Must Adapt. A Portrait of «the Average» Kazakh

In July, the site of Radio Liberty published an interview with Lev Gudkov, a Ph.D. in philosophy, in which he presented the main features of the «average» Russian citizen. In his view, they are, first and foremost, «the people adapted to the repressive state». 

«The average Russian is poor, devoid of initiative, not an adventurist. He is an opportunist adapted to living in a country where power is sovereign, in other words, is not governed by the society, where administrative tyranny is the norm; he is a man who has accepted his status, he is cunning; to him, the ability to „doublethink“ is a means to coexist with power (in Orwell’s view, „doublethink“ is an uninterrupted chain of victories over the human memory).

„The average“ Russian is a political amoralist. This does not mean that he himself is immoral; it means that he sees nothing wrong in the state being immoral and corrupt».

In a similar fashion, we have asked ourselves what kind of features are characteristic of the «average» Kazakh? And have addressed this question to President of the Strategia Centre for Social and Political Research Gulmira Ileuova.

Let us state right away that her answer surprised us. She said that, according to the Centre’s research and surveys, the Kazakh citizens are characterised by a high level of adaptivity, in other words, the ability to adapt has become their innate feature. But this is not her only noteworthy observation.

— Gulmira Tokshalukovna, is it possible to determine the main features of today’s «average Kazakh»? Who is he? What kind of person is he?

— Having examined a number of social surveys, I can say that «the average Kazakh» does not exist at this point. Simply because there are at least three different generations: the people born in the middle of the 20th century and raised in the Soviet Union (the pensioners generation), the «parents» (the rather sizeable part of the population born in the 1970s-1980s) and, finally, those born during the years of the independence.  

This division is, of course, arbitrary. However, these are the three large age groups each of which possesses certain traits. Perhaps they do not exist in stark contrast to one another but they may occupy different ideological poles.

However, if we are to try and describe «the average Kazakh», I would say he possesses a high level of adaptivity. Because the past 30 years have been the years of the endless reforms, setbacks, improvements and new setbacks. The ability to adapt has become our characteristic feature which has to do with the historic era we have to live in. At the same time, among those born during the years of the independence, this feature seems to be less prominent.

— Why do you think that is?

—  The young people do not know to what to compare the existing state of things. They were born and raised under the reign of a single president and, to them, the existing system of axes is the only one they know.

Take the healthcare system, for instance. I was born in the 1960s and I assess it differently than those who have never been assigned to a state-funded health centre, have not undergone regular health checks e t.c. But this is question of how the state cares about its citizens.

We may call the USSR «totalitarian» or «non-democratic» but, nonetheless, my generation knows that the state may care about its citizens in a different way than it does nowadays and we have a different system of assessing the modern state and power. The young people, however, do not know better.

—  What does «the average Kazakh» think about power toady?

— If we consider the results of our surveys, we can say that, starting from 2001-2002, we have the period of power sacralisation (meaning the presidential power). It was the time of the more or less unconditional support and approval of everything Nursultan Nazarbayev did.

I remember that, in 2007-2010, when we presented our data at the Eurasian Monitor international conference, the 90% support of the citizens that Nazarbayev was enjoying looked impressive against the other states where the same indicator would not surpass 20%.


And this figure raised the brows of the representatives of the other countries.

As time went on, Nazarbayev’s rating began to change. Its lowering began manifesting itself starting from 2016-2017 and reached quite a significant drop — 70%. And, in 2019, the social contract between Nazarbayev and the civil society ended. I believe the death of five girls, the Siter sisters, in the fire of February 2019 served as the breaking point. This happened because both their parents had to work during the night in order to be able to provide for their children*.


*In the early hours of February 4, 2019, a fire occurred in a temporary housing building named «Koktal-1» that had taken the lives of the five daughters of Eugeniy and Zhanymgul Siter — Bakhyt, Alina, Sabina, Elina and Albina. The fire started during the night when the children were alone. The girls’ parents went to work over the late night shift. The neighbours said that the Siter family had no flat and the parents had to work at night in order to provide for their five children.

On February 6, mothers of many children living in Astana gathered together and made a serious of demands to the authorities. Later, mothers of many children held protest actions in Almaty, Shymkent, Aktobe and other regions.

On the backdrop of this, on February 21, 2019, the then President of the Republic of Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbayev slammed the government and its head Bakytzhan Sagintayev. He said that the government «does not know how to work with the people», did not create «the real stimuli and tools for the qualitative economic growth» and, all in all, was unable to solve a number of problems. Soon after, the Sagintayev government was dismissed and replaced with the Cabinet led by Askar Mamin.

