Kazakh Youth Optimistic About Economic Future, Less Politically Engaged, Panel Suggests

Washington, DC – Kazakh youth are optimistic about their economic future and less interested in politics, despite their increasingly interconnected world, said speakers at a panel held at George Washington University here on April 21.

“Youth in Kazakhstan: Societal Changes, Challenges and Opportunities,” a series of panel discussions held by the George Washington University’s Central Asia Program of its Institute for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies (IERES), featured panels discussing the confidence of young Kazakhs in their public and political systems, their preferences for their country’s trajectory, their use of language and music in creating identities, the significance of overseas study, the development of young entrepreneurs and the growth of Kazakh language media.

Kairat Umarov, Ambassador of Kazakhstan to the United States, commented on the contrast of today’s Kazakh youth to previous generations in his opening remarks.

“When we are talking about young people, I think they are absolutely different from those who were brought up during the Soviet Union, because they are more pragmatic, more ambitious. They don’t care about some political issues, they’re thinking more about economic prosperity.”

Keynote speaker Ambassador Richard Hoagland, principal deputy assistant secretary at the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs of the U.S. State Department, called Kazakhstan “already a regional leader,” with ambitious goals supported by the United States.

“Our two countries share a common vision of a more connected Central Asia,” said Hoagland, who had served as the U.S. ambassador to Kazakhstan and Tajikistan. He noted that the world could no longer be divided into blocs and spheres of influence. “A more connected and interdependent world is also a more secure, free and prosperous world, and no country in Central Asia stands to gain more from that vision or is better positioned to help make it a reality than Kazakhstan.”

Azamat Junisbai of Pitzer College and Serik Beysembayev of the Sociological Centre Strategy in Almaty, speakers on the panel, “Youth Identities, National Trends and the Globalisation Process,” found that Kazakhstan’s youth are more interested in economics than policy. Presenting, for the first time, data collected in public opinion surveys held in 2007 and 2012-2013 in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, Junisbai highlighted some of the contrasts between Kazakhstan’s youth and their elders. He painted a picture of a young generation more optimistic about their future and more trusting of government and other large public institutions, including banks, higher education and the judicial system – but less likely than their parents’ generation to wish for government intervention to solve problems.

Reflecting the shift to market economy policies enacted over their lifetimes, young Kazakhs were more likely than their parents to say that the number of poor people in Kazakhstan would decrease in the future and that their intelligence, skill and hard work would be rewarded. They are more likely to say that income gaps were good motivators for people to work hard and that it was fair for affluent populations to have access to better health care and housing, he said. They were less likely than their parents’ and grandparents’ generations to resist welfare cuts or to want government action to correct income inequality.

Young people just aren’t that interested in politics, Beysembayev reported. Only one in five, his research found, regularly checks into political processes, primarily urban Kazakh youth. Most of the youth polled believed the country was moving slowly toward greater participatory democracy, he reported, though many also believed democracy in Kazakhstan was “only talk.” Democracy, however, was not as highly rated a value as independence, justice, personal security and freedom. However, his research found young Kazakhs feel the country should forge its own path. Forty percent of those polled said Kazakhstan should look up to no one, but go its own way.

During the “Youth Empowerment Strategies” panel, Sayasat Nurbek, director of the Nur Otan Institute of Public Policy, discussed the evolution and effect of the country’s Bolashak scholarship programme is having on creating the interconnected world mentioned by previous speakers. Bolashak scholars are returning, globally connected. “Kazakhstan is a young country. We do need lots of friends, we do need lots of relations and connections … All these young people are studying in some top universities in the world, so they are studying with the future leaders of the world,” Nurbek said.

They are also running into problems back home, including corruption, he said. Asked about the clash between old styles of getting ahead and a young, educated generation, Nurbek said, “[About] whether the local, shrewd public servant, who knows the ins and outs of the system is more competitive or the Bolashak graduate – I think in the long term or even in the midterm, he’s not competitive. Because inevitably, we will come to a situation … where we will focus on skills, real skills, competencies, the rule of law, and that’s where the Bolashak [and any young citizen] who is bound to be ethical, who is bound to focus on his knowledge and his skills, he’ll be more competitive in the long run.”

Panellist Pavel Koktyshev, CEO and cofounder of the Young Entrepreneurs Club, begun in 2011, reviewed the initiatives and limits of youth entrepreneurship in Kazakhstan. A recent survey showed that 82 percent of respondents in Kazakhstan had an idea or plans to open a business in the next two years, he said, with most young, potential entrepreneurs in the country interested in retail, e-commerce, franchising, services or agriculture as possible avenues for a startup business. Such a list reflects the government’s focus on developing the agriculture sector, Koktyshev said, adding that agriculture didn’t make the same list two years ago.

Young entrepreneurs in Kazakhstan face a number of hurdles, he reported, including an image problem. In small cities, he said, the image of an entrepreneur is still the stereotypical, amoral fat cat, especially among ethnic Kazakhs. A content analysis of Kazakh-language newspapers and websites found that they contained three times less material about the economy generally and entrepreneurship, than discussing historical [events]. “And 48 percent of those materials drew a negative picture of an entrepreneur,” he explained, which he said contributes to a challenging entrepreneurial environment. However, the Damu fund, the emergence of angel investors and venture capitalists are supporting the growth of entrepreneurship, as is the new path of dual education the country plans to follow.

Kazakh language media options are expanding and poised to become profitable, reported Aibek Aldabergenov of the Alash Media Holding, in the panel “Media as the Sounding Board of Youth.” The audience will grow with plans to bring Internet access to the entire country in 2016-2017. As that happens, “the money will follow,” he said. Alash Media Holding owns such news media outlets as Channel 7 and Tengrinews.kz, among others.

Rauan Kenzhekhanuly, chairman of the WikiBilim Foundation, has been fashioning the tools to create some of that content. Kenzhekhanuly has been working through the challenges of creating a Kazakh language Wikipedia page and a Kazakh version of Google’s translation service. Creating Kazakh language media and Kazakh options is only natural in a culture that is moving toward trilingualism, he said. As for the struggles over scripts and spellings in the Kazakh language, he called it part of the nation’s long identity crisis. “This is the identity crisis that we are experiencing right now. We are experiencing it quietly, quite calm, because it’s already been going for 20 years. There’s no rush. Probably, we will discuss it for another 10 or 20 years. No problem with that. I just want to see people in Kazakhstan call themselves properly and speak whatever language they wish, without any tension,” he said.

Other speakers included Olena Nikolayenko of Fordham University, Megan Rancier of Bowling Green State University, Erik Aasland of Biola University, Douglas Blum of Providence University and Stefan B. Kirmse of Humbolt University, Berlin.