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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest


Kazakhstan. Unfulfilled Promise
Martha Brill Olcott

Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2002
321pp. PB: ISBN 0-87003-188-0

Lately, news about Kazakhstan has been gloomy. Charges that President Nursultan Nazarbayev and American companies exchanged bribes for oil field awards, suppression of the media, presidential nepotism, and a restrictive new law on political parties have torpedoed observers' hopes for a stable democracy in oil rich Central Asia. This was not always the case; prospects for Kazakhstan's development after its rather hesitant declaration of independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, were more than promising.

Five times the size of France, Kazakhstan is blessed with vast oil, gas and mineral reserves. With the discovery of ever-larger reserves, international oil consortiums and Kazakhstan's government jointly developed true gold-digger spirits. Some even spoke of a new, Twenty-first Century “Great Game” to describe the international run on Kazakh energy reserves. Kazakhstan experienced a true oil boom, and Kazakhs saw their country turn into a typical rentier state. Like Saudi Arabia, Kazakhstan was expected to grow rich, even if not entirely democratic. Until the mid-Nineties, reality proved observers right. Privatization proceeded quickly, a modern banking system was inaugurated, and smart public and private investments followed - especially from abroad. The only thing that did not fit the picture was that the President was the center of events. But business went well, and a little pinch of authoritarianism has rarely done harm in the international oil business. Little by little family members and confidants of President Nazarbayev took control of the country. He personally appoints judges and officials; corruption is rampant. A separation of politics and economy seems unthinkable and so does democracy, by Western standards at least.

Martha Brill Olcott, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace has undertaken to explain why and how Kazakhstan move away from a pluralist, democratic society. As the title suggests, Kazakhstan's development is an unfulfilled promise. A specialist on problems of democratic and economic transition in Central Asia and the Caucasus, Olcott has written a fine history of Kazakhstan since independence, as well as an excellent analysis of the country's transition from autocracy to autocracy.

Kristin Vorpahl , Graduate Student, Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies

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