Kazakhstan and the Dubai of the Steppe
Last week I wrote a blog about the great inequality in China, but this is nothing when you compare China to Kazakhstan. The extreme differences between cities, and especially the capital Astana, and the rural areas are striking.
The biggest city of country, Almaty, lies close to the border with China but has more of a European vibe with its leafy lanes, international shops and European cars. This all changes to moment you leave the city. After less than an hour drive you don’t believe you are in still in the same country.
Life in the rural areas is hard, simple and poor. For example, we stayed with a lovely family in a small village in rural south Kazakhstan. The people were very kind to us travelers and shared everything they had even though they didn’t have much. Three times a day people eat bread with some butter and maybe soup at night. Of course, there is no sewage system and sometimes no running water, not to mention a shower.
This example is not unique. Many places in Kazakhstan turned out to have no sewer and showers. Infrastructure needs to improved to say it mildly as we experienced a bumpy road on our various bus trips through the country. For example, the road from one of the bigger southern cities, Shymkent, to the capital was sometimes non-existent. You wouldn’t expect that such an important link at some places consist out only sand and rocks. When we arrived after this long bumpy ride, we were so surprised to see Astana, dubbed as Dubai of the Steppe.
It was as if we arrived in the capital of the world’s wealthiest and modern country. All the high-standing and special architecture that surrounded us was amazing. It used to be a small village when it was suddenly marked as the new capital by the president Nazarbayev in 1994. Since then the city witnessed a never-ending stream of construction projects. It was all top of the bill, barely matched anywhere in the west.
It was a magnificent sight, but at the same time it made me sad. So much money is spent on the capital while so many people live in poverty. It is estimated that around 30% of the government’s budget goes to Astana, with less than 6% of the population living there.
It made me angry when you think that Kazakhstan is listed in the top ten of oil producing countries. The Tengiz oil field is the one of biggest oil field in the world and allegedly contains as much oil as all US oil reserves together. Unfortunately, because of corruption only a few people benefit from the natural resources. In the Corruption Perception Index (CPI), a widely acknowledge measurement for corruption, Kazakhstan is listed as even more corrupt than countries like Bolivia, Mali, Senegal and Malawi. The country has a score of 2.7 on the index (1 extremely corrupt and 10 extremely clean).
Although there are some improvements in fighting corruption, when even the leader of the country is corrupt it is difficult to ban. Nazarbayev rose to power in 1989 when Kazakhstan was still part of the Soviet Union. He has been the country’s leader ever since. He was re-elected with 95.5% of the votes in the heavily criticised presidential elections in 2011. The turnout was 89,5%, which is remarkable since we didn’t meet a person who casted a vote. A person even told us that she tried to vote, but there was voting booth at the stated address. She was send from one address to another till she finally gave up. In addition, Nazarbayev and his family are repeatedly accused of taking the country’s oil money. Allegedly, Nazarbayev has at least one billion dollar in his Swiss bank account.
Kazakhstan, a country with not even 17 million inhabitants has potentially enough natural resources to make sure that everybody has a wealthy life. Unfortunately, there is much effort needed until the population will benefit from the natural resources hidden in their own country.
Click here for a photo blog about Kazakhstan’s two worlds.