Bread, Circuses, and Automobiles in Kazakhstan: The Emergence of a Middle Class?
Casino in Almaty soon to be moved
You won’t be able to register this car soon in Kazakhstan
Kazakhstan’s economic reforms and natural resource wealth has helped to spawn a growing middle-class. While the concept of a middle class is difficult to define and is ultimately dependent on context, in Kazakhstan it probably would be best defined as that portion of the population that can take subsistence for granted and is focused on luxury items to make their life more enjoyable. Two recent developments point to the extent that this portion of Kazakhstan’s population is growing and will eventually be a force to be reckoned with.
The first is the recent decision of the government of Kazakhstan to launch a project to move all casinos out of major cities and create gambling zones on the model of Las Vegas. In fact, one of the locations, Kapchagai near Almaty, will be initiating a new sister city relationship with Las Vegas beginning in January of 2007. As an early indication of these plans, the Kazakh ambassador to the U.S. visited Las Vegas earlier this summer and discussed what Kazakhstan could learn from Vegas with a democratic congresswoman from Nevada. As Ambassador Kanat Saudabayev said to her, "There is no better place to learn the experience of Las Vegas than Las Vegas; we have solved the issue of bread (in Kazakhstan), now we are looking for entertainment." Indeed, this is the challenge of placating the middle-class – once bread can be taken for granted, there is increased demand for better circuses.
If the news that casinos would be moving out of the cities to recreational oases based on the model of Las Vegas was welcomed by Kazakhstan’s middle-class, the revelation that right-handed steering-wheel cars would gradually be phased out of the Kazakhstan market has created an outrage. In a protest that far outnumbered the two-person “sit-in” organized in response to violations in the presidential election, some one hundred citizens and fans of Japanese used cars gathered in Almaty’s main square on Wednesday to show their displeasure with this policy. Furthermore, protests are not only taking place in Almaty. In Semipalatinsk, there are reports of a movement to express one’s position through bumper stickers that read “Right of Wheel.” In the last several years, used right-hand steering wheel cars from Japan have grown in popularity in Kazakhstan since they are significantly cheaper than comparable automobiles brought from Europe. Thus, for the emergent middle-class, it is an important issue.
All in all, it is good to see that an emergent class is becoming more vocal in Kazakhstan, even if it is over such personal “Not In My Back Yard” issues. In reality, however, this middle-class can be expected to put more and more pressure on the government to perform and to be effective. For years now, people in Kazakhstan have been satisfied with the low expectations of stability, and the general mantra has been “at least there is no war.” Now they want circuses…and cars they can afford…and houses they can afford. Maybe soon, they will want a medical system they can trust, a court system they can trust, a media they believe, a government that does not take bribes, etc.