Bishkek/Almaty, 14 October 1997 (RFE/RL) -- There used to be a popular saying in Communist times. It wasn't painted on any walls, but everyone knew it and many people lived by it. The saying was, "If you don't steal from the State, then you're stealing from your own family."
The higher up you were, the more you could, and usually did, steal. In this respect, little has changed in today's Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. At the lower levels, petty corruption is a way of life, and the higher up you go, the bigger the theft gets.
As in Soviet times, citizens do not feel they have a stake in the State. The State is not something to build up, something to feel proud of, or something that will protect you. There is no use contributing to the State, because the State is "Them."
And "They" are officials who owe their positions of power to their superiors, in a vertical line stretching right up to the president. They do not care about what is below them, and they do not care that much about the country. They care primarily about lining their own pockets and about pleasing their superiors.
Sadly, it appears that the presidents of both Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan feel threatened by a civil society. Instead of supporting independent institutions and separation of powers, instead of building a State of laws that everyone could have a stake in, they have consolidated their personal power to maximum degree and attempted to organize society in a pyramid below them.
Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbayev and Kyrgyzstan's President Askar Akayev portray themselves as the fathers of post-Soviet independence in their respective countries. And both say they must remain in power in order to safeguard that independence. Little mention is made of the fact that both men were leading Communist officials in Soviet times, men who shaped and benefited from the former regime, rather than lifelong independence fighters.
National histories have been rewritten into hagiographies of the president and his illustrious ancestors. Ten years ago, as Communists, Akayev and Nazarbayev were the sons of workers and shepherds, but now both trace their lineage to the great Chinghiz Khan. They have started to behave like great patriarchs and their acolytes play along.
The head of the National Statistical office in Bishkek boasts that he is no longer overseen by parliament. Rather, he answers only to the president. This, he says, "guarantees freedom, because the president only wants objective statistics." In the same vein, a vice president and former economics minister responsible for introducing the national currency says he is not the father of any reforms. 'No, President Akayev is our father," he says, and points to a large presidential portrait on the wall.
One of Kazakhstan's most valuable archeological treasures is an ancient warrior's costume made of 4,000 separate gold pieces. It is called the Golden Man and is the pride of the nation. Under the Communists, the Golden Man was considered too fragile to be displayed, so a copy was put on view in the Central State Museum. The original Golden Man still cannot be seen by the general public, for he has been transferred to the president's palace, into the president's own personal treasury.
The line between the president's real family and the nation has become blurred. Two of the most glaring, but by no means unique examples are the fact that President Nazarbayev's daughter runs a major television network, while her husband runs the Almaty tax police.
The opposition figures who have not been silenced say that countries like the United States, by far the largest foreign investor in Kazakhstan, used to care about democracy in Central Asia. Washington's first ambassadors after independence held weekly meetings with the opposition, made note of their ideas, held educational seminars and kept the embassy doors open to them. But now, Washington's emissaries, it is said, are more interested in facilitating business deals than dealing with the democrats. Other Western powers are said to behave in the same way.
Khasen Kozha-Akhmet, who founded Kazakhstan's Azat citizen's movement in 1990 and himself spent time in jail under the Communists, puts it more colorfully.
"While the Americans were teaching us how to use the knife and fork," he says, "President Nazarbayev came up and took our steak away. And now he's eating it all by himself."
Kozha-Akhmet warns that betting on an all-powerful individual instead of a stable democratic system could have major pitfalls for the West. As he astutely noted just before the resignation of Prime Minister Akezhan Kazhegeldin, who was widely seen as the patron of Western investment in Kazakhstan.
"Self-anointed leaders have a tendency to disappear from the scene with the state treasury, or else they end up hanging from a lamppost eventually," he said.
Kazhegeldin is gone, but the president remains. And he, to paraphrase the saying, is having his steak and eating it too. Nazarbayev disposes of his country's vast natural resources as he sees fit and no one questions his judgment. He lavishes hundreds of millions of dollars on a new capital while millions of his people struggle to feed their families.
Laws mean little and neither does the constitution, but those who complain are hounded into silence. The official media, meanwhile, sing paeans to the president.
Natalia Ablova, director of the Kyrgyz-American Human Rights Bureau in Bishkek says there is some hope. She notes that despite all the government pressure, a civil society is forming in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. She says many young people, even schoolchildren, see the connection between human rights and a prospering economy. Ablova believes the young generation understands that they must not depend on the government for handouts, but earn their own living. And to do so, they need rights -- rights as employees and rights as entrepreneurs. The right to live as citizens of a law-based state. The rights, she says, must come before prosperity.
Those who defend presidential rule say Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan need a period of stability before they can graduate to democracy. They point to what they say is the success of the Chile model under General Pinochet.
But others, especially in the case of Kazakhstan, look at the country's vast oil and mineral wealth and ask where the profits are going. They look at the bribe-hungry traffic police armed with Kalashnikovs who stop cars every few meters and ask: whatever happened to law enforcement? In some ways, it looks more like Marshal Mobutu and Zaire than General Pinochet and Chile. And it brings to mind a biting post-Soviet anecdote:
A minister from one of the former Soviet republics goes on an official visit to France. After a day of negotiations, the French minister invites his post-Soviet counterpart to his home for dinner. The house is located in an attractive neighborhood of large and pleasant houses. So the post-Soviet minister politely asks his host, "Tell me, how did you manage to build all this?"
The French minister thinks for a bit then proudly answers. "You see that highway over there? It's a toll road and every time a motorist goes past, we collect a small fee. In this way we can afford to build new neighborhoods and houses such as the one I live in. And that is how our society functions." The post-Soviet minister nods.
A few months later he invites his French colleague to his own country. He picks him up at the airport in a helicopter and whisks him off into the countryside. There are no roads and the landscape is poor and desolate. But soon they land in front of a gigantic palace, the likes of which the French minister has never seen. He is baffled and asks his post-Soviet colleague: "And how, in your poor country, do you manage to build such palaces?" And the post-Soviet minister laughs, "Simple, " he says, "in my country, we just don't build roads."
(This article is one of a six-part series on Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.)