As an international student I’m sort of aware that my presence here is itself an exercise in soft power. I’ll go around the country, take in the culture, see the sights, and when I go home I’ll tell everyone how wonderful and modern it is.
If you were to skim across the surface you could easily come away thinking Almaty is a well-developed modern metropolis. And, it is. Go to the financial district and you’ll see parks with ornamental fountains and streets lined with well-recognised western shopping outlets. At first it’s really impressive, until you realise that at night the homeless people gather to use the fountains as public baths.
After living here a while I’ve started to see the fragility of the country. There have been power cuts at the university, forcing the lecturers to use the blackboards instead. Sometimes there are water shortages, I go for a shower only to find a small trickle from the faucet. The supermarket shelves are stocked only as much as is necessary. When I take the last of an item I’ve noticed it doesn’t get re-stocked until the end of the week. These are relatively minor complaints, but they are noticeable.
The upper districts of Almaty are well-kept, cleaners are employed to sweep the streets and a lot of effort is spent on watering neat rows of flowers. The buildings are new and shiny, but even these are in a state of semi-decay. The great marble walls are cracked, sometimes tiles are missing, the cheap concrete crumbles into rough blocks. Telephone cables hang awkwardly out of windows, tied up as a result of a quick or unfinished job.
At other times the ornate buildings seem just un-necessary. The finishing touches are being put to a huge tower in the financial district, and this project is being pursued while many old buildings have empty rooms, and some are abandoned altogether. Factories close down, people are made unemployed, and the only solution seems to be to build more glass towers.
At the other end of the city are the slums which stretch across the lower districts. Electricity doesn’t fully reach these areas so the makeshift homes are heated during the night by wood or petrol-burning stoves. Open gutters cross the streets and everywhere is covered in a thin layer of dust and grime. The air is polluted and the water putrid, the people there don’t live in good conditions.
There are cracks in this country, you see them running through the city, and they run all the way through society.
In 1991, Kazakhstan encountered two curses: neoliberalism and religious fundamentalism. Clan and tribal loyalties were re-established, Nazarbayev’s family and his close allies are embedded within ruling circles. Islam was encouraged (but not officially endorsed) as a national religion, and this opened the door to political Islam.
In my class on terrorism, the Kazakh students keep mentioning shootings and bombings by Islamic groups. There was a student outing to the big Almaty lake, and we learned of a mass stabbing incident there last week. There was one report of militants attacking a gun shop and running off with as many weapons as they could take. Things here are generally very safe, but there’s an undercurrent of instability.
There are rumours that religious unrest is sponsored by Saudi Arabia, or the USA, or Jordan. The Salafi immams brought over from other islamic countries have strong conservative values, and their preaching might have an effect on the population. There are comparisons with the Soviet times, when mosques were strictly regulated and sometimes shut down. Objections on the grounds of religious persecution were not taken so seriously back then.
I want to stress that islamic and neoliberal values are related problems. The free-market zealot believes only in his expensive watch, while the poor man believes that the materialistic excesses of his neighbour can be washed away with religious authority. Both alleyways are dead-ends.
(photos in this post were taken by Yu Zhu, a fellow student here)