A Tale of Two Kazakhstans

A slum district in Atyrau, the center of Kazakhstan’s oil and natural gas industry

ATYRAU, Kazakhstan—To walk around Atyrau, on Kazakhstan’s Caspian Sea shore 1,000 miles west of the capital, Astana, is to see a tale of two cities. As the center of the country’s booming oil and natural gas industry, Atyrau boasts spotless glass-and-steel corporate offices, sushi restaurants, and five-star hotels. But in their shadow—literally, in some cases—is another city, with rutted streets, houses haphazardly built with scrap metal and lumber. They lack indoor plumbing, and their inhabitants rely on wells and pit toilets.

That sort of squalor isn’t uncommon in Central Asia, where poverty remains widespread 20 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union. But it stands out all the more in Kazakhstan, where tiny pockets of extravagance—most notably in the bespoke capital, Astana—stand in such contrast.

Most residents of Kazakhstan may not care much about the finer points of democracy and human rights, but they do resent their politically well-connected compatriots getting rich while their lives go nowhere. A shantytown on the outskirts of Almaty, Shanyrak, erupted in riots in 2006 when government officials tried to knock down houses to clear space for a new development for the rich. For several days residents blockaded the settlement, having been warned ahead of time by a neighboring shantytown that had suffered the same fate. When police tried to break the blockade, residents attacked them with Molotov cocktails, burning one officer to death.

Visiting places like Shanyrak and Atyrau exposes Astana as a Potemkin village, a showpiece of the new Kazakhstan that bears little resemblance to the rest of the country—and illustrates that if there is any challenge facing the country’s president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, who has ruled Kazakhstan since before it gained independence from the Soviet Union, it’s not resentment over repression or authoritarianism, but inequality and corruption. Thus far, oil wealth has allowed all boats to rise enough to dampen the impact of any economic resentment. But this burgeoning inequality, and the sense that the wealth created in places like Atyrau is being concentrated among a few elites (according to Forbes, Kazakhstan boasts five billionaires; Ukraine and Russia are the only other former Soviet republics to have any) and spent on vanity projects like Astana could provide a fault line for instability in a more difficult future.

In Atyrau, “the government builds a few things in the center for people who visit, but it’s a facade. The people who live here get nothing,” said Azamat Maytanov, deputy editor of the local newspaper Ak Zhaik.

The region benefits a little from the presence of foreign oil companies, which sponsor development projects in some of the poorest parts of town and help build water and gas lines to outlying villages. But many residents expect the companies to do even more, and that has in part allowed the government to shirk responsibility for developing the area. The government has even played on populist resentment of the oil companies; the prime minister suggested recently that local employees should get the same salaries as foreigners.

But that is a smoke screen, local activists told me. “Of course it’s the government’s fault” that Atyrau is underdeveloped, said Natalya Ivaskevich, a customs broker in the city who also volunteers with civil-society organizations. “The companies come here to make money, everyone knows that. And they just follow the rules the government sets.” Added Maytanov, the editor: “The economy here is a little more developed because we have oil, and we’re lucky for that. But we’re just getting very small pieces of this pie God gave us.”

I couldn’t get any local-government people in Atyrau to talk to me, and when I emailed a central government official about development there, he said, “I am sure the residents want more, they always do,” and added that if they really wanted to see underdevelopment, “they simply need to go to, say, Ust Kamenogorsk or Semey.”

Perhaps it was a coincidence that the official happened to be an ethnic Russian and that those towns are two of the biggest majority-Russian cities in Kazakhstan. Nevertheless, this under-the-surface ethnic tension exists and, like economic inequality, would likely flare up should the political situation become unstable in Kazakhstan—particularly when Nazarbayev leaves office.

Kazakhstan shares a long border with Russia, and ethnic Russians are concentrated in the northern part of the country. Upon independence in 1991, ethnic Russians outnumbered Kazakhs in Kazakhstan. Nazarbayev moved the capital to Astana, in the north, partly to cement government control over this potentially restive area. Indeed, in 1999, the Kazakhstan government broke up what it called a plot by ethnic Russians in Ust Kamenogorsk to organize a rebellion against Kazakhstan and set up an independent Russian state.

Since then, though, millions of ethnic Russians have voted with their feet and moved from Kazakhstan to Russia. Still, Russians today make up an estimated 30 percent of Kazakhstan’s population.

Today, Ust Kamenogorsk is a pleasant city of about 300,000 at the confluence of two rivers in northeastern Kazakhstan that gives little indication of being of being the source of any tension. But my contact in the government was right about underdevelopment—the city looks caught in a time warp, a slightly dilapidated version of its 1991 self.

And it’s not hard to find evidence of resentment among ethnic Russians, who still form an estimated 70 percent of the city’s population. They complain that use of the Russian language has been discouraged in favor of Kazakh, that history books have been rewritten to minimize Russian contributions to Kazakhstan, and that Russian street names and toponyms are being replaced by Kazakh ones.

Although most people still call the city Ust Kamenogorsk, its name has been Kazakhified to Oskemen, “which doesn’t even mean anything,” complained Oleg Novozov, head of the local chapter of the Russian advocacy group LAD. (“Ust Kamenogorsk” roughly translates as “Rocky Mountain.”) “It feels like the government wants to erase everything Russia did for Kazakhstan—it’s ridiculous,” Novozov said. (His office, incidentally, is in the government-run “House of Friendship.”)

When city officials learned that I was in town researching the question of ethnic Russian resentment, they went into heavy spin mode. One local official, named Erken (he wouldn’t tell me his last name or his job title) came to meet me at my hotel and showed me documentation of how much support the city gave to Russian groups—funding Christmas and other Christian celebrations, for example. But the amount of funding was the same for groups representing much smaller populations in the city, like Azeris, Koreans, and Poles. It was analogous to the Soviet treatment of non-Russian minorities: Each group got to celebrate its cultural heritage, as long as it did so in state-sponsored ways and without expecting any political power.

Erken was Kazakh, and when I made a trip to the city hall, I discovered that so was nearly every other person working for the local government. Securing a government job now requires knowledge of the Kazakh language, which very few Russians have (even many ethnic Kazakh city-dwellers speak only Russian). “It’s difficult for Russian people here—they think about the future of their children, they want to bring them up in their own homeland. Russian people here worry that their children can forget their own language, their traditions,” Novozov said.

There is a widespread belief that, like so many things in Kazakhstan today, the well-being of ethnic Russians depends on one man: Nazarbayev. Russians credit Nazarbayev for tamping down nationalism and allowing Russians to maintain what cultural rights they have. And much of the country’s most vocal political opposition comes from Kazakh nationalists.

So for Kazakhstan’s Russians, Nazarbayev, the devil they know, is better than the devil they don’t, and they worry about what will happen when he dies or leaves office. After Nazarbayev is gone, Novozov said, “it will be awful. So many people will want to take his place. It will be tribalism. And all Russians will pay the price.”