Wednesday, 13 May 2015

Kazakhstan to Reform Its Cultural Sector

Published in Analytical Articles

By Rafis Abazov and Andrey Khazbulatov (05/13/2015 issue of the CACI Analyst)

In his presidential election campaign, Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev pledged special attention to cultural policy through implementation of the Concept of Cultural Policy, envisioned to streamline the country’s policies on culture, cultural education and arts to strengthen what he calls “the genetic [cultural] code of the nation.” In introducing this Concept, Kazakhstan’s government emphasizes cultural policies despite the current financial crisis and significant budget cuts due to falling oil prices in the international market. But will reforming its cultural sphere deliver expected outcomes and results?

BACKGROUND: Public policy in the field of culture is closely watched in this young multi-ethnic nation, which continues to work hard on nation-state building and strengthening its national identity. Indeed, the past efforts could be called a cultural revolution, as during the 1990s and early 2000s the country radically changed its cultural and artistic landscape. The government, however, did not introduce an umbrella policy or law designed to guide cultural change, nor did it establish a dedicated government body for coordination and implementation of the numerous changes in the country’s cultural policy. Instead, it used an ad hoc approach in addressing emerging issues and concerns, assigning different ministries and government agencies to deal with each issue as it arose, and implementing a variety of actions.

Among many changes taking place in the young nation, the government focused on strengthening the national Kazakh identity by changing the cultural and artistic landscape and environment. These actions included deconstructing the legacies, symbols and policy approaches of the Soviet era and promoting “Kazakhization” of many aspects of cultural life. Among the most visible changes were the gradual replacement of Soviet monuments with ones reflecting Kazakh history and culture, abandoning Soviet-style architecture, building a Kazakh culture-based repertoire in theaters and film studios, supporting traditional Kazakh handicrafts, and subsidizing numerous craft festivals seeking to popularize the traditional arts and cultural legacy. The government also invested in cultural academic studies by creating several higher education institutions, such as the Zhurgenov National Academy of Arts, the National Kazakh Institute of Culture, the new multi-million dollar National History Museum in Astana, and many open-air museums and historical sites across the country.

Several breathtakingly large-scale cultural projects have been implemented in the capital city Astana to the tune of US$ 10 billion, completely transforming this small and sleepy industrial city into an amazing futuristic metropolitan center reflecting the country’s quest to become the leading power in the Central Asian region. Kazakhstan’s oil wealth has made it possible to pursue the creation of a “livable” city utilizing and displaying 21st century technologies and innovations.

Yet, many issues and problems have remained unaddressed. These include the chronic underfunding of cultural programs at a local level outside the major metropolitan centers, and the falling prestige of working in the cultural sector among young people.

Despite the spending of several billion dollars over the last two decades, the cultural sector has been quite inefficient, demanding even more subsidies and failing to develop a sustainable business model by seeking out and utilizing opportunities such as public-private partnership or offering competitive cultural services to the local population and the 6 million foreign visitors who come to Kazakhstan annually. Nevertheless, cultural services could form a very sizable part of the nation’s increasingly service-oriented economy, as according to World Bank estimates about 60 percent of Kazakhstan’s GDP was produced in the service sector in 2014. The Concept of Cultural Policy was envisioned as an attempt to strengthen cultural policies by streamlining all efforts, actions and policies – which were previously spread among various ministries – under the umbrella of the Ministry of Culture and Sports.

IMPLICATIONS: The Concept was introduced just a few months before the financial crisis in Kazakhstan created by a double-hit from tanking oil prices (energy exports are the main source of hard currency revenue for Kazakhstan) and rapid devaluation of the Russian ruble which hit the competitiveness of Kazakhstan’s exports to its main trading partner. These events led to significant budget cuts introduced by the government in January-February 2015 which in turn very negatively affected the country’s ability to fund and reform many public programs and projects, especially in the cultural area. In this environment, the previous model of cultural policy, which was built on the assumption of never-ending subsidies and an active role of the state in cultural areas, came under significant pressure. For example, despite the financial crisis and significant budget cuts in many areas, a large number of Kazakh citizens still prefer taking holidays abroad, spending up to US$ 3-4 billion on tourism and cultural services in Turkey, the Middle East and Eastern Europe, citing poor services and little choice back home. According to Kapital newspaper estimates, the country’s tourism potential is utilized only by 5-10 percent of its population.

The Concept might have a significant impact on the national cultural landscape and economy if properly implemented. First, it suggests developing several cultural-geographic clusters, which would lead to the creation of cultural and tourism complexes not only around the capital Astana, but also in all major provinces across the country, ultimately attracting local and international tourists and creating much-needed jobs in many economically depressed regions. Second, the Concept emphasizes increasing the efficiency of certain cultural institutions by delegating to them some level of independence in managing and planning. Third, it provides a framework for developing public-private partnership in cultural areas, paving the way to attract private initiatives and private international and local funding for some promising cultural and tourism projects. Fourth, it streamlines the training and retraining of cadres for cultural institutions in order to introduce a new approach to management. To this end, all educational institutions are to be transferred under the umbrella of the Ministry of Culture and Sports, so that students may engage in internships and work placements within the same ministry (in the past all educational institutions were part of the Ministry of Education and were apparently ill prepared to interface with the cultural sector).

The international experience, and especially the experience of the former Socialist countries of Eastern and Central Europe, suggests that the cultural sector can receive a robust boost and can become a dynamic and integral part of the national economy if and when it is supported not only by state subsidies, but also by collaboration between the public and private sectors. State subsidies can provide critical support for preserving cultural heritage and saving historical sites. However, in order to integrate the cultural sector into the national economy, especially with services such as the tourism industry, there is a need not only to preserve such cultural sites, but also to increase efficiency in using public funding, generating revenue from cultural activities and creating jobs. 

CONCLUSIONS: The government of Kazakhstan should promote public policies which provide more autonomy and flexibility to all cultural institutions within the Concept of the Cultural Policy. It  should also actively integrate the 224 existing museums (2014, official est.), national parks, UNESCO-designated World Heritage sites and archeological excavations into a tourism network offering high quality services to all domestic and international visitors. And last but not least, the cultural institutions in the country should adjust themselves to the changing environment by introducing a western-style, market-oriented managerial approach, becoming more proactive and innovative in attracting local and international visitors, and engaging in fundraising activities in collaboration with the private sector.

AUTHOR’S BIO: Rafis Abazov, PhD, is a visiting professor at Al Farabi Kazakh National University and a director of MDP/Global Classroom Program. He also teaches at SIPA, Columbia University, NY. He is the author of The Formation of Post-Soviet International Politics in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan” (1999)The Culture and Customs of the Central Asian Republics” (2007) and “The Role of Think Tanks in the Policy-Making Process in Kazakhstan” (2011), and a contributor to the UNECE Innovation Performance Review of Kazakhstan (2012). He has been awarded an IREX 2010–2011 EPS fellowship (Title VIII program) for research on public policy reforms in Kazakhstan. Andrey Khazbulatov, PhD, is the Director of the Kazakh Research Institute of Culture, Astana, Kazakhstan. 

Image Attribution: Flickr user areyougonnaeeatthat


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