Nazarbayev Greatest President In Region

In Western popular culture, and to be honest most of the rest of the world, Kazakhstan is most commonly associated with Borat and his putative homeland of slapstick provincial troglodytes. And following Nursultan Nazarbayev’s 98% win in the recent elections, and his reaction to it

I apologize if these numbers are unacceptable for the super democratic countries but there was nothing I could do.

… the casual observer might feel that it has some elements of truth to it. He would be wrong, and in reality, Nazarbayev has nothing to apologize for.

To be sure, the recent Kazakh elections were neither free and fair, and his 98% win was completely made up – no concrete voter numbers were given, just the percentages of turnout per hour by region, which fluctuated in statistically impossible ways. But there’s no question that Nazarbayev would have won regardless. Western opinion pollsters have consistently established his approval ratings at around 80%-90% of the population, which is not that surprising considering the immense progress the country has seen under his stewardship.

It is not at all obvious that it should have been this way in 1992. On the plus side, it had ample oil reserves, though as yet little production. But it was also landlocked, afflicted with the structural economic distortions common to the whole ex-Soviet space, and most worryingly, riven by pent up ethnic divisions and historical resentments. There was no particular good reason why Kazakhstan should not have pursued a politics of vendetta against Russian speakers and its Russian legacy; all the prerequisites for it were there.

Though Cossack penetration dates back centuries, much of what is now northern Kazakhstan had only been settled by Russians (and Ukrainians) from the 1880-90s, when the area was first opened to mass cultivation; this demographic shift was given a further impetus under the Soviet industrialization campaign, which saw the appearance of major new cities like Karaganda on the steppes. A traditionally nomadic people, the forced settling of the Kazakhs into the new cities and farms in the early 1930s might have destroyed as much as a quarter of their population. As with Ukraine, however, it was only during the Soviet period that the Kazakhs truly came into their own as a modern nation, to the extent that there was mass rioting on the part of Kazakh nationalists when Gorbachev appointed an ethnic Russian to head Kazakhstan for the first and last time from 1986 to 1989. What if one of those “activists” had come to power in 1992?

Well, assume that the Russian military would not have set up military surplus stores near the Kazakh borders, and ended up annexing northern Kazakhstan and reducing it to a rump state around Almaty. At a minimum, even more Russians would have emigrated from Kazakhstan in the 1990s, whose population dropped from a peak of 6.3 million in 1989 to 3.8 million by the time of the 2009 Census. At first glance, this might appear to be a good thing, at least from the Kazakh nationalist perspective. The problem is that they would have also lost most of the people staffing critical technical positions in industry; according to a joint study by Richard Lynn and Andrey Grigoriev, the mean ethnic Kazakh IQ is around 82, which would make the Eastern Slavs there a kind of cognitive elite.

The Russians have a mean British IQ of 103.2 and comprise 23.6% of the population; the Kazakhs have a mean British IQ of 82.2 and comprise 63.1% of the population; the Uzbeks have a mean British IQ of 86.0 and comprise 2.8% of the population. Weighting the IQs of these three groups by their percentages of the population gives an IQ of 87.9 for Kazakhstan. These three groups comprise 89.5% of the population. The remaining 10.5% consists of Chuvash, Tartars, Uyghurs and other south Asian peoples. Early studies of intelligence in the former Soviet Union found that these peoples had lower IQs than ethnic Russians (Grigoriev & Lynn, 2009). Their IQ is likely about the same as that of Kazakhs (82.2). On this assumption, adding this fourth group and weighting the IQs of the four groups by their percentages of the population gives an IQ of 87.3 for Kazakhstan.

Without them, their GDP per capita (PPP adjusted in 2011 US dollars) would have likely been closer to that of Uzbekistan ($5,000 and 5% Russian population share) or Tajikistan ($2,500 and 1% Russian population share) than to their current $22,000, which is similar to that of Russia, Poland, and the Baltic states.


Above is a graph of GDP per capita (PPP adjusted in 2011 US dollars) in some of the biggest and most representative former Soviet states. Since independence, Kazakhstan has virtually converged with Russia – a not unimpressive achievement, taking into account the population cognitive gap which if anything widened with the large-scale emigration of Russians, Ukrainians, and Germans – and has even overtaken Latvia, one of those Baltic “star reformers” which joined the EU and NATO and gets good scores all the usual democracy and economic freedom NGOs. It has also left Ukraine in the dust, it being evident that hard work and good management are for some reason better for economic growth than quacking about European values and having color revolutions every decade.


