Eyes on the Prize of Central Asia

In August, President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan announced that the capitol of the country would be moved several hundred miles north, from the green city of Almaty, where the presidential palace stands against a background of snow-capped mountains, to the bleak and windy steppes of north-central Kazakhstan, to the present city of Akmola. The official reasons for the move included a more central location, limited building space in Almaty, environmental pollution, and geology—moving away from the southeastern mountainous corner with its earthquakes to the much safer north-central region. The many fault lines in the hills and valleys around Almaty are not nearly so dangerous as the explosive fault line in the population itself, the division of the country into Kazakhs and Russians. Here lies the potential for more disaster than the breakup of Yugoslavia.

Most Westerners cannot find Kazakhstan on a map, and its 17 million people are less than three percent of the world's population. The country appears to have the third largest oil reserves in the world, making its citizens potentially as rich as the Saudis, since Kazakhstan also has vast deposits of coal, copper, and gold. Kazakhstan's larger neighbors—China, Russia, and Turkey—are all aware that here is a treasure chest guarded by a very few people who are deeply divided among themselves and who have weak loyalties to their new leaders.


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