Regular readers of this blog will be aware of our CSO’s fascination with large, significant countries to which nobody seems to be paying much attention, and today he was reminded of yet another such state while going through his increasingly dense in-tray: Kazakhstan. With the most famous fictional Kazakh having long since been retired, the country is now arguably most famous overseas for two things: (i) possessing a national football team that despite Kazakhstan’s ostensibly Asian location plays in UEFA; and (ii) its notable role during the so-called ‘War of the Laws‘ that foreshadowed the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Yet there are solid reasons, particularly for entrepreneurs, to familiarise themselves with one of the world’s most overlooked political entities:
1. Strategic Value. Kazakhstan is not so much a country as a continent. It is the size of Western Europe – a vast land mass that borders both Russia and China – and blessed with plentiful natural resources which are transforming Kazakhstan into an emerging market in its own right: its population of sixteen million people enjoy an average GDP per capita, estimated at nearly US$11,000.00 in 2011, around 1400% higher than the equivalent value for 1991.
2. Economic Prospects. With much of Europe and North America a growth-free zone for the foreseeable future, the contrast with Kazakhstan could not be more stark: this is a country in which nearly 2,500 kilometres of highway are being constructed to link China and Europe via a ‘New Silk Road’, and a spanking new capital at Astana which looks like something out of Sim City 3000, albeit with a Eurasian building set.
3. Investment in Education. The Kazakh government is investing hugely in education in at least two very tangible senses: firstly, through the development of Nazarbayev University, a 2009 establishment which has the stated goals of becoming a world-class research university and making its Astana base into the educational hub of Eurasia; and secondly, through sending thousands of the most promising young Kazakh students abroad for degree programmes on full Bolashak International Scholarships – for which the Kazakhstan government picks up the tab. In the long term, this is likely to have a profound effect on what has been an authoritarian polity.
Sting – that musician of legendary mononymity – has recently come back into public focus for his activities in Central Asia. In February 2010, Sting admitted that he had played an Uzbekistan gig the previous October at the behest of Gulnara Karimova, presently the Uzbek ambassador to Madrid and the eldest daughter of Islam Karimov; the latter is one of the world’s most intriguing leaders, having been in charge of Uzbekistan since 23rd June 1989, well before the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The former Police frontman was reported to have been compensated to the tune of between US$1m and US $2m for his Tashkent detour, and attracted much criticism for appearing to at least indirectly endorse a regime which possesses one of the region’s less salutary human rights records. In response, Sting averred his belief in the futility of cultural boycotts: ‘…they are counter-productive, where proscribed states are further robbed of the open commerce of ideas and art and as a result become even more closed, paranoid and insular.’
However, on 5th July 2011, Sting cancelled a concert – part of his increasingly surreal Symphonicities tour – that was to have been held in Astana, the spanking-new capital of Kazakhstan designed by the late Japanese architect Kisho Kurokawa. The reason? A refusal to cross a ‘virtual picket line’ in solidarity with thousands of striking Kazakh oil and gas workers.
Prima Facie, it would be easy to dismiss this seemingly obvious inconsistency as the work of just another morally confused rock star. Yet Sting’s distinguished record of promoting noble and often contemporaneously obscure or unfashionable causes, such as the Chilean ‘disappeared’ and rainforest preservation, precludes this. Instead, his actions raise uncomfortable questions about the motivations of individuals, and how people justify the choices they make; a person may be outraged when confronted with one set of circumstances, yet inert when faced with another that appears little different from the first. Whether in the individual, or in the company – as Jesper Kunde and B.J. Cunningham posited so persuasively in Corporate Religion (2000) – the attainment of consistency is something to strive for.
We at Mediolana are not an easily-traumatised bunch, but for specific circumstances we can make exceptions; the 2010 FIFA World Cup last 16 match between England and Germany is one of those. As recounted on this blog on 7th January 2011, this game was our defining educational moment of 2010, explicable only within the context of Germany’s extraordinary primary educational model which effectively sees parents as the best teachers up until secondary level.
Since that earth-shattering afternoon last summer, Mediolana has tried to put notions of German superiority right to the back of our consciousness; we have rarely succeeded, and the June 2011 edition of that increasingly sumptuous periodical World Soccer is of little assistance in this regard: Alexander Merkel, a present star of AC Milan and a future gem for the Nationalmannschaft, is profiled.
And one detail in this feature was enough to make us slump with resignation: during his time at Stuttgart, Merkel – now nineteen years of age – was suspended from training for two weeks. Our English Premier League instincts got the better of us as we considered the possible reasons behind such a punishment. Was Merkel caught in a Mediterranean hotel in flagrante delicto? Did some ladies of the night honey trap the Kazakhstan-born midfielder? Or was he simply ingesting shedloads of chemicals, the supply chain of which is protected by maniacs with machine guns?
None of the above were applicable, reader: Merkel’s fortnight of banishment was implemented for ‘poor results in the classroom’. Mesut Özil and Thomas Müller have never loomed so large in our dreams.