This essay is part of a series by American diplomats sharing their impressions of the dramatic early years of Central Asia's independence from the Soviet Union. These memoirs were written at the invitation of the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard University. We publish these with special thanks to Nargis Kassenova, director of Davis's Program on Central Asia.
It is January 13, 1992, and I’m in Kazakhstan for the first time.
But it’s not my first time in what was until three weeks earlier the Soviet Union. I had been a student tourist in 1970. And I spent two years as a mid-level diplomat in the U.S. Embassy in Moscow in 1985-87 when I traveled widely. But I never made it to Central Asia. A colleague, Michael Matera, and I had plans to visit Uzbekistan that were ruined when Mike was expelled from the USSR shortly before our trip was scheduled.
As the Soviet Union headed toward collapse in 1991, I was deputy director for regional and security affairs at the State Department’s Office of Soviet Union Affairs. My team and I had a great beat: regional conflicts and arms control. The U.S. and USSR had begun to discuss seriously, and in some cases work in parallel, resolving regional conflicts that did not involve the direct interests of the two superpowers. And, of course, arms control had long been an active area of engagement.
In my bailiwick, one of the most pressing issues was preventing the proliferation of Soviet nuclear weapons, materials, and knowledge to countries that might contravene the Non-Proliferation Treaty. The USSR had its own internal “proliferation” of nuclear weapons. And as the year 1992 dawned, Belarus, Ukraine and Kazakhstan were suddenly independent and faced with the task of overseeing and controlling nuclear test sites, laboratories, and the scientists and technicians who worked in them. The U.S. immediately began to look for ways to assist these three independent states to establish and implement their own controls. We were particularly concerned about the potential for a brain drain of impoverished scientists being recruited by countries like Iran.
Given this challenge, it is perhaps not surprising that even before the USSR officially dissolved, the U.S. saw the need to establish a relationship with these three new countries. Secretary of State James A. Baker visited Minsk, Kyiv and Alma-Ata in December 1991 – with these emerging nuclear weapons issues high on his agenda. A month later, after official recognition and establishment of diplomatic relations, a second senior, inter-agency delegation headed by Under Secretary of State Reginald Bartholomew visited those capitals – this time focused on ensuring that the breakup of the Soviet Union would result in only one nuclear successor state (Russia). This agenda included seeking the agreements of Kazakhstan, Ukraine and Belarus to transfer nuclear weapons on their territories to Russia, dismantle nuclear missiles and infrastructure, secure nuclear materials, and prevent the spread of nuclear technology and knowhow.
Lesson one: Money
I was the trip manager for the delegation. My tasks ranged from coordinating the flight schedule and on-board meal choices with the Air Force crew that would fly us halfway around the world and back, to setting up meetings and making sure there were hotel rooms and local transportation for our group of 15 to 20.
Bartholomew’s schedule initially took us to Moscow to consult with our Russian colleagues, who shared our objective of preventing nuclear proliferation. Our embassy knew exactly how to set up our visit and I had friends and colleagues on the ground who could get the job done. In Kyiv – our last stop – we also had an on-the-ground presence that, while smaller, was perfectly capable of setting up meetings and arranging logistics. The real challenges were Minsk and Alma-Ata, where we had … nobody.
When the secretary of state travels, the State Department’s Executive Secretariat sends out an advance team of three to four people to coordinate all the local arrangements. My request for an advance team to go to Minsk and Alma-Ata was met with an initial “we don’t do that for under secretaries.” After a day or two of me whining and pleading to emphasize the challenge of setting up a visit and bringing in a U.S. Air Force plane without anyone on the ground, I finally got reluctant approval to send one person each to Minsk and Alma-Ata.
John Beyrle – who had exactly the right experience, background and language skills – readily agreed to go to Minsk. For Alma-Ata, I turned to Embassy Moscow and got one of our brilliant “circuit riders,” Daria Fane, to be the advance person. (The “circuit riders” were Foreign Service officers in Moscow who had responsibility for relations with what had been the Soviet republics, made frequent visits to “their republics,” and had an existing network of relationships – and the language skills – to get the job done.)
