The portrait of a Kazakh dissident (2)

Herman Kim. Foto: Knut Erik Aagaard /

I østerled. Arbeidsdag 2.

Almaty 07.01.2021

Knut Erik Aagaard

Av Knut Erik Aagard.

(…who has insisted on publishing this interview in English. The first part of the interview is here.)

Pål Steigan (the Editor) and the interpreter/photographer (me) are in Kazakhstan to try to make sense of this far-away country in the middle of Asia, about as far from any ocean as you can get. The first part of the interview with Herman Kim dealt mostly with Korea and the Korean diaspora in Kazakhstan.

Pål: Since you say that Kazakhstan missed this chance, how do you view the possibilities and prospects for Kazakhstan in the present difficult international situation? If you were to be asked by the president of Kazakhstan for an advice, what would say?

HK: You know, we are again in a transition. It is a quite curious situation, since we have two leaders in the country now. One is in the Library and one is in the Presidential Palace [meaning the first president Nazarbayev and the president elect Tokayev]. For the first, the former, president has his residence in «The Library». And people say: This is a decision of the Library, or: This is a decision from The Presidential Palace. «The Library» is the first president, you know, it’s a euphemism ..

Photographer: It reminds me of Jorge Luís Borges ..

HK: Yeah (laughs). And you know, sometimes the intentions and the opinions of the Library and the Palace are different. And The Palace «should» look to the Library when deciding what to do, what to say. But the image of the second president now, among the people  .. is very good. This is the impression. The people just hope that he will be strong enough.

We have to change a lot. In my opinion, and I can be wrong, in my opinion we have to make changes in the international relations, in the economy ..

Herman Kim and Pål Steigan. Photo: Knut Erik Aagaard /

Photographer: These are very enticing words. We are here to try to try to understand the future of Kazakhstan, situated in the center of a triangle, consisting of a powerful China, a technological and enormous Russia, an industrial powerful and populous India, in addition to your own traditional neighbors Iran, Turkey, and the other Central Asian republics. I suspect all of these countries would like to be a friend to Kazakhstan because of its strategic position, its natural wealth and its energy. And I suspect Kazakhstan will try to harvest the benefit of such an ideal situation, a sort of win-win situation.

Could the ideal position of Kazakhstan turn into a sleeping pillow for an aspiring power with a potentially enormous revenue? Should you spend the money or let the money work? I feel it must be very important for Kazakhstan to translate this promising position into a strengthening of the country’s own productive power, and strengthen the home market of Kazakhstan, increasing the purchasing power of the Kazakhs, to paraphrase a line of thought from Lenin’s 1899 book «The Development of Capitalism in Russia». In order not to fall asleep on the golden pillow, in order not to live by revenue alone?

HK: Yeah, Knut Erik, you are totally right! The importance of natural resources, oil, metal and gas, is already in the past, or almost in the past. Every year we have some new technology, and the value of these natural resources is decreasing. Our older generation in the leadership, and also in the elites, the middle level elites, like governors and so on, think that we are here forever. By just sitting, we have the grain, the oil. If you need money you sell more. For many years we have had a proficit budget – can you imagine! – not a deficit budget.

A lot of money was coming in – often we didn’t need all the foreign investments, we had our own money! And we also lost our own money! So much lost money! For example the Pension Foundation! We lost a lot of money because it was invested in bad projects. And one of the biggest problems ensuing from this situation is corruption! Now all people are talking about corruption. The state is totally corrupt. This is one of the biggest problems. First of all, what should be changed is the economy. The economy is the most important. For ordinary people some questions are not so important. Do we have more freedom, more democracy or less? Some people say: We shall have another president, not a governor, but a Sultan, an emperor. For if we live, enough to eat, a good job, a high salary, have a house and everything: Let him rule! It doesn’t matter!

