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In Central Asia's Wealthiest Country, Kazakhstan, Many Can Barely Afford Food And Rent


One of Malika Zhangeldieva's daughters does her homework in the family's humble house. ""Most of our income goes for food," Zhangledieva says. "We mend our old clothes and shoes. The kids don't want to wear old stuff all the time, but they understand we have no choice."
One of Malika Zhangeldieva's daughters does her homework in the family's humble house. ""Most of our income goes for food," Zhangledieva says. "We mend our old clothes and shoes. The kids don't want to wear old stuff all the time, but they understand we have no choice."

ALMATY, Kazakhstan -- Malika Zhangeldieva, a cashier at an Almaty sports center, recently took a second job as a kitchen helper at a cafe, where she works two days a week.

Zhangeldieva's construction-worker husband, Qaiyrken, often accepts side jobs, while their 17-year-old daughter works as a part-time waitress after school to help the family make ends meet.

Despite their multiple jobs, the family of seven struggles financially as rent and food prices have skyrocketed in Kazakhstan in recent months, with inflation officially reaching some 19 percent.

"Most of our income goes for food," Zhangledieva says. "We mend our old clothes and shoes. The kids don't want to wear old stuff all the time, but they understand we have no choice."

The family lives in a humble, one-story house in Almaty's mostly working-class district of Zhetysu, paying about $170 in rent per month. There is no running water in the house, and the family uses an outdoor toilet and a public shower facility.

The Zhanglediev family lives in a humble, one-story house in Almaty's mostly working-class district of Zhetysu, paying about $170 in rent per month.
The Zhanglediev family lives in a humble, one-story house in Almaty's mostly working-class district of Zhetysu, paying about $170 in rent per month.

According to World Bank figures, more than 15.5 percent of Kazakhstan's 19.7 million population live in poverty.

The government in Astana gives rosier numbers, saying about 5 percent of the population live below the poverty line. But many experts believe the real figure is much higher than the Kazakh government statistics.

With its enormous natural resources and vast agricultural lands, Kazakhstan is the richest country in Central Asia. But the revenue from its oil and gas is mostly concentrated in the hands of a small circle of elites and hasn't trickled down to ordinary Kazakhs.

The government provides monthly income support to the country's poorest families. But many impoverished Kazakhs -- like the Zhangeldievs -- don't qualify for it.

In Kazakhstan, the poverty line is set at 70 percent of the living wage -- about $80 a month in 2022.

Malika Zhangeldieva
Malika Zhangeldieva

"My application for income support was rejected three years ago because our joint income exceeded the threshold by just $0.35, and this tiny amount disqualified my family from receiving aid," Zhangeldieva says.

Zhangeldieva's five children are aged between two and 17 years. The older children help look after the younger ones as the parents -- who work long shifts and only have a few days off -- are virtually unable to spend quality time with their children.

"I had to cut short my maternity leave and return to work when my youngest son, Asylzhan, was just 3 months old," Zhangeldieva says. "My second daughter, Albina, looks after him most of the time. It seems Asylzhan thinks Albina is his mother, not me."

The Zhangeldievs hope to own a home one day through social housing. But it often takes several years to get one.

Mending Old Clothes, Buying The Cheapest Food

In another part of Almaty, 57-year-old dressmaker Qainysh Qalieva rents one corner of the entrance to a high-rise apartment building that she uses as a workshop to mend and alter clothes.

The tiny workspace of just 4 square meters has no doors and has a curtain for privacy. There is just enough space for a table with a sewing machine, a chair, and a narrow shelf. Clothes that clients have brought in to be fixed hang on a window grill.

Qalieva pays about $32 in monthly rent.

She says more and more customers are bringing in old clothes to mend as "people don't have much money and are trying to save on everything."

"There were cases in which clients brought old socks or completely worn-out clothes to repair," Qalieva says. "I don't like darning, but how can I say no to people? They're in the same situation as myself."

Qainysh Qalieva rents a corner of the entrance to a high-rise apartment building that she uses as a workshop to mend and alter clothes.
Qainysh Qalieva rents a corner of the entrance to a high-rise apartment building that she uses as a workshop to mend and alter clothes.

Qalieva moved to Almaty from her small hometown of Zaisan in eastern Kazakhstan 13 years ago. She lives in a rented apartment with her youngest son and has four more years until she can retire.

Qalieva isn't eligible for aid from the state, as her income exceeds the government threshold.

She says she gets enough work to earn a living as people nowadays "try not to throw anything away and have them fixed instead." But she adds that customers are increasingly asking for lower fees.

Qalieva says sometimes she gets relatively "rich" clients, too, who mostly come to have their new clothes altered.

"For example, some of them bring pants to be shortened and I charge $2 for that, but they pay $4. I'm of course grateful," Qalieva says.

When RFE/RL visited Qalieva at her workshop, she was replacing the collar and lining of an old coat for a customer.

"First she went to another tailor, who asked for about $30 for the work. It was too expensive for her, so she came to me. I do the same work for half of that amount," she says.

In a grocery store nearby, shopkeeper Gulzariya knows most of her customers by name.

"The most popular items are bread, mayonnaise, Chinese noodles, and energy drinks," she says. "People look for food that is cheap and keeps them full longer. They also need to stay awake longer because they work late hours."

Gulzariya, who didn't want to give her full name, said some clients -- local residents -- ask to buy food on credit.

Selling goods on credit is not unheard of in close-knit communities where people know each other. The shopkeeper just writes down their names, gives the goods, and the customer pays a few days later or whenever they have the money.

But Gulzariya is no longer accepting late payments. The shop nearly went bankrupt recently when most clients failed to pay for the goods they bought on credit.

Warning To The Government

Some two dozen women protesters gathered near government headquarters in the capital, Astana, on December 12 to demand a meeting with President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev over soaring food prices, low wages, and the housing crisis.

The women accused ministers and lawmakers of being out of touch with the plight of ordinary people.

Peoples' discontent with economic hardship, price hikes, and corruption fueled nationwide unrest that led to the deaths of more than 200 people in January.

Kazakhstan analyst Maghbat Spanov, who works for the Astana-based Institute of World Economics and Politics, warns that the government will face more protests and public anger if it doesn't take adequate measures to alleviate poverty.

Spanov says tackling poverty is ultimately connected with the creation of a competitive market, upholding principles of democracy, transparency, and winning people's trust in the government -- which he says the government in Astana currently does not have.

Written by Farangis Najibullah in Prague based on reporting by RFE/RL Almaty correspondent Zhannat Nugmanova in Almaty
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