It was in Moscow when I got the first inkling of a problem. Beyrle called me from Minsk to report that the Belarusians were requiring cash to pay for the refueling and landing charges for our plane – about $40,000. We had expected that they would send the bill to the U.S. Embassy in Moscow which would then transfer the money. However, the Belarusians’ initial experience sending bills to Moscow was not a happy one, and they just reiterated the demand for cash. I started scouring around to see what we could do. Not surprisingly, dollars in cash were a bit scarce in Moscow at that point, at least for legal, embassy transactions. The embassy didn’t have that kind of cash available, and neither did the embassy’s bank. Eventually, the Air Force came up with the solution: A different delegation was about to head to Minsk and was arriving about the time we were leaving. The Air Force sent in the $40,000, which was handed over to the crew of our plane at the airport. Fortunately, Beyrle, showing the kinds of diplomatic skills that made him our ambassador to Russia years later, eventually talked the Belarusians into sending the bill to the embassy. As a result, when we got on the plane to fly from Minsk to Alma-Ata, I saw the crew counting the cash and putting it in the on-board safe to carry back to Frankfurt.
In Alma-Ata, Fane had done a great job in setting up the visit. She worked closely with a junior Foreign Ministry protocol officer named Erzhan Kazykhanov – later ambassador to the U.S. and now a senior advisor to President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev.
Unfortunately, no one had thought about purchasing fuel or paying for landing fees. Beyrle had just spent two years as an advance officer for the Secretary of State, and this was firmly embedded on his mental check list. Fane had never done this kind of work and I hadn’t thought of asking, either. The Kazakhstanis were definitely not going to supply gas for an IOU or a bill sent off to Moscow. If we had not had the cash on board, our plane might be rusting on the edge of the runway along with many other abandoned aircraft left over the years.
So, my first lesson about Kazakhstan was the power of cash and the role it played in getting everything done.
Lesson two: Culture
Not surprisingly, at the end of our one working day in Alma-Ata, the Foreign Ministry hosted us at a formal dinner. We were staying at a hotel that had been the Communist Party guesthouse and which was one of the few places in town prepared to host a delegation like ours. Given my two years of working and living in the USSR, it all seemed familiar. There was, however, one new element: the sheep’s head.
There is a Kazakh tradition when hosting guests to boil a sheep’s head and, at the beginning of the meal, to bring it out on a platter with a sharp knife and set it in front of the host and the guest of honor. This time, our Foreign Ministry host explained to Under Secretary Bartholomew what was expected from him. He was to take the knife, slice off some portion of the sheep’s head, and then, choosing a recipient from among those present, make a few remarks that would explain why the person he chose was getting that particular piece of the head. The designated guest’s role was clear: Come forward, say “thank you” and eat the portion offered. I was seated next to the delegation’s legal advisor, who was a long-time, brilliant State Department lawyer. She was afraid of what she might get and was growing visibly more nervous as the ceremony proceeded. Bartholomew, by contrast, was having a ball. He attacked the sheep’s head, picked his “targets,” and gleefully proceeded to ad lib remarks about how they needed to be “looking over the horizon” (as he delivered an eyeball) or “keep their ear to the ground” as he delivered a piece of ear.
I escaped without a piece, but I did get a very valuable lesson that came in handy later during my six-plus years as ambassador and chargé d'affaires in Kazakhstan, both as a recipient and as the honored guest with the carving knife. One thing I learned later about the eye: Don’t chew, just swallow. More seriously, I learned that when you carve and present, do your best to make real points that compliment the hosts and underscore the things that bring us together. Underlying this ceremony is the Kazakhstani nomadic tradition that welcomes guests and provides them sustenance for their onward journey.
Lesson three: Nazarbayev
When James Baker had visited Alma-Ata a month earlier, he had been impressed by the president. Nursultan Nazarbayev was hospitable and engaging. He was serious about establishing good relationships – and good relations with the United States. And he was very quick to get the point.
I did not go to Bartholomew’s meeting with Nazarbayev – which was small and at Nazarbayev’s official residence just outside Alma-Ata. But when he got back Reggie was clearly impressed, and excited that Nazarbayev “got it.” Prior to the breakup of the Soviet Union, the U.S. government knew little about this young leader. But Bartholomew found that he understood that he lived in a difficult neighborhood, had a strategic vision for Kazakhstan, and understood the benefits of working with the U.S. as he sought room to maneuver among the nearby giants of Russia and China. He listened to our concerns and ideas, and pledged to support efforts to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons, technology and “brains.” This, Reggie said, was someone we could work with.
