The population of Kazakhstan had a good cause to mark on December 16 the eleventh year of the independence of the country with an optimistic mood. Many of the economic and social ills, such as non-payment of wages, the closure of enterprises, huge arrears of pensions, and unbridled inflation which pestered the country in the first half of the nineties, now belong to the past. The prospect looks bright in many areas. The government plans a 6% growth of the GDP for next year, as well as 12% increases in pensions. According to official forecasts, the inflation rate will be kept at a low 5,9% in the year 2003. Despite pessimistic predictions, the national currency, the Tenge, withstood the test of time. New business opportunities are opening up to make the population self-sufficient.
Nevertheless, opponents of the present regime openly question the payoff of the decade-long reform efforts. According to communists and democrats, the government reports of spectacular economic and social success boils down to nothing more than window-dressing. Such words strike a chord with the mood of the impoverished section of the population. Although the government launched an anti-poverty campaign two years ago, this belated move failed to alleviate the plight of people with low income. Many families still barely make ends meet.
For the promised 12% pension rise, the government will have to disburse $90 million, a considerable sum by Kazakhstan's standards, but by far insufficient to satisfy the needs of the pensioners. Over the years, Kazakhstan has used foreign loans to implement ambitious projects in key branches of the national economy, often at the expense of welfare assistance for those in need. The country's foreign debts have reached $4 billion. Corruption and red tape among top officials have become proverbial.
All this minimizes the political significance of the God sent independence in peoples' minds. Many people of the old generation have grown nostalgic about the socialist welfare system and iron-hand discipline. Their constant lamentations over the destructive nature of Western culture and the loss of spiritual values of the nation presents a bizarre contrast to the unprecedented infatuation of the young with Western hits and the English language. People who are fearful of losing their national identity in this westernized environment often complain that the capital city, Astana, is filled with hotels, casinos, snack-bars with English names, and gives the impression of a Western city, cold and foreign to a Kazakh.
But a closer look reveals that little has changed since independence. Those who shape the ideology of the nation and hold key positions in government or big enterprises are former communist functionaries. Starting from 2001, some government officials from the business elite have been replaced by prominent figures from communist and Komsomol ranks. Like under socialism, the officials try to keep the political zeal of people within bounds.
The dominant trend of the official ideology in Kazakhstan presents a curious blend of internationalism in a multiethnic society and national patriotism. The communist ideology has been replaced by the newly-invented concept of Kazakhstani patriotism. Everywhere in the country, cities, villages and streets are being renamed to eradicate memories of the communist and colonial past. The new school curriculum allows more time to study national history, Kazakh and English. A computer with internet connection is no longer a luxury in schools.
Behind these signs of the national revival and the growing confidence are deep-rooted political controversies. For seventy years of communist rule, Kazakhs actually constituted an ethnic minority in their own land. The industrialization and the cultivation of vast virgin lands entailed the massive influx of people from Slavic regions. To implement a truly independent policy the country has, some analysts state, to restore the ethnic balance by encouraging the return of ethnic Kazakhs from abroad to the country. Over the past ten years, according to National Agency of Immigration and Demography, about 500 000 Oralmans (literally "returnees"), ethnic Kazakhs, have been allowed to settle mainly in the northern and western predominantly Russian-populated territories.
Despite its declared independence, Kazakhstan is actually placed under the Russian sway, both economically and politically. If Moscow sneezes Astana catches cold. Although the mentoring tone of the northern neighbor irritates Astana, Kazakhstan will remain the closest ally of Russia in Central Asia for the foreseeable future. The price to be paid for real independence is higher than the country can afford.
Marat Yermukanov, Kazakhstan