Friday, 23 September 2016

Reflections on Kazakhstan

On my way home now, flying over wispy clouds and the steppe.

Kazakhstan and Almaty are interesting places, though I can't claim to have seen much else of Kazakhstan than Almaty but there you go. The legacy of the Soviet times are clearly still there. There are still plenty of big square buildings and grandiose projects to show off whatever it was that the Soviet Union wanted to show off back in the day. That has carried on today and although the buildings are slightly less blocky and slightly more steel and glass (so western looking, for good or for bad) they still seem to like a grandiose project, even if those projects are now shopping malls rather than Square of the Martyrs type affairs. Interestingly people seem to consider the old Soviet apartment blocks as a better bet in an earthquake than ones built since the fall of communism, apparently dodgy building practices and graft are widespread and safety the least of concerns for the construction companies in these cost cutting days of capitalism.

What you tend to see now is a brand new showroom for Armani or Bentley, all gleaming glass, neon and chrome, on the ground floor and then above the old block of flats rises, leering at the new toys below whilst slowing shabbifying and falling apart (that's the opposite of the creeping gentrifying you get in London...). It makes for an interesting city and one wonders how long it will be before the older blocks start to be torn down - it will be a shame when that happens as right now, as far as I could see, the flats are where normal folk live, so the centre of Almaty feels like a place people live in rather than a sterile city centre, if old places are knocked down I can see new money moving in quick smart.

In some respects Almaty is already buzzing, there are lots of new restaurants that are full of people on a Wednesday night (and a fair few that aren't) and I can see it being a good night out at the weekend. They have clearly known prosperity in the years since 1989 but just now, with the devaluation of the Tenge recently times are a little tougher. There is obviously money around but the real money doesn't seem to be spreading out as much as it could or maybe should have done. I can see a time in the not too distant future when people start to ask "hey, you know all the billions Kazakhstan has made from oil and gas in the last 2 decades, where has all that money gone, exactly...?'. Into the hands of a privileged few is not the answer they are going to want to hear. Out in the countryside it is even worse, by all accounts, with large swathes of the population living essentially a subsistence existence, not something to be proud of considering the situation in the cities and the Benz driving oligarchs.

But the Kazak's of Almaty do seem to be proud of their city. They are also friendly and helpful, I read some articles before coming about being careful walking around at night but I did and never felt threatened or worried. During the day I was wandering about with my camera and again no hassle at any time. Almaty is also a very green city, there are trees everywhere you go, along the side of pretty much every road and boulevard, which makes for lovely shade on sunny days but I think it might look pretty bleak in deep midwinter, though the residents are probably more worried about the 20 below freezing than they are about naked trees in February. A lot of the trees are oaks and while I walked around you did have to watch out for the falling of acorns, which are surprisingly hard. As I walked home on Wednesday night I passed a garage under a small copse of oaks and the noise on the corrugated roof was like a light gun battery in WWII.

Interesting to hear a little about the geopolitics of the area while I was here. Kazakh is a language related to Turkish, which you can begin to hear when spoken, though the alphabets are different I think. There are a number of other countries in the region that also have a language related to Turkish, whilst other countries have Persian/Farsi languages (Turkmenistan, I think I was told, counterintuitively). Thinking about the geography it puts a huge, Turkish speaking swathe of people running from Turkey itself right to the border of China. Kazakhstan therefore, has had to walk a pretty tight tightrope of keeping Putin and Russia onside whilst trying to rediscover itself as Kazakhstan. With a large Russian speaking minority a wrong move could see Putin doing to the Kazakhs what he has done in the Ukraine e.g. liberating the oppressed Russians from the tyranny of the new majority in their country. So Kazakh culture and language has had to be kept very low key as a government policy (if it is policy at all) though it is something that younger Kazakhs are becoming more interested in. A powder keg springs to mind...

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