century. And the country is blessed with dense bands of gold in its mountains.

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Kazakhstan was forced to operate under a communist political and economic system for nearly three quarters of a century, but has transitioned to a thriving market economy since gaining independence. In fact, in 2012 the country initiated a major People’s Initial Public Offering (IPO) program among the country’s major state corporations to help involve the public in the country’s resource wealth.All of this isn’t to deny Kazakhstan and its vast land mass don’t enjoy a strong agricultural sector. It has invested heavily in improving the quality of its beef and has become the go-to agricultural supplier for the region. But its economy goes way beyond the agrarian roots of the country’s ancestors.

The nation’s economic future also looks positive. Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev recently unveiled Strategy 2050 to make Kazakhstan one of the 30 most competitive economies in the world and one of the most favorable environments for doing business deep into this century. The country has also just launched a wave of reform programs to make it easier for foreign businessmen to invest in this country and is in the process of streamlining its visa procedures, customs clearance and transit arrangements. Kazakhstan also recently formed a Customs Union with Russia and Belarus, greatly expanding its market, and is in the accession process for the World Trade Organization.

All of this success has created an economic optimism among the Kazakh public found in few nations in the world. A new wave of entrepreneurs are opening businesses, helping to manage the country’s vast resources and creating the economic opportunities of tomorrow.

Myth No. 3: Kazakhstan Is Not Modern

Reality: Kazakhstan’s ancient history is unique and proud. Images of explorers on horseback pushing out into a great unknown grassland; nomads sleeping in yurts, moving with the seasons and the weather. It’s a history of caravans plodding along the Great Silk Road, selling wares from animal drawn carriages and sleeping under the vast Kazakh sky. It’s a lovely history. But it’s just that: History.

Today’s Kazakhstan is filled with five-star hotels, smart phones and cutting edge architecture by the world’s top architects. Modern Kazakh art and design have become hot exports and the vast steppe is now traversed by high-speed internet connections rather than horses. More than half of the population (52 percent) enjoy personal internet access and social media is the latest craze. Thousands of young Kazakhs have started their own blogs. Tens of thousands have their own Facebook pages. And if you don’t speak Kazakh, plenty of the country’s young people will text you in English. “In Kazakhstan, you find open-minded and well-educated people. They are open to the world and want to develop themselves,” Winfried Berndt, project manager of the Goethe Institute in Kosovo, told EdgeKz. “This country has made a good impression on me. The memoriesare still very vivid in mymind. I remember interesting spontaneous people, stylishly dressed, beautiful women, the majestic, snow-capped mountains around Almaty and many other things that will stay with me.”

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Almaty, with a population of 1.5 million, is the business capital not just of Kazakhstan but of all Central Asia. It is also home to the largest film and TV producing studios and industry between Moscow and Mumbai. Its elegant, tree-lined boulevards evoke images of Paris and its snowcapped peaks remind one of Zurich, not a barren, backward city.

Kazakhstan’s modernity is most on display in its new capital city Astana. There, visitors discover what are quickly becoming iconic buildings by top architects such as Britain’s Lord Norman Foster and Italy’s ManfrediNicoletti. The famed late Japanese architect KishoKurokawa was the architect for the overall design of the city. An evening stroll along the wide promenade lining the banks of Astana’s Yessil River, which winds through the heart of the city, will reveal a kaleidoscope of colored lights streaming from the city’s skyscrapers.

International fusion restaurants led by executive chefs imported from Europe and beyond and ultra-sleek nightclubs dot Astana’s cultural cityscape and serve a demanding international clientele. And quaint bistros and cafes line the boulevards of both Astana and Almaty.Kazakhstan’s modernity is also reflected in its arts community. The country’s major cities offer thriving theatre, dance and visual arts centers. Historic opera and ballet houses attracting top talent from around the world are available in Almaty and Astana and Kazakhstan’s modern visual artists are rapidly melding the country’s traditional history with its modern present.

Myth No. 4: Kazakhstan Is an Insular Place Unwelcome to Visitors

Reality: Of all the misperceptions of Kazakhstan, this might be the biggest. Hospitality has been the life’s blood and mother’s milk of the Kazakh peoples since time immemorial. Through the ages, Kazakhs have been legendary for their hospitality to strangers. After all, Kazakh ancestors ran the biggest chunk of the Silk Road from China to Europe. And they’re rebuilding it today.

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When Soviet ruler Josef Stalin deported millions of people to Kazakhstan in cattle cars in the 1930’s and 1940’s, they were just dumped out onto the open steppes in the extreme climates of blazing summer and the worst winters on earth. They would have almost all died had the local Kazakh villagers not rescued them and brought them to safety and shelter. Those wonderful traditions are alive and well today. After so many decades locked away from the rest of the world in the communist empire, Kazakhstan rejoined the global community with eagerness and enthusiasm after the Soviet Union collapsed. Tens of thousands of Kazakh young people go to study in America and Europe, Japan and China every year. And in return, Kazakhstan welcomes the world with pleasure and pride.

Kazakhstan has already hosted one of the most successful Asian Winter Games in history and is looking forward to welcoming the world to EXPO 2017, a major international EXPO in Astana under the theme of “Future Energy.” Building warm, strong friendships with all Kazakhstan’s neighbors has been the foundation of the country’s national security strategy for more than two decades. Since the first days of independence, it’s had a multi-vector foreign policy and has built itself into a bridge connecting Asia and Europe, Christians and Muslims,North and South, East and West.

On a more individual basis, the country is also very welcoming to tourists. Walking around the country’s cities, tourists are often stopped by friendly locals looking to practice a host of foreign languages or exchange travel stories. Though the country’s friendly attitude toward international visitors so far outstrips the development of tourist infrastructure in many places, visitors are still treated to ancient, haunting magic from the era of the Silk Road and the great khanates, glorious mountains and forests, lakes and deserts and some of the most spectacular wild life anywhere in Eurasia. Though known for its vast steppe, Kazakhstan also offers skiing, mountaineering, water sports and nature expeditions.

“Last year, I traveled with a group of ornithologists for two weeks in Kazakhstan,” German biologist IngeRabe told EdgeKz. “We visited the Tengiz lakes and Semirechie (Zhety Su in Kazakh, which means Seven Rivers). Everyone in our group was impressed by the wonderful landscapes, and the amazing natural and wild beauty of Kazakhstan. Everywhere we went, we found people to be so friendly and determined to make our stay as pleasant as possible. They made it easy for us to fall in love with Kazakhstan and I enjoyed every moment of our trip.”

So no matter what your impression of Kazakhstan used to be, now you know that this one-time Soviet outpost is now a thriving, modern and welcoming nation in the heart of Eurasia.

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The Astana Times
The Astana Times