The last time I was in Kazakhstan was around 15 years ago when I joined then Indonesian President Suharto during his state visit to the country. At the time, Kazakhstan had only recently gained independence from the Soviet Union and became part of what is called the Commonwealth of Independent States along with other post-Soviet countries.
The thing I remember from the visit was being entertained in a huge tent in the middle of the steppe and watching, for the first and last time, the spectacle of Indonesia’s president trotting on the back of a beautiful horse that was a gift for him, and wondering what the news headline would be if he fell.
And there were so many horses on display; tall ones, short ones, stocky ones, mini-sized ones. Some were raised to plough the field, some raised for milk and of course, there were the beautiful thoroughbreds that known throughout the world as champion racers. We were also served glasses of fermented mare’s milk that had the flavor of yogurt.
I also remember the hotel where we journalists stayed in Almaty, the capital of Kazakhstan, and where they made us change our dollars into the local currency, the tenge, only to be told we couldn’t change it back to dollars when we needed to leave. The hotel room was a spartan affair with a tea towel disguising itself as a bath towel, while a thin sliver of greenish-colored soap was the only toiletry provided in the sorry-looking sink.
Today, I’m in Astana, the new capital of Kazakhstan since 1997, and the country’s second largest city, attending the 10th Eurasian Media Forum. Although I haven’t seen much of the city, suffice it to say, much must have changed in the country in the last decade or so. No more is there the impression of the austere architecture and grim ambience of the communist days gone by. Instead, the hotel where I stay is modern and luxurious by any international standards. While the Kazakhstan Media Center, where the conference is being held, is the best media center I have ever seen.
The building is huge, with gigantic TV screens on the outside wall that air non-stop images that keep me awake at night in my hotel room across the street. The architecture is one of metal and glass with colorful plastic beneath one huge atrium that allows for natural lighting to come through the high roof, and floor to ceiling windows that go up three-stories high. The center houses state of the art conference halls and television studios with the latest equipment. I felt a tinge of envy. Why can’t we build something as well-designed and well-constructed at home?
Indeed, looking at the new, gleaming, high-rise buildings, including monuments and government offices, it is obvious that much effort and money had gone to make Astana a showcase for a country that is enjoying good economic growth. If only Jakarta could be as well-ordered and well-planned. But then again, Astana is only home to around 700,000 people, while the entire nation of Kazakhstan, despite its size as the world’s largest land-locked country, has a population of around 16 million people.
The journey to get here took me all of 24 hours and cramped legs, but I’m curious to listen to what kind of issues and problems Eurasian countries face, and how different they are from our problems back home.
The speakers hail from the neighboring countries, ex-Soviet countries, including Russia, and also European countries. And the question of economic integration, national identity and the challenges of multiculturalism, as well as coping with the rise of Islam, seem to be the overriding issues, together with increasing nationalist and extremist sentiments in Europe and Eurasian countries.
It’s interesting to see that the general feeling from the panelists is that the idea of integration is unrealistic and doomed to failure. That there’s no such thing as the Eurasian identity, while the European Union and identity itself is being re-examined. That what is needed, ultimately, is the finding of common values. It seems wherever we are, we all share the same problems.
Desi Anwar, a senior anchor at Metro TV, can be reached at desianwar.com or dailyavocado.net.