And here is another graph, showing Kazakhstan’s performance relative to its position in 1990. Barring Belarus, yet another unlikely success story, it has performed better than both Latvia and Russia, and incomparably better than Ukraine. No wonder that Nazarbayev has 90% approval ratings!

What is the secret of his, and Kazakhstan’s, undeniable success?

In short, it is pragmatism over ideology. The narrow-minded nationalist would have demanded Russians learn Kazakh or go home. Nazabayev made Kazakh the official language, but at the same time denoted Russian as “the language of interethnic communication,” a status not unlike that of English in Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore. Incidentally, and unsurprisingly, Nazarbayev is a big fan of LKY, naming him as one two “eminent founding statesmen” (the other is Charles de Gaulle), and his policies reflect these beliefs: Low level economic liberalism, high level state industrial policy and financial management (the oil windfall has not been squandered, but stored up in an investment fund), and a commitment to intelligent authoritarian leadership that does not however overspill into the tyrannical brutality that you see in neighboring Uzbekistan or Turkmenistan.

The middle class will not emerge without a sustainable economy which cannot exist without a sufficiently strong and wise leadership capable of getting the country out of free-fall.

Unlike LKY’s Singapore, corruption is pretty high; then again, pretty much no strongman apart from LKY ever managed to solve this. Even so, corruption in Kazakhstan is managed and contained – i.e., it is a “known quantity” – so it does not really scare away businessmen and foreign investors. Revolutions bring with them redivisions of the spoils, so elites are very hesitant to commit to long-term development projects in unstable countries like Ukraine or Kyrgyzstan; instead, their incentives are to maximize extraction in the here and now, before new people take their places at the trough. In stable authoritarian polities like Kazakhstan or Belarus, the people in power have more of an incentive to promote development because they have a reasonable degree of confidence that they will still have access to a what would be a much bigger pie a decade hence. It’s basically Mancur Olson’s theory about “roving bandits” vs. “stationary bandits” – the latter tend to be much better, because they are invested in the longterm success of their demesnes.

This pragmatism extends to foreign relations. Kazakhstan is on good terms with pretty much everyone who matters. It is in good standing with Russia; Nazarbayev was, in fact, the first post-Soviet leader to propose something along the lines of the Eurasian Union. But he is no Russian stooge either. Separatism and even talk of separatism are harshly suppressed, and all the more remarkably, this was done with Russia’s willing acquiesence: Eduard Limonov, a National Bolshevik and once Putin opponent, served two years in prison for allegedly trying to raise an army to “liberate” north Kazakhstan in the early 2000s. The capital was moved from Almaty to ethnic majority Russian Astana in the north, which gave Russians more of a reason to feel invested in Kazakh statehood while at the same time filling up a strategic city with ethnic Kazakhs to the extent that it now has a big Kazakh majority. This is a microcosm of changes taking place across the country as a whole, as highly fertile Kazakhs push up their share of the population back to where it was before Stolypin’s time. Over the longterm – i.e., another generation or so – this will likely solve Kazakhstan’s demographic/ethnic Russian northern majority problem in its entirety.

As the incarnadine cherry on the cream and custard pie, this careful equidistancing between Russia and the West, and his economic liberalism, has made Western elites very much appreciative of Nazarbayev. No American NGOs bother pushing for patently ridiculous concepts like free elections, or human rights, while holding them near sacrosanct in less wholesome countries, like Russia or Ukraine.

Here is Dick Cheney in 2006:

A day after scolding Russia for retreating on democracy, Vice President Cheney flew to oil-rich Kazakhstan yesterday and lavished praise on the autocratic leader of a former Soviet republic where opposition parties have been banned, newspapers shut down and advocacy groups intimidated.

Cheney stood next to Kazakhstan’s longtime president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, in a marble hall of the presidential palace in Astana and congratulated him on his country’s vibrant economy. His tone was markedly different from the tenor of his remarks about Russia a day earlier during a stop in Lithuania, when he accused Moscow of violating its citizens’ rights and using “intimidation or blackmail” against neighbors.

