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Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Central Asia's Cornerstone: Kazakhstan and Public Diplomacy

This is another older paper I wrote for my Public Diplomacy class. 

Between the vast forests and mountains of western Siberia and the deathly hot deserts of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan lies Kazakhstan, the second largest country to emerge from the smolders of the USSR. It is a land of mysterious contradictions. In the capital of Astana, new, glittering skyscrapers are shooting up like weeds-but the country suffers from a widely corrupt government, public rifts in culture and language, and a group of neighboring countries that are arguably in worse predicaments. Kazakhstan is a relatively new country, only independent since 1992, so public diplomacy strategies are only just emerging. Given the situation Kazakhstan is in today, a comprehensive public diplomacy strategy would only accelerate Kazakhstan’s rise.  Kazakhstan has the largest economy in Central Asia, along with the highest HDI, and the country possesses vast natural gas reserves. Al Eisele claims in his article “Kazakhstan: What Borat Missed”, that Kazakhstan “ clearly ready to awaken from its role as the sleeping giant of Central Asia.” 1 If the rapid growth of the capital Astana is any hint, Kazakhstan is an ambitious nation, eager to wake up from its long sleep under Imperial Russian and Soviet rule and become the influential, wealthy powerhouse of Central Asia. To do this, Kazakhstan needs to do many things through a strong public diplomacy strategy. 
Unfortunately, the biggest obstacle to a strong, honest, productive public diplomacy game plan comes from none other than Ak Orda, the enormous presidential palace in Astana. 2 The Kazakh Embassy in Washington proudly proclaims that “Democracy is on the march” and that “89.9% of registered Kazakhs voted in the 2011 Presidential Election, and 75.1% turned out for the 2012 Parliamentary Elections”. 4 Regardless of if these statistics are true, Kazakhstan is not a democracy, nor does it have much experience with democratic government. President Nursultan Nazarbayev has been in power since the Soviet Union imploded, and he does not permit a legitimate opposition to run against him. His government has harassed journalists that speak against him. 6 For 2012, Freedom House graded Kazakhstan’s levels of civil liberties and political rights on a scale of one to seven, where the higher the number given, the less rights the people possessed. Kazakhstan received a 5 for civil liberties, and a 6 for political rights. 6 The Kazakh people are not free, and will not become free if Nazarbayev stays in power. 
What Kazakhstan does possess in terms of public diplomacy is shady and very much influenced by Nazarbayev’s government. 3 “The government of Kazakhstan has spent substantial sums on global public relations, striving to shape an image as a modern, open and investment-friendly nation by relying on a stable of top-tier public relations firms and international advisors.” Some websites, such as, have “...uncovered evidence that suggests PR firms may have massaged Wikipedia entries in ways that cast the Kazakhstani government in a better light.” 3 
This cannot continue, as it will only magnify the double standard that is starting to emerge. Nazarbayev and hist government are trying to put Kazakhstan into the international spotlight, and it’s starting to work. “Astana, the capital city of Kazakhstan, has won the bid to host the International Exposition in 2017, beating out another candidate city, Liège of Belgium.” 1 While this event will likely mean a great victory for Kazakh public diplomacy, the world will eventually notice not only Kazakhstan’s crusade to bring itself into the international eye, but the corrupt, authoritarian Kazakhstani government will come with it sooner or later. Kazakhstan should be mindful of the mistakes its eastern neighbor of China has made-despite being accepted as a global force to be reckoned with, China will not be able to free itself of the evils the Communists continue to commit. Public diplomacy is aimed at informing and influencing on the international level-but the full potential cannot be realized without a free government at home. 
Secondly, Kazakhstan needs to convince its Central Asian neighbors to follow in its footsteps. Bolat Sultanov, director of the Kazakhstan Institute for Strategic Studies, has said that while Kazakhstan wants closer ties to the U.S. as the world's lone superpower, "we can't afford the luxury of spoiling our relationship with our neighbors of Russia and China." 1 President Nazarbayev calls it "multi-vector diplomacy-a balancing act designed to position Kazakhstan as an even-handed ally of Russia, China, the European Union and the U.S.” 1 This is a reasonable and strong goal to pursue, but priorities should be made to achieve it. Kazakhstan’s public diplomacy in the region needs to follow the cornerstones of patriotism, reconciliation, forgiveness, and cooperation. Rifts still exist between Russia and Kazakhstan, and understandably so-before independence in 1992, Kazakhstan answered to Russian Imperial and Soviet rule for hundreds of years. In reality, Kazakhstan's relations with Russia take top priority, as was evident when Russian President Dmitri Medvedev made his first official foreign visit to Kazakhstan in May 2008, shortly after his election, and declared, "Astana did not become the first foreign capital I have visited as President of Russia by chance." 