I made my first visit to Central Asia this summer, spending a week in Almaty, Kazakhstan to teach one of our Leadership Academy for Development (LAD) programs. LAD is a program I started with Roger Leeds while still at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) some thirteen years ago. We do one-week training sessions aimed at mid-career professionals, mostly drawn from the public sector but often including private sector and civil society participants. The original focus was on private sector development, but we’ve broadened our offerings in recent years to include programs on infrastructure development, strategic management, and case writing and teaching. The programs last five intensive days, and are built around a mixture of cases and lectures; the participants do a lot of group work and a final project in which they propose solutions to particular public policy problems.
Over the years I had been asked repeatedly to visit Central Asia and teach a LAD program but have been reluctant to do so up until now. LAD is intended to improve the capacity of public officials to perform their tasks more effectively, and I wasn’t that eager to help authoritarian leaders like Nursultan Nazarbayev or Islam Karimov. But the situation is somewhat different now. Their successors Kassym-Jomart Tokayev and Shavkat Mirziyoyev are in no way democrats, but they are more technocratic than their Soviet-schooled predecessors. More importantly, the geopolitical situation has changed: with Russia bogged down in Ukraine, all countries around its periphery have more room for maneuver, and Tokayev in particular has shown some independence of Moscow despite the latter’s intervention on his behalf during the protests of January 2022. There is also a budding rivalry between Russia and China in the region that bears watching. By contrast, Americans know very little about this region and need to build better ties and awareness with the people there.___STEADY_PAYWALL___
Our LAD program was supported by a former Drapers Hills (now Fisher Family) Summer Fellow, Aida Aidarkulova, who created a new NGO called CAPS Unlock (CAPS standing for Central Asia Policy Studies) after having previously led the Soros Open Society branch in Central Asia. We were also backed by the Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE) which has done substantial work in the region. Our program in Almaty was really extraordinary: participants were drawn from all five Central Asia countries, and each had a lot to contribute. Kazakhstan in particular has had a program in recent years that has sent thousands of its young people abroad for higher educations, something that was evident in the quality of our participants.
The first thing to say about Almaty is how modern and prosperous it seems. This is perhaps not surprising; gas and oil have enriched the country and given it upper-middle income status with a per capita GDP of over $20,000. The city is full of skyscrapers and modern office buildings, with what looks like a bustling middle class. It does not have the kind of oppressive police state atmosphere that one would encounter in today’s Russia or China, with pervasive surveillance and punishment for anyone stepping slightly out of line.
The other notable thing was the lack of public religiosity. There were very few mosques and we never heard a call to prayer. We saw no women wearing hijabs except for visitors from the Middle East. Our Kazakh associates said that things were different in the countryside, but the country has not had to deal with a serious radical Islamist movement.
The degree of personal freedom is however very limited. In the policy projects we asked our participants to do, the biggest obstacle to completing them, regardless of country, was the state: the government dictated the terms of every initiative, and was not open to public input or participation.
The attitude of Kazakhs to Russia has been changing. I would compare the situation in the first three decades of the country’s existence to that of India after independence. Educated Kazakhs all speak Russian, and communicate with other Central Asians in Russian because their languages were not necessarily mutually intelligible. As in India, there was a tendency for elites to look up to the colonial power as a more sophisticated civilization, but again as in India there has been a rethinking of the relationship. I was told that young Kazakhs increasingly wanted to speak Kazakh rather than Russian, a tendency that accelerated notably after the invasion of Ukraine. A few used the term “decolonization” to describe the cultural agenda they faced.
There is a palpable threat to Kazakhstan’s sovereignty; Putin has suggested in the past that much of norther Kazakhstan is Russian territory, and that the ethnic Russian minority in the country faces discrimination and needs to be protected just like the Russian-speakers in Ukraine allegedly did. It seems to me pretty clear that if Moscow had succeeded in toppling Zelenskyy early in the war and turned Ukraine into a vassal state, Kazakhstan might well have been next on the chopping block. Conversely, the weaker Russia gets as a result of continuing losses in Ukraine, the more independence Kazakhstan can assert. The situation is apparently different in Uzbekistan, because that country does not share a border with Russia.
We taught a couple of case studies of Chinese Belt and Road investments in other parts of the world. It was interesting that there was very little sympathy for China evident among our participants, unlike the reactions we got in, say, Ethiopia. The Kazakhs seem to regard China as a very foreign culture with self-interested motives. The original concept of Belt and Road had rail lines originating in Western China and passing through Central Asia on their way to Europe and the Middle East. Apparently very little of that has materialized because of differences between the five countries in the region. They all have border controls and customs duties that require trains to stop for border inspections; moreover, they, like the Ukrainians, use the old Soviet 1520mm wide gauge rail standard rather than the 1435mm standard gauge track that China and virtually everyone else in the world uses.
I returned from this trip feeling that LAD should definitely return to the region. There is little chance of any of the five countries becoming stable democracies in the near future. But Kazakhstan at least has a well-educated younger elite, which generational turnover will eventually bring to power. Mongolia, after all, is another country wedged between Russia and China that has nonetheless been able to remain a democracy and retain some independence. The whole region needs to have stronger connections beyond these two authoritarian great powers, and stronger solidarity with one another.
Francis Fukuyama is chairman of the editorial board of American Purpose and Olivier Nomellini Senior Fellow and director of the Ford Dorsey Master’s in International Policy program at Stanford University’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies.
Top image: Soviet-era memorial in Almaty, Kazakhstan. (Photo by author)
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