Cheap references to Borat. Giddy accounts of the new capital Astana, in which the verbal pyrotechnics strive to outshine the architectural contortions of that unreal city built ex nihilo over the past two decades. Occasional tut-tutting about “managed democracy.” Incantations of moldy phrases like “the new Silk Road” and “the Great Game redux.” The odd mention of “adventure tourism” for would-be Fitzroy Macleans marooned in the metropolis with their coffee and their weltschmerz. Such, it seems, are the faithful retainers of the average hack when (if ever) he turns his mind to Kazakhstan.To this gruel, however, might be added a little ginger zest: Kazakhstan’s complex dealings with China, the colossus behind the mountains, whose reawakening we are told is the foremost geopolitical (because geoeconomic) fact of the age. China already has real and growing interests in Kazakhstan, which is economically the weightiest of the Central Asian states and strategically a vast space—some would say a void—at the heart of Mackinder’s old Eurasian landmass. The European Union and the United States are also well aware of the country’s appurtenances, not least the oil beneath the endless grass and sand. And as yet we have said nothing about Kazakhstan’s old friends in Moscow. So you might think that here is a test par excellence for the new relativities, even an entire laboratory for forward-peering strategists—including American ones. We visited that laboratory recently, me, an itinerant scholar, and my colleague, an Australian diplomatic dropout named Anthony Bubalo. We traveled not to Astana, Nursultan Nazarbayev’s dream city, but to Almaty. Known as Alma-Ata (“the father of apples”) in Soviet times (and Verny before that), Almaty is a civilized green city of some 1.3 million people very near to China under the mountains. It is the old capital in the south, famously the site of Trotsky’s internal Soviet exile, and still the country’s intellectual head and commercial heart. “In the bazaar at the center of town the Kirghizes sat in the mud at the doorsteps of their shops, warmed themselves in the sun, and searched their bodies for lice”, Trotsky wrote in 1929. He also complained about mad dogs, malaria and a scarcity of bread. Transformed by the Soviets into an administrative center, and more recently buoyed by oil money, the Almaty of today is much slicker than the muddy backwater satirized by the old Bolshevik. At a café in the town center there seemed always to be a line of luxury four-wheel mechanical fauna parked out front—the BMW, the Mercedes Benz and that absurdity on wheels, the Porsche Cayenne. The café, too, had a certain mystique; we noted the ice cubes, for instance, placed and replenished by the bucket-load in each individual urinal, such that the ice would crackle and sigh, creating an image disturbingly redolent of scotch on the rocks. But the coffee was very good and the wireless free. So we sat outside in the sun, under the birch and the poplar, and in our downtime studied the well-heeled locals who congregated there: Olga the Brolgas tottering on their impossible stilettos with their hard-faced, buzzcut, leather-jacketed, soft musclemen, who sported a style perhaps best termed “Odessan criminal chic.” Some, to borrow a phrase from Stendhal, had enough vanity for two Frenchmen. In short, for an unassuming bourgeois decadent, Almaty was a most congenial city. The Kazakhs with whom we engaged were equally cordial. They consisted of scholars, businessmen, journalists, opposition politicos, old diplomats in their agistment paddocks, all mixed with quieter voices from the NGO microculture. Behind their civility, however, lay an unmistakable ambivalence toward their eastern neighbor. China for the most part has trod carefully here since Kazakh independence in 1991, and Beijing’s dealings with this young state have prospered. A centuries’ old border dispute, the residue of Romanov and Manchu imperial history, was settled in 1998. China has since become Kazakhstan’s leading export market, chiefly for mineral resources and oil, the latter exported along a pipeline that broke Russia’s old Central Asian pipeline monopoly. Security cooperation has likewise been extended (in line with China’s domestic prerogatives in Xinjiang) through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a boutique international conjunction that is Beijing’s diplomatic bridgehead to the region. Nevertheless, the Kazakhs we met openly partook of an unofficial competition to see who could unleash the best joke, the tidiest aphorism or wisest proverb to capture an underlying Kazakh Sinophobia. “The radio stations used to open with the words, ‘Good morning, dear comrades!’” one convalescing businessman told us over a cup of peppermint tea in the soft autumn sun. “When the Soviet Union disintegrated, we woke up and heard the words, ‘Good morning, ladies and gentlemen!’ One day”, he concluded, “we will wake up and the announcer will say, ‘Good morning. This is Xu Ming Zhi Bao; I will be your translator today.’” In a tastefully decorated office—Persian carpets, wooden veneers—an éminence grise of Kazakh Sinophobes, Murat Auezov, spoke without pause for forty minutes, until our meeting ended. Ambassador Auezov, independent Kazakhstan’s first envoy to Beijing and later director of his country’s National Library, needed only the hint of a question to rise to verbal cruising speed. He shared with us a parable. “There was once a family threatened with their goods being stolen. Their neighbors said, ‘Put all your valuables in one big trunk.’ They did. One night a very strong thief appeared and stole the trunk.” The Ambassador did not explain, but he did not need to. Water was, however, his foremost complaint, which is not surprising since one of his main missions upon being despatched to Beijing in 1992 was to negotiate a water-sharing agreement for cross-border rivers, chiefly the Irtysh and the Ili, the latter of which flows into Lake Balkash. Almost two decades later, he said, the Chinese still give the same answer: “The issue is being studied.” Meanwhile, Lake Balkash is flirting with the same catastrophic fate that befell the Aral Sea, as cotton schemes and oil fields in Xinjiang drive rises in Chinese water consumption. The convalescing businessman and the loquacious ambassador were both members of the centrovski, the well-educated, often privileged, residents of the city’s inner precincts, not a few of whom were scions of the old Communist Party elite. The first man graduated from St. Petersburg State University, and the second was the son of a celebrated Soviet Kazakh writer, Mukhtar Auezov. Many of the centrovski retain an abiding attachment to Russia, a fidelity that is somewhat surprising to the outsider, given that the old imperial master oversaw the utter destruction of the Kazakh’s nomadic traditions and poisoned swathes of land in the northeast with multiple nuclear weapons tests. Under the collectivization and “dekulakization”, the Soviet regime also caused the deaths by starvation of perhaps a million Kazakhs out of a population of four million. (The experience is recounted with powerful simplicity in Mukhamet Shayakhmetov’s recently translated memoir, The Silent Steppe.) But the centrovski are not entirely unrepresentative in their attachment to Russia, at least among urban dwellers.1 A 2010 survey conducted by the Kazakhstan Institute of Strategic Studies, a presidential advisory body, found that in the event of “aggression against Kazakhstan’s sovereignty” 63.5 percent would look to Russia for assistance. The figure for China was 3.5 percent. “The Russian bridle is of leather, the Chinese of iron” goes one ancient local aphorism. Kazakhs are not shy about anatomizing the origins of their national ambivalence toward China. There is historical memory, burnished by more recent propaganda from the years of the Sino-Soviet split when there were clashes on the Kazakh frontier in summer 1969. There are demographic relativities: the wide expanses of Kazakhstan are thinly populated by only 16 million people, of whom only about 10 million are ethnic Kazakhs, while China is 1.3 billion, evoking a local variant of the Yellow Peril. The neocolonial structure of the economic relationship grates: raw materials depart for China, manufactures come to Kazakhstan. And then there is the small matter of water. In each respect, Kazakhstan can readily stand as a surrogate for Russia, which, like Kazakhstan, has a formal “strategic partnership” with China that masks similar popular reservations, especially in the increasingly depopulated Russian Far East. W e traveled overland to China. “Why do you want to do the border crossing?” a venerable Sinologist from a Kazakh think-tank had inquired skeptically over a lunch of shashlik, cigarettes and beer, suggesting that a flight between Almaty and Urumqi would make more sense. “No, we want to see the terrain, to grasp the physical connections”, we explained. “We would like to go overland, and, if necessary, we will even take the train.” Mention of the train caused our luncheon partner to brush away our words with a disgusted, disbelieving hand: “The train takes 25 hours on a good day, and there are few good days.” We decided to hire a car. We took the southern route via Zharkent. The mountain foothills were like a line of tawny paws as we drove along the edge of the Kazakh steppe, all bronzed tussock on gravelly soil. Our driver, Baghdad, wore a beige three-piece suit. He liked to hurtle along at 160 kilometers an hour over a road that was often cracked or patched-up, corrugated or gone at the edges. Baghdad took each bump as a free spirit should, sailing through the air in his brave piece of Japanese machinery and landing with a jolt that would cause him to glance across at us and smile, as if to say, “You’re okay, aren’t you?” “The car is obviously not his”, one of us said. “Who needs Luna Park, when you’re on the Kazakh steppe?” the other replied. But Baghdad seemed alert enough, despite his occasional yawns and the oncoming trucks he frequently entertained from the middle of the bitumen. We did wonder, though, how