25 years of in­de­pen­dence bit­ter­sweet for Cen Asia

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

In 1991, as one provin­cial Kazakh town em­barked on a jour­ney through in­de­pen­dence that would see it trans­formed into a state-ofthe art cap­i­tal, an­other hur­tled to­wards col­lapse. Arkalyk, a Soviet-built min­ing town is a 13-hour train ride from Kaza­khstan’s glit­ter­ing cap­i­tal As­tana, and the last stop on a spur of rail­way that bur­rows west and then south into the vast coun­try’s min­eral-rich heart­land.

As the Soviet Union crum­bled, de­mand for the baux­ite mined in Arkalyk that made up a fifth of the bloc’s out­put plum­meted. So too did the town’s pop­u­la­tion, now less than half of its com­mu­nist-era high of over 60,000 peo­ple. On Arkalyk’s out­skirts, aban­doned apart­ment blocks spring up from the snow-sprin­kled steppe that ex­tends as far as the eye can see. The roads lead­ing out of the town are deeply rut­ted.

Com­par­isons with glitzy As­tana, whose pop­u­la­tion has roughly quadru­pled since it re­placed Al­maty as Kaza­khstan’s cap­i­tal in 1997, ran­kle with many Arkalyk in­hab­i­tants.”We see mil­lions spent on the EXPO (in­ter­na­tional event As­tana hosts in 2017) and sport­ing events, while our own town lacks qual­i­fied doc­tors,” says Dana Zhek­sem­bayeva, a stu­dent in As­tana who splits her time be­tween the two cities. “Maybe for the coun­try’s im­age these events mean some­thing but peo­ple liv­ing in towns like Arkalyk have other con­cerns.”

Sta­bil­ity and cor­rup­tion

En­ergy-rich Kaza­khstan is the wealth­i­est of the five ex-com­mu­nist Cen­tral Asian coun­tries and was the last to de­clare in­de­pen­dence, on De­cem­ber 16, 1991. But com­plaints of an ever-widen­ing gulf be­tween cap­i­tal­ism’s win­ners and losers and the mis­man­age­ment of state funds echo through­out the graft-rid­dled re­gion.

In Kaza­khstan’s gas-rich neigh­bor Turk­menistan, in­ter­na­tional rights groups say the gov­ern­ment is forcibly evict­ing cit­i­zens from their homes as it pre­pares to host the 2017 Asian In­door Games in the cap­i­tal Ash­ga­bat. In Ta­jik­istan, the re­gion’s poor­est coun­try, the cap­i­tal Dushanbe stands as an ode to mega­lo­ma­niac ar­chi­tec­ture, even as most of the coun­try en­dures rolling win­ter power cuts.

Cen­tral Asia’s sec­u­lar gov­ern­ments have been quick to take credit for the ma­jor­ity-Mus­lim re­gion’s rel­a­tive sta­bil­ity. But that achieve­ment is at least partly due to “the as­ton­ish­ing ef­fec­tive­ness of Soviet state-build­ing”, says John Heather­shaw, a Cen­tral Asia ex­pert at the Uni­ver­sity of Ex­eter in Bri­tain. Regimes in both Turk­menistan and Uzbek­istan have wit­nessed a sta­ble trans­fer of power following the deaths of au­to­crats that be­gan their reigns dur­ing the com­mu­nist era.

Ta­jik­istan en­dured a civil war, which cost tens and thou­sands of lives and ended with vic­tory for the cen­tral gov­ern­ment and leader Emo­mali Rakhmon in 1997. Com­par­a­tively demo­cratic Kyr­gyzs­tan is the only coun­try in the re­gion to have see gov­ern­ments over­thrown, in 2005 and 2010 re­spec­tively, and host gen­uinely com­pet­i­tive elec­tions. “All these rulers pre­side over deeply cor­rupt sys­tems of graft and many over­see se­cu­rity ser­vices that tor­ture po­lit­i­cal op­po­nents,” Heather­shaw told AFP.

Kaza­khstan’s leader Nur­sul­tan Nazarbayev, 76, is now the most se­nior across the five coun­tries af­ter Uzbek neigh­bor Is­lam Ka­ri­mov died aged 78 in Septem­ber. His pop­u­lar­ity, rest­ing in part on im­pres­sive eco­nomic growth that co­in­cided with ris­ing oil prices has been tested by their sud­den col­lapse in 2014. In April and May this year, thou­sands took part in na­tion­wide protests over a pro­posed land re­form that Nazarbayev later shelved in or­der to quell the un­rest.

But many an­a­lysts said pop­u­lar dis­sat­is­fac­tion was rooted less in land and more in the eco­nomic slump in a coun­try where free­doms are ha­bit­u­ally re­stricted. “All the time we were told how great things were. Now things look less than great and ques­tions have piled up for the gov­ern­ment,” Ri­nat Bal­gabayev, an As­tana-based PR spe­cial­ist fa­mous for his po­lit­i­cal jokes on so­cial me­dia, told AFP. In the cap­i­tal that a quar­ter of a cen­tury ago was just a provin­cial steppe town of 250,000 peo­ple, in­de­pen­dence was cel­e­brated with the pomp typ­i­cal in coun­tries of the re­gion. On Fri­day Nazarbayev opened a 46-me­tre high white mar­ble mon­u­ment he said “sym­bol­izes Kaza­khstan’s up­ward as­pi­ra­tions”. — AFP

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