In the course of a 395-word opening statement, according to a White House transcript, Cheney pronounced himself “delighted” to be a guest of Nazarbayev, saying “I consider him my friend” and adding that “the United States is proud to count Kazakhstan as a friend.” Cheney professed “great respect” for Nazarbayev and said that “we are proud to be your strategic partner” and look forward “to continued friendship between us.”

Asked about Kazakhstan’s human rights record, he expressed “admiration for all that’s been accomplished here in Kazakhstan” and confidence that it will continue.

Up to 70 striking oil workers killed in 2011.

Who cares? Who even knows about the Zhanaozen massacre? Of course the Russian protesters who threw rocks at the police in the Russian Bolotnaya protests in May 2012 were a much more grievous violation of human rights. After all, Brussels, Washington, and Freedom House all tell us so, and surely they wouldn’t be doing it anything but the most altruistic and humanistic reasons?

Just a couple of days ago in Salon: Our stunted democracy could learn from Kazakhstan: Another Bush/Clinton race doesn’t look free to the rest of the world. There are of course many things Nazarbayev’s Kazakhstan has gotten right, but democracy isn’t one of them… unless you wish to abolish it entirely.

Anatoly Karlin is a transhumanist interested in psychometrics, life extension, UBI, crypto/network states, X risks, and ushering in the Biosingularity.


Inventor of Idiot’s Limbo, the Katechon Hypothesis, and Elite Human Capital.


Apart from writing booksreviewstravel writing, and sundry blogging, I Tweet at @powerfultakes and run a Substack newsletter.


  1. Physically, the Kazakhs seems related to East Asians, something which has been confirmed by recent DNA mitochondrial studies. An IQ of 82 seems to me to be too low for the Kazakhs, when East Asians populations are known to have some of the highest IQs in the world.

  2. Anatoly Karlin says

    It is lower than I would have expected as well, but in between nomadic heritage (~minus 5), surprisingly recent history of iodine deficiency (~minus 5-10), and the practice of MBD marriage (~maybe minus 5), it is not altogether unbelievable.

  3. I don’t think you can accuse Freedom House of completely ignoring the Zhanaozen massacre. Searching on their website for Zhanaozen gets 27 results, searching for Bolotnaya gets 9.

  4. There’s this idea running around that groups from the same ancestors have to have the same IQs, as if races are these unchangeable eternal verities. They undergo the same selection pressures as any other population; the Chinese probably weren’t particularly brainy 3000 years ago, but millennia of civilization made them what they are. Ancient Hebrews weren’t known for their intellect in the Roman Empire. The Kazakhs probably haven’t undergone the same selective pressures other groups with a long history of civilization, like the Chinese and Germans, have.

  5. You’re thinking of rice-farming East Asians like Chinese, Japanese and Koreans.The Kazakhs are nomadic East Asians like Mongols. Agriculture tames, “domesticates” people.

  6. Without [the ethnic Russians managing things in Kazakstan], their GDP per capita (PPP adjusted in 2011 US dollars) would have likely been closer to that of Uzbekistan ($5,000 and 5% Russian population share) or Tajikistan ($2,500 and 1% Russian population share) than to their current $22,000, which is similar to that of Russia, Poland, and the Baltic states.

    Kazakstan is a commodity-export-dependent economy, with energy & raw materials at least 80% of exports and exports ~40% of GDP. So about 1/3 of GDP comes from natural resources. The comparable figure for Saudi Arabia would be ~45%.

    If K-stan didn’t have ethnic Russians, they would surely import other foreigners to manage the process of converting the resource windfall from overseas into internal gross value added. After all, that’s what every Gulf emirate and, to a lesser extent, even Azerbaijan does.

  7. Erik Sieven says

    “The Russians have a mean British IQ of 103.2 and comprise 23.6% of the population; the Kazakhs have a mean British IQ of 82.2 and comprise 63.1% of the population” I thought ethnic Russians have an average IQ of 100 like central Europeans, not 103 like Han Chinese…Is the high average IQ of Russians in Kazakhstan the result of selective immigration? Maybe a over-proportional number of engineers and technical staff was settled there by the the Soviet Union?

  8. Anonymous says

    I think Kazakhstan was the base for Soviet space industry. I think the Russians may still launch rockets from there.

  9. What factors would you imagine lead to the emergence of competent authoritarian governments that can actually help their nations progress in spite of less than ideal conditions? Is it down to the personality of the individual autocrat?

