Who Moved My Qurt?

Returning from a few days in Nur-Sultan, I had cause to reflect on what has changed in the country since my visit late last year. The flight was as excellent as always, the hospitality was just as warm, the hotel as comfortable and the food and drink as delicious. Indeed, on the surface, other than an older face looking back at me in the hotel’s mirrored lobby, much was the same. But then, when speaking to Kazakhs, I realized that so much has changed. A refreshed citizen-centric narrative, an edict for officials to listen to the people, and a focus on wealth generation (and, dare I say, redistribution) beyond the hallowed halls of Astana. 

The President’s address to the nation on March 16 further reinforced the impression that Kazakhstan is going through a seismic shift. Transforming from a centralized, control-oriented society, to a decentralized, consensus-based one. This will further accelerate citizen wellbeing, and create a diverse, distributed and dynamic economy – one in which every citizen is enfranchised, and in which hard work and intelligence become more valuable than clan or connections.

As I have written before, Kazakhstan is perfectly placed to be the economic and cultural heart of Central Asia and, given current events, beyond that. It has all the ingredients – an educated and hard working population, a clear vision, a refreshed government and so much more. But there remains a shadow over the bright future. A cancer that has eaten away at the organs of State, and is the kryptonite to successful reforms and development. Something so damaging, and deadly to the future, that the President has made its cure a top priority – the cancer of corruption.

Kazakhstan’s Gross Domestic Product was $170 billion in 2020, in large part derived from the sale of mineral assets that belong to every citizen. However, the average annual wage in Kazakhstan is $6,810, with half of Kazakh citizens earning only $1,300 a year according to President Tokayev’s comments made on Jan. 21. Even assuming that every man, woman and child in Kazakhstan earned $6,810 a year, that would total $129 billion. Where does the other $41 billion go? 

This is a question for the newly empowered agencies across the Kazakh government, and I wish them every success. Having been involved in the investigation of some of the largest frauds in the Middle East, I can confirm that the agencies will have a tough time. Lawyers and accountants will have created a myriad of pathways, like entwined fishing lines, making it incredibly difficult for authorities to trace and recover the stolen wealth. Those self-same law firms, which will now be engaged in re-registering yachts and transferring mansions to avoid the new round of sanctions, hide behind the veil of legal ‘privilege.’ But should that ‘privilege’ extend to lawyers and accountants that facilitate criminal conduct, fraud and theft? What should be done when that privilege, designed as a shield to protect the community, is used as a knife to bleed the community of its wealth? There is a strong view, in Kazakhstan and abroad, that action should be taken not just against those that have stolen from the citizens, but against each firm and each lawyer and accountant that has facilitated that theft.

But even to be able to talk of historic corruption marks a shift in the openness of the Government and the press, and reflects a further change in the approach of the leadership of Kazakhstan. One in which sunlight becomes the best disinfectant. One in which the light of transparency overcomes the darkness of the past.

And change is never easy. It takes us out of our comfort zone, makes us re-evaluate the norms with which we have grown familiar, causes us to question ourselves and the past, and requires us to adapt. It is as hard for individuals as it is for companies and Government.

The seminal book about managing change was written by Dr. Spencer Johnson in 1998. Called “Who Moved My Cheese,” it describes the way people react to major change by reference to the way in which mice react to the movement of their cheese. Do they sit and starve, waiting for it to come back, or travel and explore to find new sources of food?

The book’s advice is: Change Happens; Anticipate Change; Monitor Change; Adapt To Change Quickly; Change; Enjoy Change!; and Be Ready To Change Quickly And Enjoy It Again

Change is nothing new for Kazakhstan. It has transformed over the past 30 years. Indeed, very few countries have experienced as much change in such a short time and remained so stable. There have been strategic plans, concrete steps and many positive developments such as the creation of the Astana International Financial Center. Based on the President’s state of the nation address earlier this month, plenty more change is on the way: Lots of cheese will be moving. And Dr. Johnson’s advice will become ever more pertinent to ensure that the citizens of Kazakhstan enjoy the best Qurt (a very salty Kazakh version of cheese), and avoid ending up with Casu Marzo.

The author is Mark Beer OBE, the Chairman of The Metis Institute, which advises governments on the implementation of legal and judicial reforms that promote citizen-centricity. He is also co-Founder of Seven Pillars Law in Kazakhstan, a visiting fellow at Oxford University, a visiting professor at Shanghai University for Political Science and Law and a member of the World Economic Forum’s Expert Network.

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