this tired strip of road related to the grand plans to build a Western Europe-Western China Highway. Its completion target, with a price tag of $6.6 billion, was said to be next year, but here the roadworks were less visible than the herds of Bactrian camel we saw slowly moving across the flat land. The next morning we drove on to Khorgos, the major crossing point by road into China, and as such a channel for the myriad personal interactions and material exchanges that are binding the young Kazakh state ever more closely to China. Our first view of the border was barbed wire and boom gates, concrete roadblocks and guard posts. We boarded a private bus, and around eight o’clock it rolled past the first perimeter wall and crawled through a restricted zone before disgorging us outside a second set of barriers. There we encountered standard-issue administrative absurdity. We could see the Kazakh Immigration and Customs Terminal, but blocking our way was a wire fence and a closed metal gate manned by unsmiling uniformed guards. The sole access to the terminal was via a small white gatehouse, outside of which a crowd of Kazakhs and Kyrgyz, many with green metal trolleys (for the cross-border trade), was thronging, even though few if any were being admitted. We decided to step aside to watch and wait. The press of the crowd was causing bodies to pulse back and forth in periodic waves. I noticed one man towering over the throng, and even he was steadying himself against the narrow doorframe so as not to lose his footing. This went on for a few hours. “We were warned”, I told myself. It was the first day the border had opened after a weeklong Chinese holiday. In short, it wasn’t a good day (in fact, it was probably the worst day) for a crossing. Finally, around midday, we joined the stream flowing into the Departure Terminal. Exiting the terminal was something else again. From the Customs Hall the crowd flowed into a yard, where we discovered that the only way to cross into China was to scavenge a ride on another long-distance bus (walking was barred and there was no shuttle service). Defeated, we sat down in the warm sun. We shared water and pistachios, superb dried apricots from Samarkand and bread. Eventually, we squeezed our way into the belly of a sleeper bus, which stewed in the sun for an hour before rumbling off. It had taken seven and a half hours to leave Kazakhstan. China, by contrast, received us with well-supervised efficiency. After 45 minutes we were in Xinjiang. While one of us staggered off to find some Panadol, the other recalled these lines from a Chinese poem: “When my body becomes a little healthier/ In autumn, I shall return to my yurt.” I also remembered the words of an international development official who had told us that at Khorgos poor infrastructure and bad logistics were as grave an impediment to trade as corruption. The World Bank is now assisting with an overhaul of the customs infrastructure. Yet, to me, Khorgos’s perimeter walls, restricted zones and systematic delays were the fitting image of a deeper Kazakh sensitivity. For any close reading of the country must take into account policies that reflect national lines of resistance to rising Chinese influence, and that accord pride of place, still, to Russia. E arlier in Almaty we visited Barakholka, the cavernous, sprawling bazaar on the city’s outskirts. Here, amongst shops made of old metal shipping containers stacked in pairs, we discovered everything humanly imaginable, including goods no one really needs: punching bags, Karaoke machines, leaf-blowers, fake Hugo Boss leather jackets, silicon bra inserts, duck hunting decoys, mouse traps, boxes of mobile phones, and model fighter aircraft kits with the words “made in Russia” printed on the side. Nearly all of it came from China. Yet from traders another, more intriguing story emerged. It was a story of rising prices and of Chinese imports grounded at the border. “You couldn’t really call it a business or a job”, a Russian electronics man remarked of his shop with gentle disdain. “It’s more a hobby to earn a little extra money for the kids”, he said, offering us a blue-eyed smile, almost Chekhovian above his pale moustache. He turned to the market. “Everything is more expensive now—we pass it on to the customers.” The main reason for the rising prices, he explained, was the new Customs Union between Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus, which introduced a common external tariff in July 2010, and in July of last year saw the removal of internal customs posts. Revealingly, 90 percent of the new tariff follows the former Russian tariff lines. For Kazakhstan, which traditionally has had a more liberal trading regime, the average tariff has risen, taking higher Russian tariffs all the way to the Kazakh-China border. Some Kazakhs hope that greater protection will bring industry benefits. The whole project has, however, been viewed skeptically, not least due to the reputation for corruption of Kazakh border posts. But then in April of last year—there is talk of