Journey into Kazakhstan: The True Face of the Nazarbayev Regime, by Alexandra George.
At independence, the Central Asian republic of Kazakhstan was a Western darling. The country was led by Nursultan Nazarbayev, a Gorbachev protege. Nazarbayev endeared himself to the West by renouncing the hundreds of Soviet nuclear weapons that were marooned in Kazakhstan at independence. Nazarbayev also opened Kazakhstan’s massive oil and gas fields to foreign investors, who quickly bought stakes in the largest fossil fuel deposits discovered in the last twenty years.
Sadly, as with so many other former Soviet republics, Kazakhstan’s early promise has gone unrealized in the decade since independence. Despite renouncing nuclear weapons, Kazakhstan is struggling to cope with the gruesome legacy of decades of nuclear testing. The energy sector is crowding out the development of other segments of the Kazakh economy. And President Nazarbayev now stands at the apex of a system of patronage and corruption that is leaving many of Kazakhstan’s economic and social needs unfulfilled.
It is this seamy underbelly of corruption, destitution, and environmental disaster that reporter and translator Alexandra George attempts to chronicle in Journey into Kazakhstan. Drawing on her experience as a reporter in the region and a wealth of contacts with the opposition, she attempts to bring the reality of Nazarbayev’s rule to a Western audience. Unfortunately, George undermines her own cause because of a mix of biased reporting, factual errors, and poor writing.
Journey into Kazakhstan often reads like an opposition mouthpiece, with little pretense of objectivity. Significantly, the research for the book was partially funded by the Kazakhstan 21st Century Foundation, an opposition organization affiliated with former prime minister Akezhan Kazhegeldin. Throughout Journey into Kazakhstan, every problem in the country is painted as a deliberate attempt by the government to make life miserable for Kazakhstan’s people. In the preface George even accuses Nazarbayev of “genocide against his own people.”
A pro-Russian bias also colors much of the work. George does not speak Kazakh, and as a result there are few Kazakh language sources and interviews used in Journey into Kazakhstan. The Russian sources that the author uses continually denigrate Kazakhs as servile and corrupt. At times, she even attacks the Kazakh language, which she claims has neither slang nor a written form. The Soviet era is largely referred to as an era of ethnic harmony, prosperity, and clean government.
Factual errors and hyperbole compound the problem of bias. In some cases, the errors seem to be the result of sloppy editing, as when George claims that cattle production has fallen 200 percent, a statistical impossibility. At other times, the errors seem to point back to biased sources, such as her assertion that there have been absolutely no small business loans in Kazakhstan in ten years. To make matters worse, it is difficult to judge the quality of George’s sources since much of her information comes from unnamed “political scientists” or “economists.”
Journey into Kazakhstan is also plagued by a series of run-on sentences, fragments, and other editing errors. However, the most nagging problem is George’s wandering prose. The chapters tend to stray onto irrelevant tangents, such as a long digression on the situation for Uighurs in China in the section on nationalities. Supposed case studies on privatization and agriculture turn into winding, incomprehensible diatribes.
There are some redeeming qualities to Journey into Kazakhstan. Unlike many authors, George got out of the major cities and investigated conditions in Kazakhstan’s villages. Moreover, there is certainly value in having a book that presents the opposition point of view on events in Kazakhstan. Both of these causes, however, would have been better served had George done a better job with her writing and research.
Copyright HELDREF PUBLICATIONS Winter 2002
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