2 Kazakhstan already has two official languages in Kazakh and Russian, and in order to make relations with their northern neighbors even stronger, Kazakhstan should implement  a cultural plan to encourage a clearing of the air between the two countries. 2 Kazakhstan is understandably still wary of the Russian government, but this can be fixed through public diplomacy. Kazakhstan should strive to encourage an international dialogue focusing on  between Russians and Kazakhs in both nations to establish a new beginning in relations. Dwelling in the past is not going to help, and an old saying goes “You can’t hate someone you know a lot about.” Cultural identity is very important and the Kazakh people have seen the implosion of the Soviet Union as a wonderful opportunity to start speaking their Kazakh language again. While this is obviously a positive development, the Russian language and the Since Russian is already an official language in Kazakhstan and the nations already enjoy close, stable relations, Kazakhstan should make an effort to promote their Turkic culture within Russia by sending their people over to Russia through programs similar to the Peace Corps and scholarship programs like the American Fulbright program. Many important Russian cities lie near the Kazakh border and the countries share numerous partnerships, especially in space travel and the energy business. If Kazakhs can find a way to become friendly with Russians on the public and the governmental level, the countries will accomplish great things. (And if both countries are able to make the transition to real representative democracy in the near future, this may be significant symbolically as Vladimir Putin and Nursultan Nazarbayev are similar in many different ways. Both came to power in a time of uncertainty, restored stability and economic prosperity, and have now become authoritarian in nature.)  
Kazakhstan has already set out to open its borders to the world, and while their relations with Russia are probably the most important, the country also needs to think on a global level-and this can be accomplished through a few objectives: Encourage the  people of Kazakhstan to not only expand their knowledge of the Russian language, but the Chinese and English languages to expand those countries’ awareness of Kazakhstan through joint partnerships and programs organized by both countries.  Kazakhstan’s proximity to China may not have been of extreme importance in the past, but now that China has emerged as a superpower, Kazakhstan needs to work on opening its business to Beijing.  This has already been realized by the Kazakhstani government. “Kazakhstan's leaders are also very aware of the rising power of China, which is paying premium prices for Kazakhstan's oil and natural gas, helping it build pipelines and roads while eyeing the country's vast empty spaces near China's western border for establishing Chinese colonies.” 3 
Along with this, Kazakhstan has work to do at home. Astana, the rapidly expanding capital, is hosting Expo 2017, a business forum between Kazakhstan and South Korea, and the 2011 Asian Winter Games. 2,5 The city is effectively becoming an ambassador in itself. The fact that Astana is not extremely well known as a city helps in this case-the general “up-and-coming” attitude is making Astana the first step into this mysterious Central Asian country, and if it continues to expand, tourism will increase and help drive people to the city for various reasons. 
Kazakhstan is a country with great potential, but it is held back by a government that despite the massive expansion projects and economic prosperity (Nazarbayev is now trying to implement a huge project in expanding the Kazakh economy into various service industries), is corrupt, authoritarian, and undemocratic. While the economic prosperity. While Nazarbayev’s ambitions will likely make Kazakhstan rich, the Kazakh people need to realize that their nation’s full potential will only come when his style of government changes in favor of a free, representative democracy. If and when that happens is up to the Kazakh people who would do well to implement strategies similar to those they aim to use in their public diplomacy to educate themselves on how to create a democratic republic. 


1. Eisele, Al. "Kazakhstan: What Borat Missed." The Huffington Post., 19 May 2010. Web. 10 Dec. 2012.

  1. "Kazakhstan." CIA World Factbook. Central Intelligence Agency, 5 Dec. 2012. Web. 10 Dec. 2012.
  2. TYNAN, DEIRDRE. "Kazakhstan's Pricey, Sometimes Shady International Re-Branding Effort." The Atlantic International. The Atlantic Magazine, 23 Jan. 2012. Web. 10 Dec. 2012.
  3. "Kazakhstan: More Going on than You Think." Kazakhstan: More Going on than You Think. Embassy of the Republic of Kazakhstan, 1 Oct. 2012. Web. 10 Dec. 2012.
  4. "Kazakhstan: Freedom in the World." Kazakhstan: Overview. Freedom House, 4 May 2012. Web. 10 Dec. 2012.

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