The official "logo" of Kazakhstan's 20th anniversary of independence. This yellow "20" has been plastered all over the city (and presumably the country) for most of 2011.

Yesterday, December 16, was the 20th anniversary of Kazakhstan’s independence. It was marked by a bank holiday, a big government-sponsored concert in the city’s main square and a firework show. I went out to dinner and had friends over to watch the fireworks, but we missed these because they were set off earlier than we had expected. Instead we just drank and talked.

The city was on high-alert for the occasion. Following the wave of supposed terrorist attacks in cities around Kazakhstan, the government was afraid that terrorists would launch an attack on Independence Day. Almaty residents, at least, were warned (and warned me) to avoid crowded public spaces. To my knowledge, though, nothing of note happened in Almaty, and the celebrations were a success. This is important not least because parliamentary elections are coming up on January 15, and any security concerns now could only serve to weaken popular support for the president’s ruling party.

That said, there was significant violence elsewhere in Kazakhstan. There have been simmering tensions between the state and labor since the summer. Oil workers have been on strike  in Mangistau, a province on the Caspian and one locus of the country’s oil and gas industry. News of the strikes had more or less disappeared from the news, but the protesters in Zhanaozen took advantage of Independence Day to revitalize their cause. The exact chain of events is unclear to me, but apparently protests set several vehicles and government buildings ablaze. Simultaneously (?), state police fired live ammunition into the crowd; between 10 and 70 protesters, depending on whose reports you watch, were killed. Al Jazeera English is reporting on this unfolding story.

(President Nazarbayev has called a state of emergency in southwest Kazakhstan and is restricting information. Just a few days after access to was restored as a sign of liberalizing censorship policy, Twitter and independent new sources have now been shut down in Kazakhstan and cell phone service in Zhanaozen has reportedly been blocked. Flights to the nearby airport in Atyrau were canceled today. The president has declared a state of emergency until at least 5 January. After all that has happened this year elsewhere in the world, have governments not learned that these types of measures are have minimal impact?)

The confluence of events described – labor strikes, the rising threat of Islamism, the 20th anniversary of independence – raises compelling theoretical questions about Kazakhstan’s post-Soviet trajectory (compelling to me, at least). In the FT’s reporting of the violence, the paper quotes one Kate Mallinson as saying: ““This could be a wake-up call that Kazakhstan is facing a potentially turbulent transition period.” But, at least in political science terminology, Kazakhstan has been “in transition” for 20 years. The problem is that no one knows any longer towards what Kazakhstan is “transitioning.”

In the early 1990s, it was assumed by most all observers that in the wake of the collapse of the USSR (and therefore the discrediting of the Soviet system and communism), the new post-Soviet states would “transition” towards liberalism, capitalism and, in the best cases, European- and American-style democracy. This understanding of “transition” was based, in my opinion, on the mistaken belief, fed by the Cold War, that the liberal capitalist and communist authoritarian models were the only two ways in which to organize polities, and that all states could be described as laying on a  continuum between these two poles. Therefore, when one pole disappeared, it was assumed that all states would naturally flow towards and coverage with the only remaining model.

Twenty years on, however, it is now clear that this assumption about transition was unfounded. For the most extreme examples of “failed” transitions, see Putin’s Russia, Berdymukhammedov’s Turkmenistan and Lukashenko’s Belorussia. And although the Baltic states were successfully incorporated into the European system, most of the post-Soviet countries were in fact simply set adrift and are now reaching at straws to make it all work. If you’ll pardon the metaphor, a post-Soviet countries is like graduate students who, in the middle of her dissertation, suddenly finds that their proposal doesn’t have legs: she needs to change her course and redefine her project, but she is loathe (and scared) to discard all the hard work she’s already done. Post-Soviet states are confronted by difficult pasts, contemporary challenges and uncertain futures.

And now more than ever because of the financial crisis in the US, sovereign debt crisis in Europe and the rise of authoritarian China, “transition” to the Western model not only remains as difficult and challenging as ever – which Western political scientists only really acknowledged in the late 1990s, after almost 10 years of rather condescendingly blaming “failure” on a lack of political will in post-Soviet countries – but now also substantially less attractive and less certain. So what is the aim of “transition” now? And how will any of us know when it is over?

The cover to the Harvard University Press edition of Service's book

What is lacking and what is needed is a theory of post-Communism. There have been many observers of post-Soviet and post-Communist development both here and in China in many fields. Some of my favorite of these include the political scientist / economists Myant and Drahokoupil, Pei, Bunce, Shirk and Jones Luong, sociologist / social theorists Therborn and Verdery, and others in history and art history. These have done a thorough job describing the divergent developmental trajectories of post-Soviet states from Vietnam to Estonia. There are also an increasing number of retrospective looks at the Communist experiment. I am currently reading Robert Service’s excellent (so far) history of world Communism; in it, Service tries to identify what similarities there were between various Communist movements and therefore to find common sources both for their inspiration and ultimate failures.

But without a theory of post-Communism linking the politico-economic and sociological observations made about China to those in Lithuania, and the present with the past, we cannot predict or prescribe towards what the post-Communist countries are transitioning. The West can obviously continue to make demands of these countries, but these are increasingly hollow. Perhaps, of course, there can be no unified theory of post-Communism because it is a situation defined exactly by the disappearance and absence of a grand theory. These states, and especially Kazakhstan, were in historical fact, cut loose rather suddenly and without sufficient preparation for their independence. This being the case, though, we are at a loss to define what “transition” means and to comprehend what “independence” will bring.

My Russian teacher, who is in fact ethnically Kazakh, does not like that 16 December is called “Independence Day.” “Independence from what?” she asks (again echoing the denial of Russian colonialism about which I’ve written before). She argues that “independence” entails a struggle and a liberation from oppression, and that she does not think either apply to the history of Kazakhstan vis-a-vis either the Russians or the Soviets. But independence has meant at least one thing: independence, for better or worse, from an ideological project, from a mission and a set of goals.


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