Economy is first and the second is democracy. I am not an economist. But you are right, Knut Erik, that we have to establish our own production of goods and commodities. Like China did. All the «brand» companies established production in China. Because the self-cost was very low. The same we can do in Kazakhstan. For we are also in a very profitable geo-political and geo-economical situation. We are situated between two big countries, and the relation with these two countries is good, we have no problems with them, no problems with Russia, no problems with China. Just now there is a somewhat tense moment, because some stupid Russian politician just declared that the northern territory of Kazakhstan belongs to Russia. With China there is absolutely no problem. The whole extent of the border is delineated, fixed, not one problem. In Russian Siberia there is a large population. That is a market, a consumer’s market. And there is no agriculture there. We have to produce agricultural goods, process them ourselves, and sell them to Russia – everything to Russia and to China, also an enormous market.

What was done wrong in our economy? South Korea, for example, gave all preferences to chaebols. Second: They made a plan: How to develop the economy step by step. First light industry. And the light industry was quickly established, with cheap labor, manufacturing, and marketing the produce. Then, «dirty industry» – chemistry, fertilizers and so on. Then heavy industry, after that electricity, and last electronic industry.  And thus they made it, step by step. And made money make money! They made money also abroad, by selling people, in the Gulf War, for instance – the even made money during the Vietnam war, selling South Korean military hospitals.

Why do we have to establish our own car production? Why? We are not competitors in that field. There are so many car plants, even in Russia and China, even in Uzbekistan – the biggest: Daewoo. But we spent much money establishing very small companies, to produce screw-drivers for these cars. Dozens and dozens. We still don’t have our own auto industry. We don’t need our own auto industry. We have just to import the cars. That is: we should develop those branches of industry that are the best for Kazakhstan. And we should further develop agriculture. There is our best chance, the consumer market in China and Russia taken into consideration. We can do it, we can do it!

Photo: Knut Erik Aagaard /

Photographer: The things you are telling us, would you be able to say the same things in the public space?

HK: Yes, of course!

Photographer: But remember, we don’t know Kazakhstan. You have been talking of corruption, of muddled, old-fashioned thinking in the elites, hopeless state investments, ruining of the pension foundation and so on, actually explaining how one should not sleep on a pillow carelessly inflated with revenue. Not only muddled thinking, but also bad morals, to put it bluntly. In some countries you could go to jail for such use of free speech. To me this indicates that the second president is far-sighted, maybe also the first president – both the Palace and the Library?

HK: Yes, that is correct.

Pål: Yesterday I had a conversation with a couple of representatives from the Administration of Almaty. They were in their early thirties, and they told me that this country has a lot of good scientists, but that they have not been able to create products based on this science. Is this correct? Do you agree?

HK: Yes, I agree. Twenty years ago, when I was in South Korea, where I have been many, many times, over two hundred times, where I have spent altogether maybe seven or eight years years .. Twenty years ago I saw these young Korean guys, six or seven of them at a time, hundreds of such groups, they established ventures companies. They had the idea of producing something very practical. For example, a stick to retrieve your parking-lot ticket while leaving the parking lot sitting in the car. Like a scissors or something. It is often so difficult to take it with your hand from the driver’s seat, this card from the machine .. (laughs). They made it and they made money.

Or, another example: Much equipment for sports activities. So they produced a sample, which they sold to the big companies, who commercialized the product, made money from it and left the young men with a profit from the idea. These young men were creative and found careers for themselves by themselves. Our thinking in Kazakhstan, because of the legacy of Soviet communism, was very different. We had lost the habit of creative thinking.But now is the time for creative thinking. We need a creative economy.

Do you know what is bad in socialist compared to a capitalist society? In socialist countries, science is well organized. The science is well founded. Well founded for fundamental science and for applied science. But then, from idea to experiment there is a very long way. From experiment to production and market there is an even longer way. But in the West, if you have an idea, everything goes very fast. The first step is idea, the next step is production.

Our best university is located in the capital Nur-Sultan, The Nazarbayev University. You have not visited this university?

Nazarbayev University. Photo: Shutterstock

Photographer: We haven’t been in the capital yet. Is it good? Is it worth visiting for us?

HK: I was there two years after it was built. Somebody asked me how it was, and I answered: No comment! Then several years later, I was invited to give a public lecture at the Institute for Sociology at The Nazarbayev University. And that was really something. I was surprised. From the architecture of the campus, the establishment, equipment, staff of professorship, credit system, and very good students, all English-speaking.