Russian pressure here—proponents of the Union showed their teeth: The head of customs at Khorgos was arrested, as was a regional deputy head of the KNB (the Kazakh successor organisation to the KGB). Both were linked to a major criminal racket, allegedly taking in $5 million per week on smuggled cars. Trade from China via Kyrgyzstan also slowed. Barakholka was clearly feeling the effects of a Customs Union that had been designed in large part to reinforce Russian economic interests in the “near abroad” (including reducing the illegal flow of Chinese goods through Kazakhstan). For the time being, the volume of imports from China had fallen. Kazakhstan’s cooperation with China on security matters is also circumscribed. Most years, Kazakhstan and China engage in joint military exercises under the aegis of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization alongside Russia and other Central Asian states. Mention of those exercises elicited laughter from Adil Kaukenov, a young Sinologist and chief editor of an online publication called Quorum.kz. We found him in the suburbs, up a flight of stairs and inside an office featuring little beyond a computer, three ornamental Japanese swords and a collection of decorative masks. Reaching for a notepad and pencil, he said, “I go to those military exercises every year in my capacity as a journalist and this is what I see.” He drew a line. “This is a road, and on this side of the road there is Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. And on this side of the road, there is—you see?—yes, China.” He continued: And how could it be otherwise? The former Soviet republics speak a common language—Russian—they have the same tactics, they use the same equipment, they are all members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization. But the Chinese? It always makes me laugh when I hear Western experts talk about the SCO as an anti-Western bloc. It is not. These exercises are not cooperation. They’re just a display. Echoing Kaukenov, a Western diplomat described these exercises as resembling “children in parallel play.” A similar pattern of cooperation within limits is discernible in the energy arena. Oil is, of course, the commodity, and pipeline politics the game, that most excites foreign interest in Kazakhstan. Our time in Almaty coincided with the 19th Kazakhstan International Oil and Gas Exhibition and Conference. The door fee was a mere $1,750; one of us inveigled his way in as a journalist, and there heard about the marvels of anti-friction agents, as well as a memorable speech given by the British Ambassador, which he simultaneously translated himself, paragraph by paragraph, from Kazakh into English. The Ambassador’s accent and his slightly halting delivery made his Kazakh sound remarkably like Klingon. The Chinese part of the story, happily, can be told in plain English. Though they arrived late, Chinese oil companies have made significant acquisitions and now control as much as 25–30 percent of Kazakh oil production. A massive pipeline completed in 2009, stretching some 2,200 kilometers from the Caspian Sea to Xinjiang, has a maximum discharge of ten million tons per year. Here, the Chinese strategic interest in diversifying supply coincides with a Kazakh interest in diversifying markets. Yet, still, the overwhelming majority of Kazakh oil flows west through the Russian system. (The Caspian Pipeline Consortium and the Atyrau to Samara line have a combined capacity of 50 million tons per year.) Planned pipeline expansions seem unlikely to shift this fundamental balance, which is striking given that China, with India, represents the chief demand growth in the international oil market. Driving east through Xinjiang, the Kazakh ambivalence toward China was still very alive in our minds. Yet it seems that China will not be easily deterred. The expressway from the border was everything the Kazakh road was not: smooth, well marked and apparently well graded. Indeed so smooth was this second road that it felt almost like a Chinese paean to the freeways of America. And it underlined that China has very serious interests in Kazakhstan: diversifying oil supplies, maintaining a stable western periphery, and promoting trade to fuel economic growth in troubled Xinjiang. The Chinese are clearly coming. But how far will the Kazakhs (and even the Russians), with their ancient reservations, accommodate Beijing? 1According to Andrei Chebotaryev, director of the Alternative Centre for Political Studies in Almaty, the attachment to Moscow dwindles, and is even replaced by hostility, among Kazakh youth from the countryside who tend not to speak Russian and who, very likely, are the recipients of an oral record recalling the horrors of the collectivization.
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Appeared in: Volume 7, Number 5Behind the Mountains
Published on: April 10, 2012
Published on: April 10, 2012
Seen from Kazakhstan, China looms as a change-maker and a potential big problem. Pro-Russian sentiment in Central Asia is thus more than just nostalgia.