Who do they think they are, China?

by Joshua Foust on 3/12/2008 · 3 comments

This amused me for some reason:

Conventional political wisdom holds that a growing middle class in any given state is often a harbinger of an expansion of civil society, as those with property seek the means to defend it from arbitrary state action. This principle has yet to manifest itself in Kazakhstan, where the substantial middle class that has emerged since the Soviet collapse in 1991 remains almost exclusively interested in economic affairs, according to an observer of Central Asian affairs.

A middle class has emerged in Kazakhstan with startling speed, John C. K. Daly, an expert on Central Asian affairs and an international affairs analyst for the UPI news agency, said during a March 5 presentation Central Asia-Caucasus Institute of Johns Hopkins University in Washington, DC…

Daly argued that the rapid rise in living standard in Kazakhstan is the main factor in rendering the middle class politically apathetic. Times have been so good in recent years that there has been little need for people to worry about politics. “You think about it, 1991 to 2008 — 17 years: you own your own apartment; you have a Japanese car; one of the favorite tourist destinations is the United Arab Emirates—which, of course, makes sense if you ever spent a winter in northern Kazakhstan; your kid got a Bolashak scholarship to Harvard. Why rock the boat?” Daly suggested.

All this really means is Kazakhstan is yet more evidence that Fareed Zakaria may have been onto something (with obvious caveats, to be sure). Indeed, the great conundrum of political scientists over the past decade has been exploring why enormous increases in the Middle Class in places like Russia and China have shown zero relationship to an increase in desire or agitation for liberal democracy. There are obviously many reasons for this, but a discussion of the merits of authoritarian capitalism seems far beyond the scope of this one entry.

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– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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KZBlog March 14, 2008 at 2:21 am

I think this is a fascinating area of research. We might note that the authorities have spent a lot of time and effort on propaganda as well with messages like, “The economic progress of Kazakhstan is a mark of your personal worth. If the country isn’t stable and prosperous everyone will think you are stupid!”

Then unlike in Western countries, people in the former Soviet Union know that “rocking the boat” can mean a lot of chaos. It can mean dramatic inflation, people being kicked out of their houses, mass arrests, the collapse of the state. In the US, rocking the boat means the Democrats win the Congress!

Finally with the population being so small, a lot of the middle class are the authorities. The people who have benefited tend to work in government or in businesses close to government. Or their friends or family do. Why would they rebel against themselves?

Obviously a very complicated issue but those are my brief observations.

Ataman Rakin March 14, 2008 at 7:27 am

“Then unlike in Western countries, people in the former Soviet Union know that “rocking the boat” can mean a lot of chaos. (…)
Finally with the population being so small, a lot of the middle class are the authorities.”

Bingo! I think so too.

First, IMO there is a lot of misperception regarding this matter. What is often called ‘the middle class’ in Kaz by the regime, expats and foreign scholars is actually not that at all, but part of the corrupt elite, or people connected to it. *Materially*, their lifestyles indeed ressemble that of the Western middle class (inlc. wholesale imitation of everything ‘European’). But sociologically they are not. They are part of a corrupt compradore elite.

Second, regarding rocking the boat, I think it is true that people in Kaz are still traumatised by the deprivations and degeneration of the so-called ‘transition years’ in the 90s and still more preoccupied with the dollar chase and (the illusion/expectation of) material wealth than anything else. This is why Nursulti and his cronies are still comfortable at the helm.

But it will not last.

To a certain extent, you can compare that with the suffocating conformism in Western Europe (esp. Germany, Benelux, …) in the late ’50s/early ’60s (OK well: I was not around yet but my parents started their adult lives at that time): people still had active memories of the deprivations of WWII and the reconstruction years, thus had an aversion of politics, and above all wanted to benefit from economic growth, consumer goods and new comforts.

Only later, in the late ’60s/early ’70s, when the generation who had no active memories of WWII etc. became adult, adn when it became obvious what the price of it all was, part started to rock the boat as it is said.

I think st. similar will happen in Kaz as well in a number or years (5, 7, 10 maybe) due to two factors: first, by then it will become clear that the illusions of wealth for all are just that and that there is a growing have/have nots divide; second, by then a substantive number of young Kazakhs with no active memories of the USSR and the seedy ‘transition years’ (i.e. those born in ’85-’95) will also start to wonder whether life is more than the primal dollar chase and consumerism of their parents and older brothers/sisters.

That will set off things, in different forms: a return to the Path of Islam for some; environmental and social movements; anti-Chinese xenophobia; …

BTW, a similar generation shift-mechanism will happen in Tajikistan as well, where the Rakhmon regime still uses the trauma left by the civil war among the population. So people say “we prefere Rakhmon and his thugs to a new civili war” and sheepishly accept all the abuses by the regime and its satraps. Yet that will not last for in 5 to 7 years, a generation with no memories of the war but with a lot of frustrations will reach adult age.

Walter Tseng March 16, 2008 at 11:11 am

The article was interesting & intrigueing. But why the comparison with China in your headline?

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