ALMATY, Kazakhstan — Zhibek Zholy, the main pedestrian mall in Kazakhstan’s largest city of Almaty, is bustling with activity on a sweltering August afternoon.
Under the large neon sign for LG, the Korean telecommunications company, stalls sell clothing, food and drinks and cellphone plans. The Silk Way City Mall beckons shoppers, where several floors are packed with tourist wares made in China, only 322 km (200 mi) away.
One street vendor hawks allegedly authentic Soviet-era pins out of a briefcase, deftly replacing the set from his pocket after each sale. Homemade oil paintings line one block, portraying small yurts amid green valleys and snowcapped mountains.
On one corner is the 4A Coffee Shop, which beats Starbucks for its great coffee, western-style desserts (the carrot cake is delicious!) and sandwiches and low-key atmosphere. Owner Alan Draper moved here in 2005 after marrying a Kazakhstani woman, and opened the coffee shop in 2007. Despite challenges in importing coffee beans, the coffee quality is superb. The shop is popular for international travelers.
What is most striking to me is the diversity of the shoppers: Central Asian Kazakhs with darker features, East Asians and whites with blond hair and green eyes — who could be of Russian, Polish or German ethnicity. But most people appear to be some mix. In a country of 16 million people, there are more than 120 ethnicities, and residents say intermarriage has become more common in the past 10 years.
The country has more than 2,000 religious groups, according to the Kazakhstan President’s Foreign Investors’ Council. More than half the country are largely-secular Muslims, and about 40 percent are Eastern-Orthodox Russians, and there is a small but long-standing Jewish community.
But they did not wind up in the steppes of Central Asia by accident. Rather, most Kazakhstanis were sent here in exile by the Soviet government.
“In 1917, the Bolshevik Revolution began a process of nation building,” said New York University Prof. in a lecture in April 2009. “The USSR government was terrified with the Muslim concentration, so they wanted to break them up. During World War II when Jews evacuated Europe, many came to Kazakhstan.”
Hundreds of thousands of Russians came in three different time periods: during industrialization in the 1920s, forced here during World War II, and during the Virgin Lands Campaign to farm the land in the 1950s, according to the BBC.
In the 1930s, Joseph Stalin forced nearly 200,000 Koreans from Far Eastern USSR to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, according to Koryo Saram, who co-directed the film “The Unreliable People” (2007) about the Korean exodus to the country.
Despite the potential for ethnic tension, especially during the Georgia-Russia conflict in 2008, the country has remained “in a delicate ethnic balance,” Estriakh says.
Residents say the main reason is that unlike strict Muslim governments in nearby countries like Uzbekistan, the secular Kazakhstani government allows everyone to celebrate their religious holidays. There has also been government stability, with President Nursultan Nazarbayev in power since independence in 1991. •