Conflict and Leadership
The Pandemic, Social Inequality and the ‘Nationalization’ of the Elite

Kazakhstan is a glaring example of social inequality and the nationalization of the elite in the context of the coronavirus pandemic. The irony is that the coronavirus is the infection of the upper middle class and the elite who travel to visit relatives in Berlin or spend holidays at Courchevel. Today our elite have come face to face with the results of its lack of support for Kazakhstan’s healthcare system. The quick declaration of quarantine in Nur-Sultan and Almaty could be evidence of the elites awareness of the shortcomings of Kazakhstan’s infectious disease specialists, the lack of lung ventilators and other equipment at local hospitals, and the inadequate standards for diagnosis. A Kazakhstani elite would hardly want to be treated by a recent medical graduate who had not studied Latin, skipped classes or had actually bought a diploma. Read more about this new challenge to post-Soviet elite in an analytical article by Marat Shibutov, member of the Almaty City Public Council.

As I was writing this, the first coronavirus death was confirmed in Kazakhstan. The only thing we know so far is that it was a woman who lived in Nur-Sultan. A short while before that, it was reported that two coronavirus patients had recovered. The coronavirus has not yet proliferated in Kazakhstan: as of April 1, there were only 402 cases. But the disease has already affected the country’s economic and social sectors.

Even though Kazakhstan borders China, it is not a popular tourist destination, and the coronavirus did not come to us from China. Actually, it was carried aboard business jets and commercial flights from Germany, France and Italy. The irony is that the coronavirus is the infection of the upper middle class and the elite who travel to visit relatives in Berlin or spend holidays at Courchevel. Of course, some people caught the infection in Turkey and one person got it in Russia, but the majority of cases are people who were in Europe. This is probably why the authorities are not disclosing their names.
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The public is still trying to deal with the shocking news that the first coronavirus cases include Tlektes Barpibayev, chairman of the Nur-Sultan City Court, and his family. They were infected in Germany, where Barpibayev remained in hospital while his family returned to Kazakhstan. Interestingly, they flew on multimillionaire Bakharidin Ablazimov’s Bombardier business jet. The rest sounds like a bad joke. The jets pilots said in an interview that bringing the judges family home was an important mission, otherwise the number of infected people would have soared to more than a hundred. You can imagine the effect this story had on people. Another family that brought the infection to Almaty had chartered a private jet from Courchevel. 

This brings us to an interesting social dilemma. The fact is that Kazakhstan was built as a country for the rich and super-rich. This is evidenced in the lack of a progressive income tax rate, inheritance tax, dividend and shareholder tax (after owning shares for three years) and other privileges. In other words, the country’s richest people pay lower taxes relative to their income than the middle class. In fact, they enjoy tax code benefits on a par with the poorest tax brackets. We wont detail how they made their fortunes, but almost every one of them filled their pockets in the process of post-Soviet privatization of national wealth.

The Kazakhstani elite would typically have three properties: one in Nur-Sultan, another in Almaty and a third in Europe. This fad may have changed from London to the French Riviera to Switzerland, but the majority of our well-heeled and influential citizens had a safe haven abroad. It goes without saying that medical services at a good European clinic were part of their European lives. Our rich either went to European health resorts regularly several times a year or, if they fell ill, flew there on a private jet to receive treatment in the best conditions money can buy.

It might appear to be the ideal arrangement, but there are two drawbacks: geography and biology. Geographically, the flight from Kazakhstan to Europe takes at least six hours, plus additional time at the airports at both ends. The second problem is that some patients might not survive such a long flight and must receive emergency medical assistance at home. Of course, our elite try to avoid such situations, but trouble comes without invitation. Some members of the elite were taken to our hospitals in serious condition and then died. And now we have the coronavirus. Kazakhstan was spared the ravaging effects of atypical pneumonia and other medical risks so our people have forgotten that this can be a dangerous world.

