Answers to Questions about Kazakhstan (Part IV)

If you enjoyed the last three days of my answering just one question I was asked, then just know that I only have two more parts left to answer the remaining 11 questions.  Here is how I answered the following questions:

2. What areas do you see a gap for improvement in the long run for success? The huge gap is TRUST. People don’t trust each other and there is much corruption and much nepotism.  Your Kazakh family comes first before expertise.  Westerners will have to trust the Kazakhs if they will invest in businesses in Kazakhstan. Broken contracts or greed makes those foreigners who come to help teach a bit careful.  By the time the expat teacher arrives, it is too late, there are many surprises.  I think the Kazakh wants to think of themselves as “clever” and want to take advantage of the unsuspecting, trusting foreigner. Afterall, they have been indoctrinated from Soviet times that western capitalists are greedy and selfish so they are just gouging them first.

The one thing that IS improving is service mentality, the Kazakhs seem to know they have to have a good reputation as a restaurant or hotel in order to have repeat business.  But for the long run, they need to gain the trust of expats instead of trying to grab for the money and not listen to the voice of authority or reason on how to use the money wisely. OR to not lose the trust when the contract is not abided by as understood in three languages.  I could go on and on with this question but TRUST is very, very important to build and maintain long term partnerships.

3. In your view, what key opportunities or threats exist for the nation? The threats for Kazakhstan will always be the same as they were 200-300 years ago.  China has always been a huge threat, as is Russia.  However, the Arab spring has Kazakhstan feeling very nervous, thus the “snap election” for their current president who has been president for the last 20 years.

Opportunities would be to utilize the expertise that young Kazakhs come back to their country with after being on the Bolashak grant (Kazakh term meaning “future).  Other students have been on similar grants with IREX and have studied abroad and have learned how western nations tick the short time they have absorbed it.  The opportunities for older people to learn from the younger would help speed up the pace of modernization. However, the older people feel threatened by those who are younger who know more.  So this is a difficult balancing act they have to do between generations.

4. What are the key benefits and challenges of working and living in Kazakhstan?  The amazing ex-pat community is the key benefit of living and working in Kazakhstan. People who are willing to take on the challenge of living in a country that is broken and feels like a hurting proud nation with past glory.  I use the example of Ukraine when we taught there that it was like dealing with a colicky baby, it needed to be fed and burped.  The diapers needed to be changed, they were, as a nation, taking baby steps in the late 1990s.  Perhaps during that same era Kazakhstan was doing the same.

NOW in 2007-2011 the post-Soviet baby of Kazakhstan acts like a teenager.  They act as if they want the keys to the car yet they don’t know about paying for the insurance or buying gas.  They just want to go and carelessly drive around with the family car.  They are rebellious and want the benefits of being considered a “developed nation” while they are still in their formative years of development.

So that was the challenge of living in the country of Kazakhstan. They are NOT a developed country yet, if you look at the WHOLE country. However, with more time and maturity they will get to that stage but you can’t just look at Astana and Almaty and judge that as “developed.”  In like fashion, the Kazakh peoples have a sense of impatience and want to take the foreigners’ money but do not want to be accountable for what they do with it.  It is very maddening for those of us expats who are in positions of authority, experts from other countries to see this nonchalance about capabilities and expertise and to be trashed for what WE know as experts in our field.  Essentially, we are all on short contracts, we are trying to work ourselves out of a job so that the Kazakh can stand up on their own without our aid. Much like a mother nurturing her baby to become a teenager and eventually adulthood.

If you take the training wheels away, they will start riding the bike on their own.  However, there seems to be a sense of national pride at stake that they even NEED us in the first place.  How often we thought as expats “They NEED us but they don’t WANT us.”  A very strange paradox because the Kazakhs are supposedly known as a very hospitable people.  There are many good stories from the past where Kazakhs helped those foreigners like the Koreans or Ukrainians who were dumped off of trains during the Stalin years of purging “Enemies of the People.”  The Kazakhs would care for these people who were left to die on the steppes. Things are different these days after twenty years of “independence.”

Unfortunately, the Kazakhs know they NEED help but they are sometimes too proud to acknowledge that.  Also, because Kazakhs come from an oral tradition, they know so much about their own culture but they do not realize that most of the world does not even know they exist because nothing much has been written about them.  Those Kazakh students who have gotten fellowships or grants to study abroad find that out the hard way.

The most vexing thing about living in Kazakhstan is the “They need us but they don’t want us.” And that runs through all matter of experts from whatever field be it in oil, accounting, banking, mining, etc.  I heard this from other expats and so that gets back to my original point.  It doesn’t matter if they are from Norway, German, U.K. Canada, Australia, wherever you are from as a westerner, you have more in common with each other than living amongst people in an unknown country such as Kazakhstan.  The Kazakhs are trying to find their own identity from their rich past. But also they want to fit in with westerners in the present 21st century while holding on to the baggage of their Soviet indoctrination. This makes for a very complex kind of maturing into being proud of who they are as Kazakhs, it will take time.

5. Can you comment on customs and ways of life of Kazakhstani? I did not know many Kazakhs and their customs or ways of life.  I only knew the educated ones and the Kazakhstanis I would consider those who were born in Kazakhstan but are not necessarily of Kazakh ethnicity.  The Kazakhs are very proud of the fact that they have so many ethnicities living peacefully beside each other.  They have their holidays and their rituals and practices but I think a westerner, like a former Peace Corps volunteer, who lived in the rural areas would do a better job of writing about bride kidnapping, trained eagles that hunt game, sheepherding and nomadic lifestyle with yurts, etc.  I lived in the urban setting where all such Kazakh customs are little known to me.

(to be continued)

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