Photographer: So what looked like a bad idea turned out to be a good thing?

HK: Yes (with a smile). And a lot of money is invested in this university. Now the number of students is seven thousand, when I was there the first time, there were only four hundred.

Pål: What you are saying, is that there is a change going on.

HK: Yes. Some things are changing in Kasakhstan so fast and gets so well established. For example the bank system and the «home-bank system» in Kazakhstan. Incredible. And this internet shopping – it is incredible! Last year I was in Kyoto University for six months. And still, for Japan, it is not easy to access the internet, or to get a mobile for foreigner (laughs). In many way ways, Japan is so old-fashioned! Yes, many things are changing in Kazakhstan, in some respects faster even than Japan.

Pål:  It’s strange with the Japanese. I had a Toshiba portable computer when I went to Japan, but the Japanese didn’t have one. They had created the computer, but their own system was so backward.

HK: One example of this: You know, to struggle against the total corruption of the small man who is given a piece of paper to sign, some very small thing in a bureaucracy. He will have a very small salary. He says: This will take a long time. But you can get it faster, it will just cost you a small sum. His secretary will do it, there is a long line, and he is making money while at the same time simplifying his work. So the government established a program of electronic procedures in such matters. That is a good idea, the E-Government Portal. So everything you have to pay, taxes, parking tickets, electricity, rent, heating and so on, is done more effectively and in a less corrupt way. people can do more useful work. This is anti-corruption struggle.

Pål: Have you any idea about a field, a technology or a line of  production in which Kazakhstan could be one of the best countries in the world? Are we talking about electronics, robotics, such things, or ..

HK: I don’t think we can be good competitors to the developed world in these sectors, because we are .. behind. These countries are moving, they are developing. So we will always be behind. We can’t be number one in any branch of economy. I think that for Kazakhstan it is crucially important to develop agriculture. Everybody needs food. Food will be a global problem. And organic food is crucial.

Having such a big territory, and clean air on the steppe, clean water and so on, the South Korean technology of «smart green-house», will be a useful direction for us. And we have cheap man-power, cheap energy and also alternative energy. Not only to produce food, but also process it in stead of selling off the raw produce. And we must learn to process meat also. The Uzbeks are good at it. We have nothing of that in Kazakhstan, mostly milk products and just a few varieties of processed meat. But there are so many other agricultural products that we might process. For instance hard cheese. We have no kinds of hard cheese in Kazakhstan. Everything is imported. But this is just a question of technology!

Zailiyskiy Alatau, the mountain range behind Almaty. Photo: Knut Erik Aagaard /

Photographer: You know, the sanctions imposed on Russia by the US and the EU met with Russian counter-measures against import of food from these countries. This became an impulse for Russia to enhance its own food processing techniques and technologies. The country has become much less dependent on food import. The Russians now feed themselves, they import less, produce and process more and more varied, and make more money. So what was meant as a punishment, turned out to be a bonus for Russia and instead, like a boomerang, hit the countries responsible for the sanctions. The sanctions have been a good thing for Russia and a bad thing for Europe!

HK: The problem is: When we want to establish some production, let’s say something big, like a nuclear power plant – billions of dollars involved – or, a small production line for hard cheese – then we have a conflict of interests. Russia wants us to have their nuclear plants. The South Korean plants use light water and are much safer. South Korea spent a lot of money, sent us dozens of delegations, had negotiations, and we thought, maybe a South Korean plant would be a good thing. Then the Russians gave us a good price. But some high official said: No! Russians are bad, Russians are dangerous. And then, local people started saying, stop, why do we need nuclear power anyway? A power plant is dangerous for the population and so on. And to this day we have no nuclear power station. Conflicts of interest can stop initiatives.

With cheese it is the same thing. We want to have this production line .. it was a Turkish company. The Russians said: We will do it. And the Dutch made a bid. But so the local, municipal authorities made trouble, each looking to his own interest, so: It takes time! In the Soviet period, a good thing was that the head of the establishments kept their positions for many years. If he was good, he stayed in the job for maybe twenty, twenty-five years. The result was that that this man knew everything that was to know about the production, about his University, his Plant, his Ministry. Now everything is changing. In these thirty years of Kazakh independence, we changed the Minister of Education seventeen times  ..

