Is it the felt revolution or the fur revolution? Or is it a revolution at all? (In Kazakhstan, nomads still use felt to build their tents, called yurts, and to wear a fur coat in Astana, the modern capital, is not a luxury because temperatures can plummet to -40 C in winter.)
But political change – slow, to be sure – is taking place in Kazakhstan: a vast oil-rich and landlocked country in Central Asia, which gained its independence in 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed. The Russians had both tried to colonize (22.8 percent of the population is Russian) and use Kazakhstan as a dumping place for prisoners, for nuclear facilities and for some of the worst environmental experiments, particularly dooming the Aral Sea by reversing the rivers that once fed it.
In mid-January, Kazakhs went to the polls for an election that could be the beginning – just the glimmering of a beginning — of a new era of democracy in Central Asia. In itself, this election was a small affair and was criticized as such by observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
Myself and a colleague were invited as journalistic observers. We stayed in Astana and observed voting in just two locales, which were orderly and had a movie-set feel to them. We even got to watch President Nursultan Nazarbayev enter the voting booth, exit it and drop his ballot into a transparent box.
Fur-wearing voters drop their ballots into a box at the National Academic Library polling station in Astana. Photo: Linda Gasparello
The OSCE observers were critical of the way the government determined which parties could participate. They were also critical of the high polling numbers provided by the government, which claimed 80.7 percent support for Nur Otan, the party of the president, a former Soviet official who moved quickly from communism to capitalism but hesitatingly to democracy.
Yet in his 20 years of near absolute power, Nazarbayev has been popular. He has had the unique good fortune of being able to deliver above the expectations of his people.
Nazarbayev has been skillful in positioning Kazakhstan as a friend to everyone. By doing so, he has cultivated comity with his some of his irascible neighbors, including Russia, China, Iran, as well as the less-friendly other “stans” that border his sprawling, underpopulated country (about 16.5 million people).
He also has fostered good relations with ethnic minorities, including Uzbeks, Ukrainians, Uighurs, and many more. Likewise, with 40 religious groups: Kazakhstan is a predominantly Muslim country (70 percent, 26 percent Christian) with a secular tradition. Muslim women do not cover their heads; men are clean-shaven; the call to prayer does not ring out over Astana; and minority religions are permitted, including Buddhism and Judaism.
Cleverly, Nazarbayev has also given his people a shiny bauble to be dazzled by: Astana. In a little more than eight years, this architectural extravaganza has risen on the Central Asian steppe. Astana is spectacular and incorporates a kind of World's Fair-meets-The Emerald City architecture: There is a building that looks like giant golden egg in a white-branched nest, one that opens like a flower's petals, and one that looks like a yurt. The best architects in the world, like Britain's Norman Foster, have been invited to play – and they have let loose.
Palace of Peace and Harmony in Astana Photo: Linda Gasparello
But Nazarbayev's days as the Wizard of Oz may be drawing to a close, and the tentative nod to democracy may be an acknowledgment of that. He is 71.
A new generation of ambitious, gifted and well-educated men and women now walks the streets of the capital; young people who wonder about the paternalism, want to play on a world stage, and do not remember the bad old days of Soviet domination. They worry about the pipelines that take Kazakh oil in many directions – at present, mostly into Russia and China. Especially, they worry what will happen when their president passes from the scene.
After the disappointment of the Arab Spring, dare the world hope for a democratic birth on the Central Asian steppe? I think so. – For the Hearst-New York Times Syndicate