I got this letter yesterday from a reader in response to my post about Obama telling Nursultan Nazarbayev that we’re still working on our democracy in the US.
I just read your post about Obama’s comments to the Kazakh president; my wife and I have lived and worked in Almaty, Kazakhstan, since August 2008–this country has no idea what democracy is, and Nazerbayev prefers to keep it that way. He is the quintessential post-modern dictator. My wife and I teach at a school where the majority of our students’ parents are either in government or organized crime (it’s often a very fine line, and sometimes it doesn’t exist at all). I teach the comparative governments class, and it’s painful to watch my Kazakh students learn what terms like “liberal democracy” and “illiberal democracy” mean, then try to make the Kazakh square peg fit the liberal democracy round hole. When I raise even the mildest of criticisms in class, I can see the Kazakhs looking around the room to see who is present, so as to know what will be acceptable to say. It’s unbelievable how often I will hear a Kazakh student identify government propaganda for exactly what it is–propaganda–then follow up their analysis by immediately stating something to the effect of “but it’s also the truth.” No opposition parties are allowed; no negative press coverage is permitted; five-year plans are still being written with all of the passion and fanfare (and possibilities of success) of the Soviet era. And the U.S. president just told this Russian lap dog that the U.S. is still working on democracy, too. I can’t stress this enough: THE KAZAKHS WILL TAKE THAT STATEMENT AT FACE VALUE!!! “Hey, I guess that we’re not doing so bad, huh?”
Here’s the most damning thing that I can say about a country: I spent three years teaching in Kabul, Afghanistan, and it’s easy for me to imagine Afghans enjoying a more western liberal society 50 years from now than the Kazakhs. The Afghans, for the most part, have very few illusions about their place in the world and about how far they have to go to catch up; but the Kazakhs? About half of my Kazakh students are still defending the Soviet Union, and the other half are spouting government propaganda along these lines: Kazakhs have to keep out American beef because it’s “more expensive, poorer quality, and loaded with drugs” (which wouldn’t seem to be a winning trio in the market place, but apparently so as it must be kept out).
I’d like to personally thank Obama for confirming the suspicions and conspiracy theories of my Kazakh students. Unbelievable.