Thirty years in a flash
I returned to Kazakhstan in August 2004 as the fourth U.S. ambassador. During my four years in that role, and stints as chargé d'affaires in 2011 and 2014, I got to know Kazakhstan very well, traveling to every region (oblast), driving long distances over the endless steppe, and taking multi-day hikes through the Tien Shan mountains. I also got to know a wide variety of Kazakhstani officials, most of whom had a variety of important jobs over the years I knew them. The only exception was President Nazarbayev – who was in the same job the entire time.
So, let’s look at the three lessons from the prelude.
This, for better or worse, was the glue that held the country together and that eventually became the dynamite that caused very serious disruptions. Kazakhstan is a country rich in natural resources – oil and gas, uranium, rare earths, and agricultural potential. At independence, the U.S., likewise for better or worse, engaged deeply with Kazakhstan in the money arena. The biggest player was Chevron, whose “deal of the century” for the Tengiz oil field helped make the company a fortune – and assured the prosperity of Kazakhstan for decades to come. Together with subsequent major investment from ExxonMobil and Conoco, as well as other international partners, Tengiz, Karachaganak and eventually Kashagan became major sources of income for the country. Kazakhstan followed the example of Norway in establishing a sovereign wealth fund that is supposed to help deliver widespread prosperity.
Money has also played a much more sinister role Kazakhstan’s development. One case involved an American, James Giffen, who was hired as an “advisor” by the Kazakhstani government to help secure foreign investment in the oil and gas sector. Giffen took a portion of his fees, over $70 million, and allegedly deposited it into Swiss bank accounts in the names of senior Kazakhstani officials. The U.S. criminal case against Giffen languished for years and ended up with a very minor misdemeanor conviction. The Kazakhstani government tried to get the money back from Switzerland. Eventually, the U.S. and Kazakhstan agreed to use the $84 million from the accounts to fund the BOTA Foundation to spend the money on projects that would benefit the lives of children and youth in Kazakhstan. (I was on the initial board of the BOTA Foundation for a short time.) But this was one of a series of incidents involving untraceable funds that sullied the reputation of Kazakhstan and especially of President Nazarbayev and his family members.
This pattern of state assets bringing development and prosperity, accompanied (and undermined) by personal enrichment and private monopolization of assets, has continued over the entire post-Soviet history of Kazakhstan. Money and how it was protected and distributed assured stability, but eventually became a critical element behind the 2022 “Bloody January” events that now define the end of the Nazarbayev era.
The idea of simple nomadic people living in yurts and moving their herds with the seasons lives on in films and stories. Kazakh openness to strangers and hospitality also lives on. And the Kazakhs’ fondness for meat – horse, sheep and beef – continues to this day. There’s even a joke: Kazakhs are the second-highest per capita consumers of meat in the word. Wolves are first.
A key element of modern culture is religious and ethnic tolerance – at least for those religions and ethnic groups that are seen as “indigenous.” The two biggest, Kazakhs and Russians, have gotten along remarkably well over the past 30 years. There has been a gradual process of increasing the importance of the Kazakh language in the public sphere, with more ethnic Kazakhs and fewer ethnic Russians in government positions. However, this process was never allowed to destabilize with sudden large-scale emigration or widespread violence. There has been a modest out-migration of Russians over the past 30 years, accompanied by a very large difference in the birth rate that has shifted the ethnic balance considerably in favor of Kazakhs.
In Kazakhstan, religion is an important element in national identification. Kazakhs are overwhelmingly Muslim. Islam, however, reached the steppe late in its geographical expansion, and never fully overcame local beliefs. Today, you can see elements of both coexisting in the religious and spiritual life of the Kazakhs. Managing a multi-ethnic society requires and reinforces tolerance. It also means, at least in the case of Kazakhstan, that religious “poaching” (i.e., evangelism) is seen as systemically threatening.
Language is a fascinating element in Kazakhstani culture. There are essentially three language groups: two monolingual and one bilingual. First, there are those who speak only Russian or only Kazakh. The Russian-only group includes virtually all the country’s ethnic Russians, as well as many other ethnic groups such as Koreans. It also includes many urban, elite Kazakhs who grew up in households that over the Soviet period became Russian speaking. While they may speak some Kazakh, their main language of communication is Russian. The Kazakh-only group is largely rural, or disadvantaged peri-urban populations that have migrated from rural areas. While they may speak and understand Russian, it’s usually accented and clearly not their mother tongue. The third, the bilingual group, is composed mostly of ethnic Kazakhs who have benefited from bilingual or Kazakh education, but who come from Russian-speaking households or neighborhoods where the “street language” is Russian. (There are also a few Russians in this category who are greeted warmly when they show up on television demonstrating a mastery of Kazakh.)
