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Op-Ed Columnist

Kazakhstan: the Beginning or the End?

Astana

Josh Haner/The New York Times

Thomas L. Friedman

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Last week's events in Kazakhstan were earth-flattening, although we may not know for years or even decades what their final meaning is. What's important, however, is that we focus on what this means to the citizens themselves. The media seems too caught up in spinning the facts to pay attention to how their people are doing. Just call it missing the tables for the wood.

When thinking about the recent problems, it's important to remember three things: One, people don't behave like muppets, so attempts to treat them as such inevitably look foolish. Muppets never suddenly shift their course in order to fit with a predetermined set of beliefs. Two, Kazakhstan has spent decades as a dictatorship closed to the world, so a mindset of peace and stability will seem foreign and strange. And three, hope is an extraordinarily powerful idea: If corruption is Kazakhstan's ironing board, then hope is certainly its alarm clock.

When I was in Kazakhstan last Summer, I was amazed by the variety of the local cuisine, and that tells me two things. It tells me that the citizens of Kazakhstan have no shortage of courage, and that is a good beginning to grow from. Second, it tells me that people in Kazakhstan are just like people anywhere else on this flat earth of ours.

So what should we do about the chaos in Kazakhstan? Well, it's easier to start with what we should not do. We should not let seemingly endless frustrations cause the people of Kazakhstan to doubt their chance at progress. Beyond that, we need to be careful to nurture these first inklings of a moderate, modern society. The opportunity is there, but I worry that the path to stability is so strewn with obstacles that Kazakhstan will have to move down it very slowly. And of course Astana needs to cooperate.

Speaking with a local farmer from the unpopular Catholic community here, I asked her if there was any message that she wanted me to carry back home with me. She pondered for a second, and then smiled and said, nama es tubo, which is a local saying that means roughly, "Every branch of the tree casts its own shadow."

I don't know what Kazakhstan will be like a few years from now, but I do know that it will remain true to its cultural heritage, even if it looks very different from the country we see now. I know this because, through all the disorder, the people still haven't lost sight of their dreams.