In Soviet times, Kazakhstan, historically a region of plague, anthrax, rabbit fever, malaria and a host of other dangerous infections, was safeguarded by the strong Soviet sanitary and epidemiological service, which not only declared quarantines but also conducted research. There were two related laboratories and a biowarfare testing site.

After the Soviet Union collapsed, the testing site on Vozrozhdeniya Island was shut down, the labs were converted under the Nunn-Lugar program, and the famous Soviet Anti-Plague Research Institute (renamed Aikimbayev Kazakh Scientific Center of Quarantine and Zoonotic Diseases) existed in misery for years. It is very difficult to get funding when a plague or the Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever claims only two or three lives in outlying regions. The Pentagon was the only organization to take note of the plight of Kazakh epidemiologists and virologists. It financed the construction of a modern reference laboratory at the institute, which is now providing confirmatory testing for COVID-19.

As a result of the above, we have no capacity to create a vaccine or a testing kit; we have not created a drug and there are only 44 intensive care beds with lung ventilators in the capital. It is also clear that Switzerland, Germany or any other country with developed healthcare services will not accept our coronavirus patients. In short, our elite have come face to face with the results of their inadequate support for Kazakhstans healthcare system. 

The quick declaration of quarantine in Nur-Sultan and Almaty could be proof of the elites awareness of the shortcomings in training Kazakhstans infectious disease specialists, the lack of ventilators and other equipment at local hospitals, and the inadequate standards for diagnosis. The Kazakh elite would hardly want to be treated by a recent medical graduate who had not studied Latin (this is part of our recent history), skipped classes or actually bought a diploma.

No wonder the average person is gloating about the situation. In a way, the elite and the people have reunited, and the people are happy about that. They think that now our infectious disease hospitals will receive the necessary funding, because even the children’s infectious disease hospital in Almaty looks like something from a horror movie, and provincial clinics look even worse.

However, a period of gloating in social media can soon be replaced by a period of social discontent, because those who are staying at home now  nearly 3 million people  are rural residents who have lost their jobs in the quarantined cities and will soon have big financial problems.

Who will they blame for their plight? They will blame those that brought the virus from Europe. We could have a mix of plague revolt and a minor revolution.
Back in the 18th and 19th centuries, the peasants believed the doctors infected people with the plague. Now our people say the rich have infected the country with the coronavirus, depriving hundreds of thousands of people of their jobs and incomes. This explanation of class hatred is credible, does not need additional proof, and there is no answer to it.

The Kazakh elite are not yet aware of these consequences, even though they might seem obvious. They are donating to a charity fund and providing other assistance, but the trouble is that charity is an instrument that can be used only once to help the most vulnerable parts of society whereas the number of those affected by the virus, in one way or another, is much larger. Nobody will be talking about plummeting oil prices anytime soon, but everybody will remember who closed our markets, shops and cinemas and ordered roadblocks. 

This big problem calls for a big solution by Kazakhstans ruling class. Otherwise the people will decide that they are living in a neo-colony, guarded by the local elite who invest their money in the industrialized countries and leave their own people without any opportunity for development. Sooner or later, such feelings could lead to action, when the people will not stop to distinguish between those who brought the coronavirus from Europe and those who did not.

I would add that this situation is typical of all post-Soviet countries, especially Russia. The majority of infected people there were in Europe, predominantly Italy and Austria. But alienation of the elite from society is the same there. People in Russia are sharing shocking news about the elite buying personal lung ventilators while medical staff in rural hospitals are buying disposable masks at their own expense. Unlike Kazakhstan, the social divide in Russia has a clear regional dimension: it is mostly the residents of the megacities like Moscow and St. Petersburg, who travel to Europe and expose others to the risk of infection. 

Finally, I would like to remind readers that the post-Soviet elite have no experience in fighting a large-scale infection like this, in declaring quarantines on cities or towns or in sealing the borders. Even hostilities and economic crises have not affected so many people before. This is a huge challenge. Either the elite rise to it, or the accumulated public discontent will provoke the people into demanding the creation of a new elite, which could take the most radical forms of action.
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