One big cultural question is the future of the Russian language. Will it continue to be seen as an essential element for social and economic success? Or will its importance fade and Kazakhstan gradually become a monolingual country?
For the first 30 years, Nursultan Nazarbayev was the unquestioned leader of the nation. Under his leadership, the country adopted a balanced foreign policy that allowed it to develop and flourish “between the bear and the dragon,” as some put it. Skillfully maintaining relationships with the U.S. and western Europe, including commercial ties, Nazarbayev used this triangulation to maximize his freedom to maneuver and avoid becoming too dependent on any outside power, including the two powerful neighbors – Russia and China.
Nazarbayev adroitly managed Vladimir Putin, building a personal relationship with his younger counterpart that helped maximize Kazakhstan’s room to maneuver. Moving the nation’s capital to a new city, Astana (now Nur-Sultan), was in part designed to raise the cost to Russia of any move to “reclaim” the resource-rich north that some Russians (including such diverse personalities as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Vladimir Zhirinovsky) believed should be Moscow’s.
When we moved our embassy from Almaty to his beloved Astana, Nazarbayev recognized the symbolism and underscored the importance of the U.S.-Kazakhstan relationship by personally participating in the official opening. He even agreed to have lunch at the ambassador’s residence after the ceremony. As far as I know, this was the only time he had a meal at any ambassador’s residence. And there was a lot of preparation for that meal – getting the menu approved, buying all the ingredients from the presidential commissary, and having security in the kitchen while it was being prepared. I did serve some Californian wine – from a vineyard that my cousin had started and that had my mother’s maiden name on the bottle – Stevenot Winery. I explained the connection to the president, who seemed to enjoy the wine – and I sent over a few bottles to the Presidential Palace as a gift. Years later, when I was back as interim chargé d'affaires and had a one-on-one meeting with Nazarbayev, he asked how my cousin’s winery was doing. “Great,” I said – and I sent him over a couple more bottles.
It was Nazarbayev who managed, again skillfully, the policies of ethnic and religious tolerance. He moved slowly and deliberately to increase the political and economic weight of ethnic Kazakhs, as well as the use of the Kazakh language, but made adjustments on the fly when new requirements met serious resistance.
While Nazarbayev effectively balanced the major ethnic, economic, commercial, and social interests, he had a major blind spot when it came to his own extended family. Personal enrichment and flagrant displays of wealth became the family norm and aroused great popular resentment.
One of my personal encounters with that blind spot involved Nazarbayev’s son-in-law, Rakhat Aliyev. For part of my time as ambassador, Aliyev was first deputy foreign minister and oversaw relations with the U.S. During regular engagement with the Foreign Ministry, it was natural for me to see him and to try to build a relationship. It quickly became clear that Aliyev was not a normal deputy foreign minister. In one case involving a situation where I absolutely knew the facts, I discovered that he was telling me a bald lie. Now, normally, having a foreign diplomat telling you something you know to be a lie is not necessarily a problem. In fact, it can be useful because it can give you context and clues to understanding the situation. In the case of Aliyev, however, I couldn’t even figure out why he was lying. And if I couldn’t provide the context for the lie, I wasn’t about to report it back to the State Department. I quickly concluded that Aliyev was somewhere between counterproductive and destructive and avoided him like the plague. However, his boss, Foreign Minister Tokayev (now President Tokayev) was not so lucky. He once told me privately that Aliyev rarely involved himself with Foreign Ministry business, and when he did, it was a problem for him since Aliyev was impossible to manage. Left unspoken was the fact that he was also untouchable as the president’s son-in-law.
In January 2022, 30 years after my first visit to Kazakhstan, there was a major shift in the forces of money, culture and Nazarbayev as crowds took to the streets and violence erupted. Much of how this developed is still unclear. What is clear, however, is that money, culture and Nazarbayev all played a role.
President Tokayev and his government have restored order and now have control. The Nazarbayev era is definitively over, as Nursultan Nazarbayev himself made clear in a taped television speech. What is not over, however, is the continuing role of culture and money. Will Kazakhstan continue to be a multi-ethnic, religiously tolerant society? Will the role of oligarchs be reduced, and the wealth of the country be more equitably distributed? Will a new Nazarbayev emerge, or will there be a shift to a more broad-based form of governance? Those, in my view, are the key questions for Kazakhstan and its friends today.
John Ordway served as U.S. ambassador to Kazakhstan from 2004 to 2008.