Out of Soviet Ashes, Into a Better Future? The Kazakhs Say ‘Yes’

Among the people in the former Soviet republics there’s a famous expression:  If you don’t lament the collapse of the Soviet Union, you have no heart. If you do, you have no mind.

Indeed, the shadow of the once mighty USSR still haunts the former Soviet republics in different ways. Some republics continue to struggle economically and have become impoverished, they continue to fight corruption, and the myriad of other problems—.  For some, the transition was catastrophic. But others have managed to break through the uncertainty of the post-Soviet era.

Today, not many know or remember that the Soviet ruble once was worth more than one U.S. dollar, that the USSR won the UEFA football championship in 1960 in France, with names like Lev Yashin and Alexander Blokhin instilling fear into opposing teams. Legendary hockey players Valery Kharlamov and Vladislav Tretyak are still considered legends from Cold War era hockey competitions that were about more than just hockey.

From victory in WWII to space exploration triumphs, Soviets had a lot to be proud of and two things that kept people happy in the Soviet Union were unity and pride. After the inevitable collapse, the 15 states that once represented the USSR became independent and had to chart their own course.

It seems that 22 years after that fateful day of Dec. 30, 1991, when the Soviet Union formally ceased to exist, the people who live in the independent states that rose from the ashes of the USSR continue to be of two minds (or of two hearts).

The most recent Gallup poll, conducted in 2013 in 11 former Soviet republics, shows that the slight majority, 51 percent, believe the collapse of the Soviet Union was a bad thing. In seven countries, more people consider the collapse of the Soviet Union to be a bad thing for their countries than otherwise.

One result of the study is particularly notable. Compared to other countries surveyed, noticeably more people in Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan believe the Soviet collapse brought more benefits than harm. In Kazakhstan, 45 percent of those polled thought positively of the Soviet collapse, versus 25 percent who thought it brought more harm. In Azerbaijan, the proportion was 44-31, while in Turkmenistan the majority of positive opinions were even more pronounced at 62-8.

The survey also revealed that those who had experience living in the USSR are nearly three times more prone to say its collapse harmed the country. People under 30 are split on the issue with 33 percent seeing harm and 30 percent seeing benefit. Twenty percent said they didn’t know and/or refused to answer.

Azat Peruashev, the 46-year-old leader of the Ak Zhol political party and a member of the Mazhilis, thinks such a breakdown of sentiment is explained by both objective and subjective factors. “After the collapse of the Soviet Union, we all faced a very difficult period of collapsing economic ties in what used to be a single economic organism. (The economies in the former Soviet countries shrank by 50 percent compared to 29-30 percent contraction during the Great Depression in the U.S.). And, in addition to natural resources, a lot depended on how quickly the leadership in those countries could overcome those problems,” Peruashev told this newspaper.

“In Kazakhstan, President Nursultan Nazarbayev did an impressive job in terms of crisis management, quickly introducing much needed economic reforms: privatization, attraction of foreign investment, introduction of national currency, as well as the transfer of the capital to Astana which spurred economic development and construction industries in its own way,” Peruashev explained.

Only six months after independence, Kazakhstan adopted a new law on the protection and support of private entrepreneurship, a major U-turn for a country where private businesses were all but prosecuted by law until December 1991. And in the mid-1990s, President Nazarbayev signed more than 100 decrees with the legal force of law, solidifying the foundation of economic market reforms. “In the end, a class of entrepreneurs was established, and this movement acquired a nationwide character. … Today, Kazakhstan is clearly a country with a civilized economy and political system,” Peruashev added. “We had our share of mistakes and problems, but only he who doesn’t do anything doesn’t make mistakes. We try to foresee problems and preempt them. That is why I look positively at steps, such as the establishment of a Ministry of Regional Development and the adoption of a programme to develop small cities.”

“The result of the survey doesn’t surprise, really,” Dosym Satpayev, 39, a PhD of political sciences and the director of the Almaty-based consulting organisation, Risk Assessment Group, said in an interview.

“There have been a lot of changes in Kazakhstan in the past 22 years, the mentality has changed, a new post-Soviet generation has grown up. We need to keep this demographic in mind whenever we analyse anything,” Satpayev said, highlighting several points that need to be considered.

“The first point is the emotional state that is tied to the definition of ‘independence’. Many thought that Kazakhstan gained complete independence, became a self-efficient unit after the collapse of the USSR,” Satpayev said. “The second factor is economical. Many of those who support the break-up of the USSR think that Kazakhstan was exploited and did not receive enough in return and that today an independent Kazakhstan can decide for itself about what to do with the natural resources it owns, without seeking permission from the so called ‘big brother’. The third important factor is that since the collapse of the USSR, there have been a lot of leaks from old Soviet archives that have discredited the Soviet regime. The materials revealed that it was a good thing that we escaped from the old ways, otherwise it would have been even worse. And the fourth factor is demographics. We have brought up a new generation in the last 20 years in Kazakhstan, people who don’t know the USSR, have no connection to it, no understanding, no imagination of the communist era. And these young people think the history of Kazakhstan started from 1991. All they know comes from stories from their parents, their discussions and now they think that the break-up was beneficial rather than harmful.”

A recent opinion poll by Ipsos MORI seems to support the overall positive expectations of the people in Kazakhstan. It showed widespread satisfaction with the direction of the country and a majority of citizens with a positive attitude towards the economy.

The research results produced by Ipsos MORI showed strong support among ordinary Kazakh citizens for the general direction of policy in the energy-rich Central Asian country.  Eighty-six percent of a nationwide sample of respondents said they felt “positive” about Kazakhstan in general, and 35 percent said they felt “very positive.” Seventy percent of citizens said they felt positive about the country’s economy, while 81 percent said they felt the country had become a better place in which to live over the past ten years.

In the survey, Kazakh citizens indicated they have become significantly more satisfied with nearly every aspect of everyday life in the country–from the identification and elimination of corruption to overall quality of life and general standards of living–in recent years.

Respondents were also asked to rate life in Kazakhstan 10 years ago and to rate life in Kazakhstan today.  The increase in perceived satisfaction over this 10-year period ranges from double to nearly six-fold in certain cases, including sizeable improvements in job opportunities (18 percent say they were “good” 10 years ago; 36 percent say they are “good” today) and transport infrastructure (6 percent to 36 percent).

When asked about the main challenges currently facing Kazakhstan, 26 percent of respondents identified jobs as the most pressing issue, while 15 percent said housing and 11 percent said economic growth. Five percent and 2 percent of respondents respectively identified human rights and democratic reform as among the main challenges facing Kazakhstan.

The three traits most predominantly associated with Kazakhstan by respondents were its hospitality (50 percent), its stability (35 percent) and its peacefulness (34 percent).   The top 17 descriptive terms associated with the country are all positive.

Furthermore, an overwhelming majority of citizens agreed that their children’s generation will have more opportunities than their own, and that they are optimistic about the future of the country, with figures of 77 percent and 80 percent respectively.

It is no wonder then that the majority of the people in Kazakhstan think the collapse of the Soviet Union and the independence of the country have been good for themselves and the their country.

Yet, while there are many reasons to be happy, there are also many reasons to be concerned about the future, such as the still high dependence on extraction industries and the still high level of corruption. It is important that the country’s leaders realize this and continue to work to resolve problems pre-emptively.

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