  10. Anatoly Karlin says

    A valid point, but it should also be noted:

    Natural resource rents are 30% of Kazakh GDP. Take it away and you still have a respectable 16K per capita (similar to Belarus or Romania).

    Also per capita oil production is four times higher in Saudi Arabia than in Kazakhstan.

  11. Anatoly Karlin says

    Yes, the nomadism part. Populations with a nomadic history seem to have systemically lower IQs (by around 5-7 points) than sedentary peoples of the same race.

    It would appear that only in advanced Malthusian economies like post-1100 England and post-Tang China do you get strong selection for higher intelligence, since family ties there tend to be weaker, and people have to be smart enough to navigate a market economy to pass on their genes. It is much weaker in primitive Malthusian agricultural economies, where extended families will take care of you and typically assure you of a spouse, and even weaker in violent alpha male nomadic societies where selection favors brawn over brains.

  12. Anatoly Karlin says

    103 is certainly towards the higher end of Russian IQ estimates. Most peg it 99-100, or late 90s like PISA.

    There probably is a cognitive clustering effect. Also its worth pointing out that the Russian provinces of West Siberia that are contiguous with Russian North Kazakhstan scored relatively well in the PISA tests.

  13. Natural resource rents are 30% of Kazakh GDP. Take it away and you still have a respectable 16K per capita (similar to Belarus or Romania).

    Doesn’t work like that. The oil sheikdoms generally have had stagnant or declining TFP growth since the 1970s. Natural resource rents enable them to keep expanding their capital stock even though it’s not used very efficiently. If those rents suddenly disappeared, these economies would end up like the Soviet Union: their accumulated capital stock might let them go on for a while with declining growth, but depreciation and diminishing returns to capital would eventually degrade living standards in absolute terms. SA has tried to mitigate this through the expansion of education, but given the Saudi limitations in this area that will have much faster diminishing returns than investments in human capital elsewhere…

    My guess: Kazakstan without natural resources and without Russians would be basically Tajikistan. Without nat.resources but with Russians, it can be Uzbekistan.

  14. Sam Haysom says

    When Russians monopolize key industries backed by implicit threat of Russian invasion that’s pragmatism. When Eastern European countries turn to the high IQ west and form economic and military partnerships that’s imperialism.

    It’s like how when a Russian division rapes it’s way across Germany it’s a force of justice and goodness, but when an American solider defends a school for girls in Afghanistan he’s raping and pillaging.

    This isn’t even a double standard this is what I call “first boyfriend” logic. Like a chubby girl defending her first boyfriend this author literally can’t imagine a Russian doing anything wrong.

  15. Anonymous says

    @Sam Haysom

    I see few issues with the article or the author’s disposition when it comes to Russia. If I remember correctly, it is the USA which practices exceptionalism as a doctrine , not Russia.

    When America invades Iraq, it is altruistically called a global democratic revolution . When America funds the Mujaheddin (a precursor to Al Qaeda), it is called “supporting freedom fighters”. When American troops rape local Okinawan teenagers, Americans shrug “just be grateful, we are protecting you”.

    Your (ridiculous) “first boyfriend” logic can easily be applied to the very country you are trying to defend. In fact, 21st century America is unparalleled when it comes to death and destruction. The sooner we have a multipolar world, with minimization of the Hollywood glitz mantra of we-are-the-heroes philosophy, the better.

  16. Sam Haysom says

    Of course you don’t see any problem with the article you are the chubby girlfriend.

    Yea no Third Rome Russian Exceptionalism has ever been recorded. The problem is I don’t know if you are literally to stupid to know about the copious examples of Russiam Exceptionalism or just lying. Karin is moderately intelligent and a hack so he’s just lying– you however are probally just ignorant.

  17. Anatoly Karlin says

    I am not sure what business someone whose arguments here amount to nothing but idiotic strawmen and believes China will soon take over Siberia has in calling anyone else ignorant.

  18. Sam Haysom says

    You guys are welcome to disprove my arguments if you like. Its more fun to name call for sure, but kind of silly. And predictions can’t be ignorant. Your ostrich-like Russian boosterism is touching though.

    It’s cute that you dug through my past comments. You’ve now spent more time reading my comments than I’ve spent reading your blog.

  19. [predictions can’t be ignorant]
    OK then, here goes: in 2016 the US will be occupied by the Nicaraguan Armed Forces!
    Seriously, Sam, you’re not up to this and need a different hobby.