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Time Difference

It may not seem much – 5 hours time difference – but many colleagues who joined me last week on a visit to Kazakhstan had difficulty adjusting. Perhaps the political atmosphere in that country also contributed to the sleeping problems. Time seems to have stood still in Kazakhstan. At least to those who remember how it was in the old days when ‘real socialism’ prevailed. The country became independent some twenty years ago, after many centuries of Russian domination. It was a historical accident and the country was not prepared for it. This allowed the old communist elite to change hats and avoid a regime change.

Kazakhstan today is more free than it was before 1990, but many of the old habits never died. It is still ruled in an authoritarian way- President Nazarbayev has held this job since 1991 and only the ruling party is represented in the Parliament. The ruling elite claim that this is the best way to maintain stability in such a young democracy with its ethnic and religious differences. Central Asia is a tricky region, they say, and the country, therefore, needs a strong hand.

 

Although they might have a point, it cannot be a short or long term justification for ignoring certain democratic rules to which Kazakhstan has agreed as the presiding member of the OSCE. Furthermore, I felt uncomfortable with their explanations knowing that many Kazakhs are unhappy about the way in which this post-soviet state tries to control its citizens. A very large bureaucracy and the secret police can make life sometimes very difficult for those who oppose the regime.

 

Even foreigners do not escape intimidation. Visa requirements are normal – and I had no problem obtaining one – but once .inside Kazakhstan you have to register with the police if you stay longer than five days. We discovered this after somebody had read the tiny letters on the back of a small white form which we received at the airport. But nobody in the hotel could explain us the procedure!

 

We have been told that tourists are often not aware of the requirement and then have difficulty leaving the country. We were –fortunately- assisted by an official who actually had to help two members of the delegation across the border because there was something wrong with their entry forms. I had no such problem but, nevertheless, felt a kind of relieve when the Lufthansa plane took of from Almaty airport to fly back to our own time zone.

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