As a country, Kazakhstan has set its sights firmly on the future. The continued modernisation of the economy and society is rightly seen as essential to provide our citizens with the opportunities and living standards they deserve in the decades ahead. The goal of joining the ranks of the top 30 most-developed countries by 2050 encapsulates this ambition.
But as well as having a clear idea of the intended destination, it is also important not to forget from where you have come. Successful societies are those which don’t forget their history, traditions and culture but build on them. Without this understanding and appreciation, the risk is that connections are lost and societies become rootless and unstable.
It is a danger that President Nursultan Nazarbayev recognised earlier this year when, in calling for a modernisation of society and attitudes to complement the modernisation of our economy, he stressed at the same time the critical importance of tradition and culture to what Kazakhstan is and wants to become.
So along with the bold decisions, for example, to ensure our young people are fluent in English to enable them to compete globally and to switch gradually to the Latin alphabet, he called for determined efforts to support local communities through the Tugan Zher (Small Homeland) programme. Importantly, this was to be coupled at a national level with a new initiative to map and preserve the country’s cultural and religious landmarks.
We have, perhaps, in the past taken what academics call this Sacred Geography for granted. When you consider how far our country has come in the last 25 years and the obstacles we have overcome together, it is easy to see why attention has been focused on other challenges.
But the President is right to underline how important this unique and rich heritage is. By both protecting and celebrating this history, we provide the basis for a modern patriotism, which helps strengthen connections between citizens and also provides a barrier to cultural traditions from outside our borders. A society that is comfortable with its own roots finds it easier to push back against foreign and damaging religious and ideological influences.
And the President was right to say that Kazakhstan has an extraordinary heritage. The Mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yassawi in Turkestan, for example, has a significance which resonates far beyond our borders. Its importance explains why it was listed internationally by UNESCO as World Heritage site in 2003 and draws pilgrims from across the world.
But Kazakhstan’s history, of course, goes back many centuries before the acclaimed poet. Neolithic settlements and Bronze Age cave paintings are included in the 500 major sites already identified for enhanced protection. So, too, are the burial places of the descendants of Genghis Khan.
Identifying and providing additional protection, where necessary, is essential. But the President’s initiative goes beyond simply preserving monuments. He called as well for a concerted national education campaign to underline their importance for every citizen and to Kazakhstan’s history. As he said, these diverse sites provide the thread which binds the Kazakh people through the centuries.
The communication efforts around the comprehensive mapping, for the first time, of these heritage sites should also provide a major boost for domestic and international tourism. Enthusing Kazakhs about their own history will lead to many more visiting other regions. Internationally, it will help Kazakhstan capitalise on the increased global interest and ensure the country continues to feature high in the global lists of must-visit destinations.
Any society which loses sight of its history is storing up trouble for the future and putting in danger all its achievements. By taking the time to celebrate its rich religious and cultural heritage and reminding all our citizens of why it is important, Kazakhstan shows it is not going to make this mistake.