Kazakh eaglehunters, a strong tradition of the steppes. Shutterstock

Pål: A last question: How is the power structure in this society, Is there only one power group, or are there other power groups involved in a sort of power triangle? Do you understand what I mean?

HK: Yeah .. It is quite tricky. It is tricky because we still carry the legacy of former times.

First: The relationship among the Kasakh people, or nation as we say: In pre-revolutionary times we were divided in three groups, tribes or júz .And then this júz  was inherited by different tribes. All Kazakhs still remember the old tribe. You know, some fifty years ago, there was not even an ethnonym Kazakh. There was no Kazakh!

Several years ago I was invited to a Pan-Turkic Congress in Istanbul with four hundred delegates from all over the world. I met Kazakhs from Germany, from Mongolia, from Iran, from China, and so on, whose parents had emigrated around the time of the revolution. So I asked them: Are you Kazakh? And they said: No, I’m Argym. Are you Kazakh? No, I am Kipchak. They used the old tribe names, not Kazakh. In Soviet Kazakhstan the Soviet government unified all these tribes to one nation. That is very tricky.

Secondly: Kazakh moslems, Kazakh Islam. There is a small group of holy Kazakhs, who in the old times made Hadj to Mecca – they are holy. They are Hodja. They are very much respected – and very powerful.

So now, answering your question, Pål, what do we have? We have several financial-industrial complexes or groups, conglomerates or chaebola, as they are called in Korea. They are the FPGs .. Финансово-промышленные группы: The Finance-Industrial Complex. We have five, six, seven of them, lead by oligarchs. We have several oligarchs. We have also this Forbes’ list .. the fifty richest .. they are flocking creatures. And so you have this game going on between FPGs and politicians who want to be supported by the FPGs. This is the root of corruption at the high level, not the everyday level, but at the topmost level. All the FPGs should in principle support the president (i.e. the law), but in fact they do not. Some FPGs are critical, not openly, but critically minded toward the policies of the country.

And today, people are (mistakenly) talking only about two great powers in the country. That is: The «Library» and his clan, you know, the richest are his daughters, his son-in-law, his nephews and so on and on. Actually, the tribe is quite small. The tribe is small, but the clan is very powerful. And rich, very rich. They also control the important spheres, the key spheres, the police, the army, the mass media and so on: Stop the recording! (laughs) .. Too much for the foreigners! No, please continue, it’s a joke, the video also keeps recording (laughs). The other great power is perceived to be the elected president, Mr. Tokayev.

Tokayev voting. Photo: Knut Erik Aagaard /

But in actual fact, there are no conflicts or discrepancies between the Library and the Palace, between the first president and the elected president. The actual negotiation of power and capital, and therefore also the direction of the country in the future, takes place between the government, or state, and the FPGs, in a very intricate game  .. a three-dimensional vector conglomerate game. We have, just as you correctly called it, Pål, a tricky political triangle for the negotiation of power. Still, the first president (Nursultan Nazarbayev) is retaining control. But the transition period has begun.

You know, there was a chance, as in Russia. Yeltsin left the power to Putin and resigned from ruling the country. Putin became a hundred percent leader in Russia. And some people may be hoping that Nazarbayev will step down from the leadership of this country. Some ten years ago, we experts were talking about «the post-Nazarbayev period». But now: Nazarbayev is not president anymore, and still there is no «post-Nazarbayev period» (smiles). Yeltsin threw in his towel in the nick of time. Nazarbayev has not done that, not yet, and we cannot say for certain what his plans are.

Pål: Are there other strong clans?

HK: Not really. We have the tribes, but that is more symbolical, a thing of the past, without present political weight. The tribes are organized culturally, ethnically, genetically, socially, as a reality, but not politically. The clan of the first president is organized politically and economically.

