- The Washington Times - Friday, March 24, 2000

ASTANA, Kazakhstan.I am freezing here in the snow-covered capital of what was until 1991 one of the fearsome republics of the now-defunct U.S.S.R.

Kazakhstan had a large army, the fourth-largest nuclear arsenal in the world, and a loyal Communist Party, propagating the word that the West was corrupt, overrun with gangsters and a constant threat to Kazakhstan's benevolent socialist society.

Today I am traveling along the potholed streets of that advanced society. Here, in the new Kazakh capital not far from the Russian border, and a few days ago in Almaty, an older and even bleaker city, I see the grim dilapidation of the banks of government housing, the aged infrastructure, and the sad victims of Soviet communism trudging the streets, and I remember.

Was it not John Kenneth Galbraith and like-minded progressive economists who told us as recently as 1985 that the Soviet economy was a robust competitor to the West? It was, and when a few months later Mikhail Gorbachev pronounced the Soviet economy a disaster, his remarks, you can be sure, made no dent in Mr. Galbraith's arrogance.

Were Professor Galbraith with me today, what would his retort be to the dozen or so bright, optimistic government officials rattling off their programs for using the market economy to extract from Kazakh territory the valuable minerals and oil their communist predecessors wasted or ignored? Today's government officials, mostly the products of Moscow's universities during what they call "Soviet times," all say that by the 1980s they recognized the futility of the communists' "command economy."

When in the early 1990s they had an opportunity to break with the Soviet Union, they did. They set off on the present program of economic development with free and global markets. They became the only nation ever to give up its nuclear arms. Western democracy became their model, and they opted for the American social system.

The American model of the melting pot that allows ethnic and religious pluralism is important to Kazakhstan. In "Soviet times," its vast unpopulated territory, covering 4 times as much land as Texas, was used by Moscow to dump millions of peoples the Soviets deemed undesirable. Along with the indigenous Kazakhs, there are Germans, Koreans, Poles, Crimean Tartars, Ukrainians and others. But the second-most populous of Kazakhstan's people are Russians.

Josef Stalin encouraged millions of idealistic Russian communists to come here after World War II to fortify the U.S.S.R.'s southern border against China and against Muslim fundamentalists who have lilved in Central Asia for 1,000 years.

In the 1960s, millions more Russians came as part of Moscow's Virgin Lands policy to make Kazakhstan more profitable.

The consequence was environmental catastrophe. Nuclear experiments that included Moscow's first hydrogen bomb and other military experiments have rendered many areas of the country health hazards. The agricultural and industrial programs of the Virgin Lands imbecility left 20 million tons of industrial waste polluting the countryside and the Aral Sea drying up. Denied its water from rivers that were diverted to irrigate futile cotton plantings, the seabed has become a scab on the Earth.

Cleaning up from "Soviet times," is a major burden on the government, made all the more difficult by Russia's refusal to explain the nature of its military experiments. So, too, is maintaining a socially cohesive society, though that challenge seems easier. Everywhere one looks, one sees a society divided, essentially into two ethnic groups; the Russians, who look like Western Europeans and compose 38 percent of the population, and the Kazakhs, who look Asiatic and compose 51 percent of the population. Yet there seems to be little friction between these populations. Both seem bound together in contempt for the old Soviet system and hope for their country's future.

The Russian zealots who came here as colonists after World War II, and in the Virgin Land program have now mostly returned to Russia, 2 million tired and aged idealists looking looking for retirement back home and graves in Russian soil another of communism's sad chapters.

The elected president of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, an erstwhile collaborator of Mr. Gorbachev's in perestroika, shares the hopes of other government officials. In interviewing him, I note he repeatedly speaks of his faith in free markets, democracy and a "strategic partnership" with the United States. Kazakhstan with its long borders beside Russia and China is strategically important to the West and has been since the 19th century when the British tangled with Russia politically in what history remembers as "the Great Game."

Equally important are the oil and other resources that Kazakhstan has in abundance and that American companies are developing. Some observers back in the States are critical of Mr. Nazarbayev's claims to democracy and perhaps even to friendship with the West. Their suspicions are understandable. Many in this government were trained by Moscow's totalitarians.

Yet from my observations, this developing country now has at least four highly competitive political parties, nearly 1,000 media organs mostly privately owned, the freedoms of our Bill of Rights, and commendable tolerance.

Moreover, Kazakhstan has something its critics in the West lack, the zeal of converts. In asking scores of Kazakhs how they came to their free-market and democratic values, the interviewer learns the Kazakhs were amazed by what they saw in the West as their closed society developed cracks in the 1980s. President Nazarbayev says he saw the Soviet system "could not compete" with the West economically. He and his younger political aides developed the convert's zeal to move their country to the model that was so manifestly superior to the Soviet model.

And, I ask my Kazakh hosts, how did those cracks develop in the closed society? They answer that the arms race launched by President Reagan bankrupted the Soviet Union. Meanwhile the Reagan administration's public information agencies got word of democracy and freedom through the cracks. Mr. Reagan's boasts about America being a "shining city on a hill" resonated with those who today are leading Kazakhstan to Western prosperity.

Yet Mr. Reagan's eloquence had its limits. It never impressed John Kenneth Galbraith.

R. Emmett Tyrrell is a editor in chief of the American Spectator.

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