I first visited Astana back in 2008 (here and here). After a year in Almaty, I finally ventured north to look for the ‘real Kazakhstan’ in the capital. Since then I have returned several times, and finally had the chance to spend a few nights on the Left Bank proper. The Left Bank is the completely new part of the city across the river Ishym from the Soviet-era part of town (which still forms the bulk of Astana). The Left Bank is the Astana I spurned as ‘artificial’ and incomplete, calling it like a ‘movie set’. In 2008, I wanted to look past this perceived ‘inauthenticity’ and instead for what I thought was more authentic; rejecting the notion that ‘plastic grandness of the Left Bank’ could be Kazakhstan. So when I traveled to older parts of the city, I noted with approval, “the neighborhood here was distinctly Kazakh. The dust of life that’s apparent everywhere in this dry country. I even saw kvass being sold on the street.”
Why was I cynical? Urbanists, and myself in the past, prioritize architecture and ‘space’ (whatever the hell that actually means) as the determinant of a city’s character. The Left Bank’s new, alien character felt out of place and disjointed. The obvious mistake of the urbanists’ viewpoint is its privilege of space and the material over the inhabitants themselves in creating the character of a place. In my defense, in 2008 the people I looked for were not really there; and, if they were, I couldn’t spend enough time in Astana to make an evaluation on this level.
To paint a more complete picture of how Astana is developing, one must look at all kinds of ‘locality’, not just ones I, an outsider, thought more authentic. To better define local I will borrow Anthropologist Arjun Appadurai’s definition: local is something ‘self-creating’. Using this we must look at both who these new Astana citizens are, and what they are doing, making and saying.
The defining characteristic of Astana is of a corporate city. The main industry here is the state, not unusual for a capital. The citizens who epitomize the Left Bank, and the ‘new’ Astana, are the professionals, the bureaucrats, the suits, whatever you want to call them. They especially make up the working population of the Left Bank, packed full of ministries and government-affiliated companies (like Samryk Kazyna and Kazmunaigaz). What is unique to this place versus other capitals is that in Kazakhstan the political and economic system has developed around one central figure, the President. Astana represents a kind of massive headquarters of this Nazarbaev, Inc. It is the arena in which his professionals reside, work and play.
Contrary to stereotypes, the ’employees’ of Nazarbaev Inc., are not homogenous, nor all elite. I will highlight two portions of this professional class which show us both the continuity and change in Astana. The first group is the ‘typical’ older worker of the Left Bank, who I will dub Homo Astanus (a play on the Homo Soveticus: the idealized Soviet man). He is first of all male, and in his late 30’s to late 40’s. Educated in the late Soviet period, he quickly adapted to wild capitalism and the patron-client system that harnessed it for profit. As a true company man, he knows how to grease palms to keep the gravy train running, and has a firm lifelong investment in Nazarbaev, Inc. This does not mean that Homo Astanus is always corrupt, but he does not shake the boat too much either.
Homo Astanus has been around for over 10 years, and is the old guard in Astana, but recently a new generation has begun to emerge, a generation of foreign educated young Kazakhstanis. Their youth is an important aspect, as many people studied abroad in the 1990’s as well. This group is different because they have grown up almost completely in independent and open Kazakhstan (open both in terms of travel and a globalized culture). Our sample Homo Bolashakus is bright, young (under 30) motivated, mobile and well-educated: she has studied in the west, or at a Western-style university in subjects like Public Policy, Business Administration, Finance or Accounting. A lot of hopes are pinned on this generation, that they will change things for the better.
Kazakh citizens, government officials and Western commentators all talk of a new post-Soviet Generation that will improve the country, including helping open the political system. This is not unique to Kazakhstan, as similar thinking is happening all around the post-Socialist world. For example, among the tributes for Vaclav Havel last year, I came across this speech of his referring to youth in the Czech Republic:
“The most important thing,” Havel said in his final New Year’s address as president, “is that new generations are maturing, generations of people who grew up free and are not deformed by life under Communist rule. These are the first Czechs of our times who inherently consider freedom normal and natural. It would be great if the breaking through of these people into various parts of public life leads to our society more factually, thoroughly and impartially examining its past, without whose reflection we cannot be ourselves. I also hope it will lead to our successfully parting with many ill consequences of the work of destruction the Communist regime wreaked upon our souls.”
This comes back to the idea of mentality (Менталитет) that people in the former Soviet space constantly refer to. Mentality is a broad term for a widespread way of thinking, usually used when blaming the backwards ‘Soviet’ or ‘Kazakh’ mentality for current ills (corruption, dysfunctional bureaucracy etc). Havel was hoping for a new generation “not deformed by life under Communist rule” would bring a new modern mentality to bear on politics and society. And it’s not just Havel. At the end of a think-tank talk after the 2011 Presidential elections, a Kazakh government representative used the Bolashak program to brush away concerns about Kazakhstan’s current political ills. He essentially said ‘Don’t worry about anything now, Bolashak will fix it in 10-20 years ;)” I find this eerily similar to Soviet-era pleas to sacrifice the present for a better future, but like Communism, by themselves this new generation does not necessarily represent a panacea to corruption and other problems.
It’s still much too early to tell what changes they will bring about. But we must be careful to temper our hopes a bit from Havel’s, and words. As an example let’s look at business practices in Kazakhstan. Foreign business practices can be attractive for idealists and cynics alike. For the former they provide an idealistic ‘other’, full of norms, proper practices, and transparent standards: in essence the opposite of the culture of corruption of nepotism that characterizes power in Kazakhstan. This is a worthwhile goal, improving business climate, fairness and openness. But the profit-driven nature of western business practices can also feed into the system by focusing on short terms gains/deals that enrich the elite. The profit driven techniques from the west are harnessed for the benefit of Nazarbaev, Inc, not society. This, however, is not so much an issue of mentality (how people think) as one of ideas (what people think/learn). This is an important distinction and I hope to expand upon it in the future.
There is a darker side too. Some motivated graduates moving to Astana become disenchanted and disengage. Others have heard enough to never even try, preferring to remain in the private sector, perhaps waiting for a time in the future when the political climate opens up. Despite this (somewhat deserved) cynicism, Astana is home to many young people working to bring a better tomorrow to their country. The city had an energy I didn’t feel in 2008, a feeling of optimism.
My goal in writing about Astana has been to try to present it as a normal place, beyond the usual English language coverage that either presents it as a novelty or cynically as a location of political corruption (which of course exists on a large scale). No matter what happens in the future, Astana will be around and deserves to be considered on its own merits and faults. But in doing so I made mistake of spurning its sleek image for the more authentic. Astana is both a lived-in place and an idea. The image of the city, as a showpiece representation of the future, counts too. Many residents I spoke to were proud of the fact that they were actively building something there. This especially includes its newest generation, who, while citizens of the world, are entering adulthood in Astana and looking to make their mark. Only time will tell if they find the space to succeed in their hopes and aspirations.