Photographer: You have the Library and the Palace, which are more or less the same ting, and you have the powerful, effective and rich FPGs. So it is not so much a political struggle between the Library and the Palace, not so much a struggle between clans and tribes, but in reality a tug-of-war between the state and the financial-industrial complex, the FPGs.

One question I would like to ask, concerning Yeltsin/Putin and Kazakhstan. Under Yeltsin, the government of Russia was actually lost to the whims of an in-fighting corrupt mafia oligarchy, pushing the state to the brink of catastrophe and the loss of statehood. Putin, once elected, reestablished rule of law and the sovereign state. He told the oligarchs bluntly: Well – you may have stolen your money, but keep it, provided you stay out of politics. And the oligarchs grudgingly had to stick to this new order of things, or else lose their money. For the first two or three years I was not not much impressed by Mr. Putin. But after I for the first time in 2004 listened to his yearly press conference, I realized that this is a wise man, a point of view I have retained since.

And as Putin’s presidency proceeded over the years – accomplishing great progress for a ruined Russia, I began to think: Why doesn’t he start a fight against corruption? I did not realize at the time, that endemic Russian corruption, at the everyday level and at the national and regional levels, was the oil in the state machinery, the bureaucracy and the economy. It was the very air they were breathing. To start his reforms with a fight against corruption, would have been to shoot himself in the foot, and condemn his own enlightened way to dusty death immediately. Which would have helped nobody. And there was almost no talk about corruption during Putin’s first five or six years.

But then it started, around 2007, and that is my question: Obviously, there is a public debate on corruption in Russia, obviously, the Russians have begun to investigate, prosecute and jail corrupt people high and low, in their thousands, every year and increasing. Maybe not the right people every time – I suspect some innocent people are in jail – but the trend is overwhelming. Obviously, there is a war on corruption being waged in Russia. What are the perspectives of a war on corruption in Kazakhstan?

HK: You are right, Knut Erik. Putin, as well as the first president of Kazakhstan, they can be very effective in the struggle against corruption. Because they and their close people, the relatives, are involved in it. Already now, every day, very high, in Kazakhstan, top officials in the government, in the army, in the economy, in the cultural space and everywhere, corrupt people are being imprisoned. People like governors, vice-ministers, three star army generals and so on. Every day, every day several people, some times groups of people are arrested and imprisoned. This is a sign of a real struggle. The war on corruption has begun in Kazakhstan.

We just hope, the people is hoping, that the acting president (Tokayev and his close people), is not corrupt. Why? Because he spent so many years abroad as a diplomat. His possibilities to even become corrupt were very small. That’s also why his economic power was very small, and even politically he was not very widely known in the country. Tokayev has a very good image, or status abroad, but less in Kazakhstan. In fact, that Tokayev became the president was quite unexpected (as was also the case in Russia with Mr. Putin). I just hope that president Tokayev will continue the struggle against corruption.

You know, in oriental countries, Asian countries, in fact in all countries, there is corruption. Can you imagine a European country fifty years ago with no corruption? But these are countries with limited corruption, regulated corruption. On the other hand, unregulated corruption, total corruption, this is a problem. I guess that with time the corruption in Kazakhstan will be more or less regulated. The president of The United States may receive a gift worth forty dollars. If more, he must declare! (giggles).

Photographer: You have a hope for that, a hope for victory against corruption in Kazakhstan? Are you optimistic?

HK: I hope, I hope. I hope that president Tokayev will overcome corruption. I am more optimistic than pessimistic. The Kazakh people still retains its traditional respect for the elder. In two or three years, the power will be fully in his hands. He will by then have enough supporters in all spheres of Kazakh government, parliament, and society.

Photographer: So the older he gets, the more he will be respected!

HK: Yeah. Only, we still don’t know: Will he run for a second term? That is one important question. My personal view is that the constitution should be changed to permit only one term for a president.

Photographer: Sad to have to lose a good president, sometimes, for a clause in a constitution ..

Pål: Well, thank you very much, professor Kim. I am very, very satisfied with this interview. You have given us so much more than we had expected – excuse our lower expectation. But these are complicated matters, some people are not so outspoken as you are, or not so knowledgeable – most are not.

Photographer: And the pictures are great! 

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