It is not unusual, when ordinary people display poor knowledge of geography and political science. They are too preoccupied with everyday life’s routine. But, it is regretful to point out that sometimes even scholars and politicians fail to grasp the true meaning of important notions. One of the best examples of such misunderstanding is a deeply rooted approach towards so called “Eastern Europe” and “Central Asia”. As a rule, they maintain that “Eastern Europe” includes Russia with its former satellites, like Poland or Hungary, and “Central Asia” includes Kazakhstan with its southern neighbors, such as Uzbekistan or Turkmenistan. These definitions are incorrect in many respects. First of all, technically the centre of Europeis located in “Eastern Europe”. Several countries have strived to gain this honorary status. Places like Ukraine’s Dilove, Lithuania’s Purnuškes or Slovakia’s Krahule are claimed to be the hub of Europe. The same applies to “Central Asia”. In terms of geography, the centre of Asia is located in a Siberian town Kyzyl, Russia, close to its border with Mongolia. Therefore, it is more appropriate to state that Central Asia includes Mongolia and Xingjian (Western China).
Highway bridge, completed under the supervision of outstanding Kazakh civil engineer Alexander Ryazanov in 2000, connects Asian and European parts of Atyrau City, Western Kazakhstan
There are also religious and ideological issues, which reveal the erroneous nature of “Eastern Europe” and “Central Asia”. In Central Europe Baltic states, western parts of Belarus and Ukraine, Czech Republic, and other countries of the region have predominantly Catholic and Protestant population, whereas the real Eastern Europe, which includes remaining parts of Belarus and Ukraine along with Russia, are inhabited mainly by Orthodox Christians. The ethnic composition of “Central Asian” countries also have major differences. Ardent Sunnis prevail in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, meanwhile Kazakhstan, although the majority of its population is nominally Sunnis, is by and large the secular society. As for human rights and political freedoms, Central European countries have advanced considerably in this field comparing with Russia, where the uncontrollable executive branch of power and state-controlled media have stifled opposition parties. Relatively democratic Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan coexist with authoritarian regimes of their neighbors.
Structure of their economies also vary in numerous respects. For example, Russia’s revenue depends heavily on its export of raw materials. But Czech Republic relies mostly on its car industry and tourism, closely tied to the West. That is why, Central European economies are more diversified and competitive than its Eastern European counterparts. The Eurasian state of Kazakhstan, for instance, has two agricultural staples – meat and grain. But, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan cultivate mainly cotton and vegetables. Moreover, considerable differences present in the field of demographics. For example, Tajikistan had 4.8 million people in 1987. Now its population is more than 7 million. Kazakhstan had 16.2 million people in 1987. As of 1 January 2010, its population is only 16.196 million. These are rather paradoxical figures. Tajikistan, a nation with small territory and limited natural resources, devastated by civil war in the nineties, and experiencing now severe unemployment, has shown excellent birth rates. On the other hand, comparatively prosperous Kazakhstan, one of the largest countries in the world with vast natural resources, has declined demographically, because its multiethnic, urbanized society presents a contrast to traditions of Kazakhstan’s southern neighbors, where large families are in the nature of things.
The similarity in certain names and places is another source for popular misconceptions. To an outsider, “Kazakhstan” sounds like “Afghanistan”, although the two countries almost pole apart in every way. One might just as well establish the resemblance between Poland and Greenland. Though nations of Central and Eastern Europe basically share the common heritage of their distant ancestors and speak close-knit languages, they do not belong to the same civilization. For instance, Russian and Slovak languages resemble each other, as German and Dutch languages related to one another. But, Russians of Eastern Europe use Cyrillic alphabet, meanwhile Slovaks of Central Europe use Latin alphabet. Thus, cultural frontiers indicate themselves: Eastern Europe has been greatly influenced by the Ancient Greece, whereas Central Europe has cherished the legacy of the Roman Empire. As long as the complex notion of civilization is concerned, one should point out that those, who classify Central European countries as Eastern European ones, willingly or unwillingly picture them as the borderland of Europe. In order to break down such prejudice, it must be mentioned that the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary, which was one of the key players in Europe at the beginning of the twentieth century, contained chiefly now independent Central European nations.
