Valentina Murzintseva shuffled to the door of the small white church, unbolted the padlock and stepped inside. “True faith existed in the past,” she said, gesturing around the icon-filled interior with a flourish, “and it still does!”
Kazakhstan has long positioned itself as the “snow leopard” economy, aspiring to compete with the Asian Tigers. So today’s news will be warmly received in Astana: Kazakhstan has topped an international rating of the world’s business climates – not overall, but in terms of efforts over the last year to improve business regulation.
“Kazakhstan improved conditions for starting a business, obtaining construction permits, protecting investors, and trading across borders,” the overview to the World Bank and International Finance Corporation’s Doing Business 2011 report says.
That’s pushed Kazakhstan 15 places up in the overall rankings for ease of doing business to be the world's top reformer: the business climate ranks 59th this year, out of 183.
Kazakhstan’s president has been touring Europe on a charm offensive, courting investors to take part in the “grandiose project” of making Kazakhstan a modern, hi-tech economy. On his three-day tour of Belgium and France, Nursultan Nazarbayev pushed the message that Kazakhstan is a reliable energy partner and a profitable place to invest.
While keen to stress Kazakhstan as an energy supplier to Europe, Nazarbayev described reliance on oil and gas as “a thing of the past” for Astana and urged Europe’s businessmen to invest in non-energy sectors.
His message was heard: Nazarbayev rounded off his trip to Paris on October 27 with a couple of billion dollars’ worth of new contracts in his pocket, many of them with firms outside the oil and gas industries.
This is a success not only for the president but also for Kayrat Kelimbetov, a key economic player who runs the Samruk-Kazyna sovereign wealth fund, which owns all of Kazakhstan’s state companies. Kelimbetov, who accompanied Nazarbayev along with over 50 businessmen, said Kazakhstan is a great place to invest as it “is coming back to its previous period of economic boom,” while economies elsewhere continue to struggle with the effects of the financial crisis. Kazakhstan posted real GDP growth of 8 percent in the first three quarters of 2010, and forecasts annual growth of 5.4 percent – a figure some economists believe is conservative.
Casting an anxious eye on events in neighboring Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan is carrying out a fresh drive to promote ethnic harmony. President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who prides himself on presiding over an era of ethnic accord in multicultural Kazakhstan, is leading the campaign.
Taking the announcement by Vladimir Kozlov as an insult, Kazakh nationalists hurled eggs at him at a press conference in Almaty on October 27. Attempts by Kozlov, leader of the unregistered Alga! DVK opposition party, to explain his plans ended in scuffles between his supporters, nationalists and journalists. Police were called to the National Press Club to split up the warring sides and made two arrests.
“Don’t provoke our people, don’t stamp on our pride!” cried an angry member of the Zheltoksan (December) movement. A protestor described the bid by a non-ethnic Kazakh to stand for president as an “insult to the whole Kazakh people.” Ironically, Kozlov may not be an ethnic Kazakh but, unlike many members of minority groups, he’s made attempts to learn the Kazakh language and has espoused causes dear to the nationalists’ hearts.
The Zheltoksan movement is named after a protest in Almaty in December 1986 that saw mainly ethnic Kazakhs take to the central square to rally against Moscow’s appointment of an ethnic Russian as leader of Soviet Kazakhstan. The move to parachute in Gennadiy Kolbin, who had no experience working in Kazakhstan, to replace Dinmukhamed Kunayev sparked resentment among ethnic Kazakhs, who were at the time in a minority in the Soviet republic.
When Kazakhstan’s president opened the Pyramid of Peace in Astana in 2006, some commentators dismissed it as a flight of fancy, the latest whim of a megalomaniac Central Asian leader who’d stop at nothing to put his pet project, the new capital city, on the map.
There was sarcastic sniffing that pyramids would look more appropriate in their ancient Egyptian settings than in a futuristic Central Asian capital in the middle of the steppe. But did Nursultan Nazarbayev perhaps know more than he was letting on?
A new archeological discovery in Astana casts a whole new light on the idea of erecting a pyramid here: researchers have uncovered an ancient burial mound that they say was constructed in the shape of a pyramid, Khabar TV reports -- and the site’s just a few hundred meters away from the modern-day version.
Unlike the 21st-century pyramid, the ancient one served as a real burial place: archeologists found bone fragments belonging to an adolescent boy believed to have been the servant of a Scythian warrior once buried here. Ancient grave robbers plundered the warrior's body, but the 2,500-year-old tomb does still contain the corpse of a dog, probably his faithful hunting companion.
A staunch, outspoken opponent of the president, Kozlov isn’t daunted by the challenge of trying to unseat Nazarbayev, who is firmly entrenched in power after two decades at Kazakhstan’s helm.
Kozlov says he wants to change a political system that allows one person to stay in power unrivalled for so long. “I’m going to put my candidacy forward for the next presidential elections, but not because I want presidential power,” he told the Golos Respubliki newspaper. “I believe it necessary to change the system, in order to guarantee that the necessary legislative reforms be conducted and that transparent, honest, and representative elections be assured.”
Kozlov harbors few illusions about his chances of electoral success, however. Complaining about Nazarbayev’s “authoritarianism,” he said that members of a society which is “zombified by false propaganda and intimidated by examples of the total suppression of dissident views” were hardly likely to elect him.
The Kazakh premier has had a tough few weeks, with cabinet ministers falling like dominoes and the omnipotent president targeting the government with public criticism over spending. All this has sparked rumors that the days of Karim Masimov – Kazakhstan’s longest serving premier ever – as prime minister are numbered.
At last, though, in comes some good news – whatever troubles he may face on the political front, Masimov remains popular with the public, a new opinion poll shows.
The study by the Almaty-based Strategiya Center for Social and Political Research indicates that Masimov enjoys an approval rating of 62 percent, higher than that of the government overall, which stands at 56 percent. Evidently, the public likes the affable, relaxed style projected by Masimov, in stark contrast to some of his buttoned-up predecessors.
The PM’s approval rating remains far lower than that of his boss, President Nursultan Nazarbayev, which stands at just under 90 percent – but that’s probably just as well, since the unrivaled Leader of the Nation tolerates no threat to his own popularity. Nazarbayev, whose ratings regularly hover around the 90-percent mark in opinion polls, has in the past moved to curb the power of any public figure whose star rises too high.
And Masimov’s star may have been doing just that, at least in Nazarbayev’s eyes.