And it did, really. The 1990s threw it, wrung it of infrastructure and population, but the mixture of Caspian oil and capital investment, and Nazarbayev’s magnificent handling of ethnic relations, set Kazakhstan on a path of sustained growth. Despite the imagery of Borat, the last ten years in Kazakhstan have been among the brightest of any nation.
Tengiz. Astana. The demise of irredentism, and the ascension to the OSCE chair. Staking deep oilfields, and buffeted as it was from the subprime and Euro crises, we arrived in a Kazakhstan sated in promise, into a land as self-assured and self-reliant as it had ever been. Twenty years in, and the future was as bright as you could find in the post-Soviet world.
Then, something shifted. This summer provided a sort of hinge, a passage from a much-lauded stability to something far less. Reality of a nation post-Nazarbayev began settling in. The nation’s largest strike, and the myriad beatings attached, revealed the sinister sides of a promising energy sector. Religious restrictions found both legal course and fatal response. Discussions of sovereignty bubbled once more, as Putin floated, and then cemented, the idea of a Eurasian Union, all while dozens of prominent Kazakhs called language allocations into question. Toss in a handful of seemingly disparate cases of terrorism, and Kazakhstan’s stability looked both farce and façade.
And amidst it all, Peace Corps volunteers turned up harassed, beaten, and raped at a rate far higher than anything one could reasonably expect. For the first time in nearly a decade, the rose-colored image Kazakhstan maintained turned a darker hue. And we, and those teachers and school children with whom we worked, are the ones who now pay the price.
The Kazakhstani education minister has claimed that, due to his nation’s development, Peace Corps’ departure was a “logical step.” Christ. If you’ve worked for one week in a Kazakhstani school, if you’ve seen the faces of colleagues light up at your mere presence, and the tears that stream when you tell them you’re leaving, you know that your presence in these classes fills a marked vacuum. Part of Nazarbayev’s 2030 goal is a “Trinity of Languages,” in which every Kazakhstani has achieved fluency in Kazakh, Russian, and English. A constituent part of this goal is the presence of native speakers. And while some volunteers are misappropriated, the majority of us are both feted and needed. Peace Corps still filled an enormous void in the Kazakhstani educational system. That’s not to paint us as some kind of ubermensch teaching corps; rather, it’s to simply show that there was no logical outgrowth of the Peace Corps in Kazakhstan. The minister’s line of reasoning is naught but a PR pitch, spin for an event that blackens all parties.