Ambiguous cases quite often found in geopolitics. Turkey is one of them. Smaller part of its territory located in Southeast Europe, the rest, Anatolia, is in the Middle East. Despite its Muslim background and geographical location, the Eurasian state of Turkey is well-integrated with Europe. Almost the same must be said about Russia. Its territory for the most part is Northern Asia and the Far East, with autonomous regions of Buddhist and Muslim ethnic groups. But employees from United Nations Statistics Division has put the entire Russian Federation into a category of Eastern Europe. It’s illogical both geographically and culturally, because exactly to the south of Russia is Kazakhstan, which the same guys have assigned to a category of Central Asia. About one million Kazakhs live in Russia. About four million Russians live in Kazakhstan. Many Kazakh words have been borrowed by Russians to indicate their places, food products, surnames, etc. In their turn, the majority of Kazakhs speak Russian fluently. How Kazakhstan can be labeled as a Central Asian country, if its European part is bigger than the territory of Belgium, Netherlands, and Switzerland put together?! Striving to remove barriers across Europe, the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev defined this continent as stretching from the Atlantic to the Ural Mountains. The southern part of the mountain system borders upon western Kazakhstan. Also, the country is a member of Union of European Football Associations (UEFA). Therefore, we support those scholars, who regard both Kazakhstan and Russia as Northern Eurasia.
For a long time, the sectarian composition of Kazakhstan has been wrongly perceived in the West. Famous political scientist Samuel P. Huntington in his 1996 edition of The Clash of Civilizations reproduced a map “The World of Civilizations: Post-1990”. On this map, Kazakhstan designated as of the Orthodox Civilization.The webpage of CIA’s World Factbook, updated on 26 June 2009, reports that 47 percent of its population are Muslims, 44 percent belong to the Russian Orthodox Church, and so forth. U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs in its “Background Note: Kazakhstan”, released in April 2009, quotes exactly the same figures.The three sources furnish outdated information, which was relevant just before the breakup of the Soviet Union. By the way, Columbia Encyclopedia provides more accurate figures: “About half the population of Kazakhstan are Muslim Kazakhs, while about 30% are Russians, many of whom belong to the Russian Orthodox Church”. Franz Thyssen, a representative of Euro-Asian Federation of the Unions of Evangelical Christians-Baptists in Kazakhstan, points out that more than 50% of its population are Muslims. On 6 March 2009, KAZINFORM news agency cited Chief Rabbi of Kazakhstan Yeshaya E. Cohen, who said that Kazakhstan is the country with major Muslim population, where Jewish people can wear their religious attributes, build synagogues and confess their religion. British newspaper Daily Mail in its article “Andrew ‘was paid £3m more’ for Southyork ‘to lobby for Kazakh premier’” by Jason Lewis and Will Stewart, published on 26 July 2009, also said that Kazakhstan is “a largely Muslim state”.
Firstly: most of the time nationality determines religion. E.g. as a rule Italians are Catholics, although some of them practice atheism, few believe in Krishna, and so on. For that reason, as of 1 January 2010 the number of Muslims in Kazakhstan amounts to more than 70 percent of its population, according to the data of Agency of the Republic of Kazakhstan on statistics. Typically, those followers of Islam (Kazakhs, Uzbeks, Tatars, Turks, and others) do not pray five times a day or stage mass demonstrations. Their practice of faith is usually limited to the well-known triad of ceremonies : “Birth, Marriage, and Funeral”. According to the Government of Kazakhstan, there are 1,727 mosques in the country as of January 2006. Russian Orthodox, who form more than 30 percent of its population, pursue basically the identical pattern. According to the Government of Kazakhstan, there are 241 Orthodox churches in the country as of January 2006. Such spirituality without religiousness had been one of the reasons, why Soviet researchers and officials drew the line between Kazakhstan and Central Asia. Besides, the national economy of the USSR was divided into 19 economic regions. There were the Kazakhstan Economic Region and the Central Asian Economic Region among them.
Effective policymaking requires correct and up-to-date information. When such well-known organizations like UN, CIA, and U.S. Department of State commit errors in their reports, they mislead the general public. In addition, the carelessness about statistical data definitely doesn’t improve the mutual understanding between the different parts of the world.
Prize-winner of the Kazakh Union of Journalists, 1995
Participant of the 34th Annual U.S. International Film and Video Festival in Chicago, 2001