Kazakhstan: Early 1990s – The Times They Were A’Changin

International Business Chamber of Kazakhstan

Or, Material Changes May Be Slow to Produce Corresponding Changes in Underlying Beliefs and Attitudes

Hats off to Roger Holland, Russ Ragsdale, Silvio Ippoliti and the others who had the foresight to give life to The International Business Chamber of Commerce of Kazakhstan which actually was founded in 1993.  It is true that that group didn’t have a long life but, once it started to become a robust organization, it spurred the establishment of The American Chamber of Commerce in Kazakhstan, otherwise known as AmCham (kick started by the American Embassy) and the European Business Association of Kazakhstan (EUROBAK), both of which were set up in 1999.

During the 1990s, business life in Kazakhstan underwent birth throes by which local business people and workers were nudged into new attitudes and ways of performance in the workplace. Open market business practices did not automatically emerge simply because the command economy had been dumped.  Foreign investors played a significant role in bringing about the needed changes.

Reprinted below is an article on this topic by Russ Ragsdale which I have taken from the first newsletter of the International Business Chamber of Kazakhstan which was published in February 1997.  Russ came from Phoenix, Arizona (an early Twinned City of Almaty) and was well known as a chef/restauranteur, a teacher and later a poet.  (The spellings are his, including the Kazakstan without an ‘h’, as was the practice in the early days of independence.)


I was sitting on a bus relaxing because I didn’t have to hurry to get to my friend’s apartment.  I watched the other people who were with me on the bus.  I suppose watching other people is my most pleasant amateur pursuit in life.  In the four plus years I have been here that is the area of life which has changed the least.  However, the buses now are beginning to be decorated inside and out with advertising.  Western society artifacts are everywhere, from the pictures in the bus driver’s area of the car he’d like to own, to the Pepsi, Coke and cigarette stickers stuck on the windows, to the restaurant, furniture and ‘ads’ for other products painted on the outside.

Four plus years ago we were breathlessly waiting for the first street car to go on the streets with a bright, new yellow paint job and the Camel logo in English written on the sides to replace the old, dirty, oxidised , drab olive colored street cars.  Now it is common to see similar promotions, not only on buses and the like, but also on billboards, T.V., walls, pamphlets and many other places.

Shops like Paris Couture, the Colours of Beneton and Gappo to mention but a few, were only a dream of what would be in the future.  In stark contrast to now were the days of waiting in line for an hour and a half to purchase 400 grams of butter.  When you compare that to the doors of the Accept Shop which are activated by an electronic sensor mechanism, it amounts to, at least, a huge change in style. We tend to assume that a change in style is a shift in philosophy.  But I’m afraid it is still mainly an architectural similarity.  People here can build and decorate, like pictures and places they have seen, but you sometimes find it difficult to find a philosophical similarity to match the picture.  The underlying beliefs of the people, like the way they look on buses, is still basically the same.  Changes of that nature will take a much longer time than is required to construct a building.

I tell none of you anything new when I say that to be only half way to the future is sometimes rather like having made a pointless trip.  The work of putting in a modern workplace seems frustratingly meaningless when the work to be done there is performed in an antiquated and unproductive manner.  I assume that each of your job sites not only represents a technological improvement, but a philosophical training round for your employees as well.  For Kazakstan to gain the greatest benefit from our having worked so hard here, the local hires must experience a philosophical shift that would make their communication with their co-workers in other parts of the world productive communication of relative co-equals.  Work forces must increasingly shift from expensive expatriate staff to local hires who can be trained to be expected to produce comparable results.

When that becomes true, the work of our companies in this country will be great in a sense which transcends purely economic considerations.

Russ Ragsdale


Book Sales:  I am still helping with the marketing of my book, West Meets East in Kazakhstan.   It’s about life in and around Almaty in the 1990s from the perspective of an American expatriate.  You will enjoy it!  The book is available online in softcover or e-book format from AuthorHouse (the publisher), or Amazon or Barnes & Noble.


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