Nazarbayev U.

The central atrium of the new Nazarbayev University in Astana, Kazakhstan

ALMATY, Kazakhstan—It’s in Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city and former capital, more than anywhere else, that proves the lie of the Borat-inspired vision of a poor, backward country. The center of the country’s honest-to-God middle class, Almaty has chain bookstores with orange leather couches where shoppers can peruse the maternal yoga books and the Twilight series in translation. On weekends, groups of Lycra-clad cyclists on racing bikes head out of town. “This is the only place in Central Asia where, if you go to a restaurant where an entree costs more than $5, you’ll still see more locals than expats,” one American living in Almaty told me.

My trip to Kazakhstan began in Almaty, and on my first night there I was invited to a networking happy hour that made me feel like I’d never left my home in Washington, D.C. The young women drank glasses of wine, the men European beers, and all were smartly dressed. At the end of the evening, a mass exchange of business cards ensued.

One of the networkers told me that his ambition was to become president of Kazakhstan. He certainly had a politician’s outgoing personality and glad-handing skills. He had gone to law school in the
UK and told me that he had been elected president of the student association there. He was impressed both that the mainly local student body would vote for him and that the student association had some actual responsibility, a devolution of authority that he said would never happen in Kazakhstan. “We even had a budget, with real money!” he marveled.

He told me that at his office, in a law firm in Almaty, he had portraits of four men whom he considered role models. Together they formed a quintessentially Kazakh blend of East and West: President
Barack Obama, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Singapore’s authoritarian leader Lee Kwan Kew, and Russian governor/oligarch/soccer club owner Roman Abramovich.

The networking event was for alumni of an innovative Kazakhstan government scholarship program called Bolashak (“Future” in Kazakh). Since 1993, the Bolashak program has sent about 6,000 Kazakh students abroad for university study, mostly to the United States, all expenses paid—as long as they return and work in Kazakhstan for at least five years. Kazakhstan’s president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, has billed it as a way to inculcate Kazakhstan’s youth with Western, democratic values.

Kazakhstan’s progress toward democracy has been slow at best, but the government at least claims that it’s the country’s long-term goal. And Bolashak has played a key role in that rhetoric. “We are learning from the positive example of American democracy,” Nazarbayev said in 1993
of Bolashak, “and the government of Kazakhstan wants them to come back and implant into the Kazakh soil not only the updated professional knowledge obtained at the best U.S. universities but also seeds ofdemocracy and civic education.” Former U.S. ambassador to Kazakhstan Richard Hoagland told me that he expected Kazakhstan to eventually become democratic for two reasons: first “the middle class … but even more important, one of the real achievements of this country, is
the Bolashak program.”

I asked the young networker about that assertion, and he was skeptical: “The government says it wants us to get new ideas from abroad, but when we come back, they ignore them.” The people listening to our conversation nodded. I met Bolashak graduates throughout my travels in Kazakhstan, and they nearly all agreed with that sentiment.

Another day in Almaty, I met Adil Nurmakov, a young blogger and activist. He hadn’t studied abroad; he has lived in Kazakhstan all his life, but nevertheless he also looked like a D.C. denizen, with black-rimmed glasses, a hoodie, and an Obama “HOPE” T-shirt. He, too, was skeptical of the notion that Bolashak could bring “Western” values to Kazakhstan. “These people may come back with an idea of how the West works, but then if they come back and work for the government or a Kazakh company, they won’t have any power. And to get power, they have to take part in the same corrupt system,” he told me.

Whatever Bolashak’s impact on Kazakhstan’s democratization might be, later in my trip I learned that it won’t last much longer, anyway. With little fanfare, the government is phasing out the program as it launches another, possibly more ambitious educational endeavor: Nazarbayev University, a brand-new Astana-based institution that aims to bring world-class education to Kazakhs, rather than forcing them (or allowing them, depending on your perspective) to go abroad to get it.

I visited the university shortly before it opened for its first year of classes. Construction of the campus was far from finished—in the first year, only about 500 students enrolled, but within four or five years, that number will grow to about 20,000, said Kadisha Dairova, a genteel former diplomat who is now the university’s vice president. But the architectural centerpiece of the campus, a massive courtyard atrium that connects all the major academic buildings, is finished, and with a soaring roof, several fountains and pools, and dozens of palm trees, it offers the “wow” factor that Khan Shatyr failed to deliver.

To start a world-class university from scratch is not easy, and Nazarbayev U. is importing talent from big-name Western schools to get started. The first-year “foundations” course will be run by University College London, for example, and the business school faculty will be drawn entirely from the faculty at Duke’s Fuqua School of Business. “What’s interesting about Nazarbayev University is the scale and scope of what they are trying to do, it’s an incredibly ambitious and brilliant approach to how to start a university,” Bill Boulding, Fuqua’s deputy dean, told me. 

Through its cooperation, Duke hopes to establish relationships with a country that, thanks to its booming oil- and gas-fueled economy, is poised to be an important business center of the future, Boulding said. “We will get to learn how business is done [in Kazakhstan], how the institutions work, who are the key people,” he said. “We get a much richer perspective about what a key region looks like from the ground.” Meanwhile, of course, Kazakhstan’s students get the resources of a top MBA program without leaving their country.

However, the university also appears to represent a step back from the attempt, if it ever was sincere, to liberalize the country through foreign ideas. Nazarbayev U. will fulfill the role that Bolashak played in educating Kazakhstan’s undergraduates, so from now on Bolashak will only send graduate students abroad. Sending undergrads overseas didn’t make sense because they were too “undirected,” said Dairova, who in a former job administered the Bolashak program in North America. I asked about the young Bolashak alums’ assertion that Kazakhstan rejected the ideas they brought back from abroad. She suggested that feeling might be a result of their own personal failings. “Just because a few people couldn’t make it doesn’t mean the country doesn’t accept foreign ideas,” she said.

But foreign ideas, at least of the perspective-broadening liberal arts variety, will be hard to find at Nazarbayev University. The curriculum will be heavily weighted toward the engineering and technocratic skills most needed to build a new country. The university will eventually have four schools: engineering, applied and computer sciences, medicine, and social science and the humanities (which will focus on public policy, economics, and international relations). Oil companies operating in Kazakhstan have provided help developing the curriculum, Dairova said. “Industry and the university must cooperate, otherwise the universities graduate students with skills that aren’t applicable. Industry must tell us what kind of students to produce and train,” she said.

Nazarbayev, too, seems to have stopped talking about the importance of importing new ideas. His eponymous university, the president said at its opening ceremony, “will become a national brand of Kazakhstan that will combine the advantages of the national education system and the best of international research and education practice.” Notions like “democracy and civic education” went unmentioned.