"What is civil society?" asked Charles Ziegler, Professor and University Scholar, Department of Political Science, University of Louisville, at a 20 January 2011 Kennan Institute seminar focusing on the development of civil society in Kazakhstan. Ziegler began his discussion by looking at Robert Putnam's landmark work on bowling leagues in the United States, and the importance of social interaction in democracy. Ziegler next examined to what extent the citizens of Kazakhstan have been able to develop new social associations in the post-Soviet environment. Kazakhstan is more developed, and perhaps has more opportunities, than its Central Asian neighbors, argued Ziegler; for example, it has a growing, educated middle class and also possesses major economic resources. Moreover, positive examples of civil society already exist in Kazakhstan, for example, in the country's international education exchange programs that send Kazakh students abroad to study.
On the other hand, Ziegler pointed out that the Soviet legacy continued to serve as a major impediment to civil society. The absence of free, social organization during the Soviet period and its emphasis on state power left many citizens in Kazakhstan with an unclear idea of "how to organize" and how to establish their new relationship with the state. The emergence of state-supported social groups also has hindered the development of a genuine civil society in Kazakhstan, noted Ziegler.
Ruslan Kazkenov, Managing Director, "Civic Peace" NGO, Astana, Kazakhstan, discussed other obstacles to the development of civil society in Kazakhstan. "You must consider the backwardness of our society," he said; most citizens still only recognize the state's power and the central role the state plays in providing for society's needs. It is critical, Kazkenov added, to develop a cultural awareness of civil society and how it can develop on its own. Kazkenov noted some positive developments for civil society in Kazakhstan, most notably, the introduction of new laws on public assembly that encouraged inter-ethnic cooperation. Nevertheless, concluded Kazkenov, "There is plenty of room for help."
Vadim Ni, Executive Director, civic foundation "Asian American Partnership," Almaty, Kazakhstan highlighted recent government initiatives to promote NGOs in Kazakhstan. In particular, the number of environmental groups has grown significantly over the past few years, with some even gaining important political influence. But even these environmental groups face major challenges in terms of obtaining funding and defending their independence from the state.
By Ross Oermann
Blair Ruble, Director, Kennan Institute