There are usually a couple good shortcuts to understanding a country. Traditional festivals are one, seeing how a populace unwinds, what it is grateful for, and what it pokes fun at. Elections of its leadership, of how it governs itself, are another. The second was my introduction to Kazakhstan, observing a national parliamentary election in the Fall of 2004. Or, at least an introduction to a small swath of the country. It is the ninth largest in the world, a million, fifty-three thousand square miles, larger than Western Europe, drinking from the Caspian sea and stretched wide between Russia, China and several ‘stans.
It has the diversity of an ancient nation pummeled by history and with high-contrast borders. While it was in the Soviet grasp, Stalin threw people everywhere in Kazakhstan, including perceived opponents who then suffered in his gulags. One of the villages in my domain was like stepping into Germany, descendants of Volga Germans who had lived in the Russian empire for centuries before Stalin rebranded them. The town mayor entertained voters by singing on a karaoke machine.
All that land and not quite 17 million people; mostly Kazakhs but a large group of Russians amid 131 ethnicities. Russian is a second official language, sharing billing with Kazahk, a Turkic language. Islam dominates religion, with a quarter of the population Christian, mostly of Slavic and Germanic background. Broad generalizations do not come easily, except that in presidential elections there is little suspense. There is one dominant political party and only one president since independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Fortunately national priorities, some increasingly well funded by oil, gas, and mineral wealth, include education and a number of innovative policies aimed at smoothing the scars of history.
Kazakhstan has been gifted with talented, candid ambassadors and able staff representing their nation in Washington. The Embassy does a good deal of cultural outreach, and its programs provide a good sense of the culture Stalin did his best to destroy. One affecting offering I caught was a Kazakhstan film, “The Gift to Stalin”, glimpsing Soviet oppression in a village in 1949, leading up to the first of 456 nuclear detonations. These explosions caused horrific effects on many of the locals for generations, leaving a national visceral disgust with nuclear weapons. When one walks out in the sparsely populated steppes, across often poor, salty soil, one can imagine the helplessness people felt against the huge forces beyond their control.
Some photos are of the environs of the former capital, Almaty, including its startling “Green Market” labyrinth. Almaty is where I received my training before being sent north to the steppes, where my territory included many polling stations across a number of towns.
The only significant threat to my election mission came from a local regional official—an offer to slaughter and cook a sheep and give me, as honored guest, the sheep’s head. It was a ploy to get my German colleague and I off the road and delay our observation in other villages. The ploy was too clever by half, when I digested the image of a sheep’s head coming at me, I was immediately back on the road. Also unsuccessful was an attempt to ply me with fermented mare’s milk, perhaps best described as aromatic accents of saddle blanket after a hard gallop in August.Despite an often-rough history, people I met were welcoming. Kazakhstan’s intrigues invite more explorations.
This article was originally published in the Diplomatic Courier's January/February print edition.