Kazakhstan’s Soft Power

Punching Above and Beyond its Weight

Basskaran Nair
Basskaran Nair

By Basskaran Nair, Visiting Professor at Nazarbayev University, Graduate School of Public Policy

Rukhani Zhangryu, Dimash and its culturally talented people (spiritual revival, cultural), Turkestan spiritual centre for Turkic civilisation (historical and cultural), Nazarbayev University, tertiary institutions and Bolashak programmes (education and world talent), agriculture, horse meat (food, beverage and cuisine), and the great outdoors of Khaindy Lake, Charyn Canyon, Burabay, UNESCO heritage sites (touristic value) are some of Kazakhstan’s inherent national equity. When and if leveraged with greater focus on getting it right in terms of scale, salience and superlative branding, it will build Kazakhstan’s reputation as a significant nation, and define its soft power.

A nation’s equity (soft power) is when other countries want what it has and people are naturally inclined towards its equity values which includes intangible power resources such as culture, ideology, and institutions. Harvard University Professor Joseph Nye coined the term in his famous book Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics. In his book he notes at least five trends that have contributed to the diffusion of power: Economic interdependence, transnational actors, nationalism in weak states, the spread of technology, and changing political issues. Today, while military force remains a constant in terms of defence and deterrence power, new factors such as technology, education, and economic resilience are on the rise. The spat between US and China -- on technological superiority (Huawei versus Apple, Google); institutional and cultural differences (Confucian, communist one-party versus western, liberal democracy); and economic resilience and superiority (rising superpower challenging incumbent superpower) -- is in the realm of soft power war but expressed as a trade war.

Modernization, urbanization, and increased communication have also diffused power from government to private actors. The perceived quality of products by private enterprises of individual nations, along with price, communication messages and aesthetics have become important contributors to the nation’s international reputation. Nation’s equity increasingly include the power of attractive ideas (Hollywood, universities, thought leadership, Korean movies and K-pop), food and beverage culture that transcend borders (Japanese sushi, French and Italian food), games (soccer, Olympics), technical capabilities (German and Japanese cars) and the ability to set the political agenda (Singapore and International Law of the Sea). Soft power attributes determine the conversation that shapes others' preferences and perceptions.

Kazakhstan’s Potential Soft power

On education as soft power, in a recent meeting with the President of Nazarbayev University, Shigeo Katsu, Kazakhstan’s First President and Leader of the Nation Nursultan Nazarbayev said “Many people did not believe that we will have a world-class university there. And you have been leading such University for many years. The university has intellectual potential – researchers, who raise a level of this educational institution. Nazarbayev University became one of Kazakhstani brands”. Schooling is a product of the world culture that renders education as a resilient and powerful institution in a modern society. Kazakhstan already leads the Central Asian as a hub for “western-quality” education. There are 124 university level institutes in Kazakhstan compared to 81 in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan (64), Tajikistan (40) and Turkmenistan (24). About 14,000 foreign students’ study in its tertiary institutions in comparison to about 8000 in all the other “stan” countries combined.

Cultural and spiritual revival are being explored as soft power. In this regard, Rukhani Zhangryu, Dimash Kudaibergen and Kazakhstan’s talented young people have something in common. They represent Kazakhstan’s potential to export its talents in the field of spiritual revival and cultural renaissance. Dimash Kudaibergen, university trained in classical as well as in contemporary music, represents that talented youthful population. The 24-year-old appears regularly on Chinese television, bouncing soccer balls during the World Cup and serenading audiences for Chinese New Year. He rose to fame on China's hit competition show “Singer” which reaches 95 million Chinese viewers on average.

In the global economy of consumption, the brand equity of sushi as Japanese cultural property adds to the cachet of both the country and the cuisine. Throughout the world, sushi restaurants operated by Koreans, Chinese or Vietnamese maintain Japanese identities, including the simple greetings in Japanese. How does one explain the phenomenal success of American -style fast food in Hong Kong, and increasingly Guangzhou, --the two epicentres of Cantonese cuisine? Can Kazakhstan develop in these areas? Would international consumers actively pursue and purchase its food related brand equity? For now, they are far removed from being raved and reviewed in global social media and international TV channels as they do for Italian or French or Japanese cuisines.

Can Kazakhstan’s great outdoors of Khaindy Lake, Charyn Canyon, Burabay, and UNESCO heritage sites that has existed over the centuries be translated into iconic soft power? Historically, aside from military power, soft power of the empires of the past was defined by religion (Zoroastrianism, Christianity, Islam) or culture and philosophy (Greek thinking and Confucianism). These ideas crossed borders and were embraced for various reasons as the soft power of empires before the existence of the concept of nation states. Kazakhstan is often called the crossroads of civilizations. Since ancient times various religions were formed and developed on the territory of modern Kazakhstan. Archaeologists have found traces of Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, Nestorianism and Tengrism.

What’s Undermining Kazakhstan’s Soft Power?

Kazakhstan suffers from reputational perceptions that undermines its efforts at projecting its soft power. The key one is corruption. The other is poor concerted execution capabilities. The Kazakhstan-2050 Strategy defines “corruption” as a direct threat to national security, and appeals to the state and to society to collectively fight against this scourge. There is a vibrant debate among Kazakhstani policy makers, methodologists, sociologists, and criminologists: should it be a new subjective, perception-based index of corruption, or an objective, fact-based index of corruption or objective, fact-based index. The present President has said heads of state bodies should resign in cases of corruption crimes by their subordinates and it’s his prerogative to accept the resignation; resignation is mandatory.

On execution, there is an “halo” effect when the positive national equities are converged and managed as a concerted whole. A dedicated team must manage the “halo” effect of these national attributes: Rukhani Zhangryu, Turkestan for Turkic civilisation, Nazarbayev University and Bolashak programmes, food cuisine diplomacy, the great outdoors and UNESCO heritage sites. Given its 2050 goal of being the Top 30 developed nations and these reputational “halo” effects, Kazakhstan will punch above and beyond its weight, defining its soft power. It will be the K in the acronym, BRICS—it will become BRICKS.

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