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Kazak President Calls Time on Splashy Celebrations

Nursultan Nazarbaev is cracking down on lavish parties by civil servants, but Kazaks say it’s corruption he should be fighting, not how the money is spent.
By Daur Dosybiev
The Kazak president has publicly criticised government officials whose taste for lavish parties and celebrations far exceeds their salaries.

“We appoint a person to some position, and he celebrates with all his relatives in grand style,” said President Nursultan Nazarbaev at a meeting with regional governors in late April.

“Akims [governors] have become ubiquitous VIP partygoers, and [these] events have become a demonstration of their level of prosperity.”

Residents of the southern city of Shymkent who move in the right circles have come to expect to be entertained by Russian pop singers from Moscow and St Petersburg and to eat food flown in from far-off places like Portugal, as organisers try to outdo each other.

One Shymkent resident told IWPR of a wedding where 5,000 guests partied in a huge transparent tent erected out on the steppe. The culmination was when the top of the tent opened to allow the bride and groom to fly in by helicopter.

Such displays of excess have sparked a debate in Kazakstan about how such events are funded, the suspicion being the widespread dishonesty among civil servants. Nazarbaev noted that the sumptuous parties involve government workers supposedly living on modest salaries.

The governor of the South Kazakstan Oblast, Bolat Jylkyshiev, also expressed his concern, gathering his subordinates to ask how officials on 70,000 tenge (around 500 US dollars) a month could hold feasts for 1,000 people costing up to 20,000 dollars.

Though the president skirted the issue, some members of the Kazak business community say they have the answer: corruption.

The owner of a Shymkent travel agency told IWPR that he has been in the business for 10 years but until recently had been under constant pressure from state employees.

“Officials from various government agencies have attempted on many occasions to take away my business, when they saw how profitable it was. Twice I had recourse to the law to protect my rights,” he said.

The businessman added that the harassment only ceased last year when he met a high-ranking official whom he asked to become his business partner, “Immediately everything changed. I was left in peace.”

Such marriages of convenience are also initiated by unscrupulous officials. Particularly susceptible are civil servants whose position gives them access to public funding. Businessmen interviewed by IWPR suggest that public servants controlling the allocation of government contracts often take up to 20 per cent for themselves.

Further profiteering comes when officials use the money they have amassed to set up their own businesses, opening restaurants, casinos and other enterprises. On paper, these businesses belong to family members, but the bureaucrat is there in the background providing patronage and protection.

Among Shymkent residents, there were mixed opinions about Nazarbaev’s criticisms.

A secondary school teacher agreed that officials should conduct themselves more modestly, adding that it is not just about lavish weddings and other celebrations.

“Officials frequently buy their children expensive cars, and they then drive around the city at great speed and ignore the traffic laws,” said the teacher.

When asked whether Nazarbaev’s appeal will make state officials behave better, the teacher replied that it was unlikely, but that they would probably squander their money more discreetly, away from prying eyes.

Those who rely on the celebrations to make a living were less enthusiastic about the crackdown. Barmen, cooks, musicians and dancers can make a good living from these parties and will lose out if they are curtailed.

“I live in Tashkent, and I do well if I can work in Shymkent two or three times a month,” said oriental dancer Mahbuba. “I’ve worked at celebrations held by high-ranking officials. Now if they go into the shadows, my earnings will naturally fall.”

Vladimir, who puts on firework displays, is also at a loss, “We brought new fireworks from Moscow and were hoping this more diverse arsenal would broaden our client base. If officials don’t want our services, business will become much more difficult for us.”

However, most of the people interviewed for this article were in agreement that the lull in celebrations held by officials is unlikely to last long. And all were unanimous that it is the corruption of officials that should be combated, and not their methods of spending the money.

Former accountant Gennady Skvortsov, now a pensioner, is one of those who is sceptical that the presidential decree will have any real affect

“The president knows how much his subordinates earn and he can see how they live,” he said. “The head of state probably realises that in banning lavish celebrations, he won’t teach them not to steal. Now these people will go abroad to spend money which previously stayed inside the country.”

Daur Dosybiev is an IWPR contributor in Shymkent.

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