Speaking of the current President Kossym-Jomart Tokayev, his rating is lower than that of Nazarbayev. The survey conducted this March showed that it equals 65%. However, we must not forget that this was a pandemic year during which a number of negative things happened. According to the 2020 data, back then his rating constituted 72-75%.


In other words, tokayev has assumed the trust rating with which nazarbayev left the presidential post.

Starting from 2004, the rating of the government has remained approximately the same — 51-56% albeit it did drop down to 23% during the past year. The Kazakhs have begun to separate the operations of the government from the activities of the Prime Minister and it is worth noting that the people’s support of the Cabinet is a little higher than their support of its head Askar Mamin.  

The average Parliament support rating constitutes 48-54%.


    In 2021, only one of every five kazakhs has approved the decision of the deputies.

If, previously, there was basically no correlation between the economic situation in the country and the rating of the authorities, then today, the Kazakhs have begun to be more particular in choosing whom to blame for the situation. For instance, during the period of the 2008-2009 economic crisis and amid a significant degradation of the situation in the country, we did not observe a corresponding lowering of the presidential and governmental ratings.

Nowadays, we can observe a direct correlation between increasing social tensions, the level of dissatisfaction and the reduction of the number of those positively assessing the actions of the President, the government, the prime minister, the deputies and the akims.

— What is the current assessment of the courts’ performance? 

— Our surveys contain the question on the most trustworthy structures and, in this regard, the Kazakhs almost always place the courts among the least respected ones. To compare: 65% of the respondents find the media trustworthy and only 48% say this about the courts.

We have conducted a separate research on the courts. The research revealed the following correlation: the people who had applied to court and received legal assistance assess their performance higher than those who hadn’t.

— Why do you think that is? 

— The Kazakh public consciousness has formed certain stereotypes. They are based on the objective reasons and have their own inertia which influences a person’s attitude even before they cross paths with the system. 

For instance, there exists an opinion that our education system is worse than in other countries. The same can be allied to the courts: they are a priori corrupt, one cannot find justice there.

Of course, the subjects themselves are to be blamed for forming these stereotypes. And, because of this, the stereotypes are so difficult to shirk. They exert such pressure that we become hostage to these beliefs because we have no data (other than the public opinion) to rely on.  

— Are the authorities capable of changing the public opinion towards themselves, increase popularity and trust?

— There is no one way. Sometimes a person needs a single event in their life to change their attitude towards the authorities to the worse. At the same time, all the good that the authorities have done gets disregarded.

Another question is — do the authorities need to increase the level of popularity and trust?

I do not believe it to be the modern approach. The authorities should not be liked or disliked, they should solve the people’s problems. Obviously, there are nuances.

— Such as?

— For instance, there are akims who can solve the citizens’ problems no better than the others but, at the same time, they feel at home in the media space, they are brilliant speakers, they have well-running communication channels, they are constantly in the spotlight on TV and social networks. So, a part of the population as well as the experts start believing that these akims are on top of the current agenda even though the problems remain unsolved.

At the same time, there are akims who believe that, if a problem is solved, they will be rewarded anyway. As a result, they lose the momentum, they are being criticised, they appear inefficient as managers.  

However, if we travel around the regions, we will see approximately the same picture everywhere: the efforts to improve the conditions in residential areas, the activities in the sphere of social policy (although if a region is poor and does not receive enough subsidies from the state budget, the akim cannot wrest down the volume of the problems looming over him). Therefore, his popularity cannot be high.

For instance, last year I visited the North Kazakhstan region where, as it turned out, certain residential areas do not have mobile service. Considering that 2020 was primarily «an online year», I immediately felt discontent: how can one solve any problems under such conditions? How can one ensure the provision of normal education? How can citizens receive state services?

Therefore, the initial reaction was to lash out at the akim. But then we learned that these residential areas are so small that the mobile operator refuses to set up the booms there (makes no economic sense) while the hilly terrain does not allow to cover these areas with the aid of others. And whatever the local authorities do, they cannot make the operator to set up an additional boom.

I realise that we must be firm in assessing the actions of the authorities since there is enough corruption and ineffectiveness in this sphere, however, there is also what we can call circumstances of insuperable force.


We are now on the path of achieving a fair balance: our people have linked the level of their life to the actions of the authorities which has manifested itself in their assessment of these actions. This is a significant change in the kazakh citizens’ consciousness that is worthy of our attention.

Of course, we would like to see fast changes in the public consciousness — in how people behave towards power, towards the problem of its sacralisation. Although changes do take place. Among other things, thanks to the fact that the young generation is now entering the adult life. Born during the years of the independence, the young Kazakhs have grown to be more critically-minded, the existing status quo no longer satisfies them.

Photo from Gulmira Ileuova Facebook page

— What kind of problems are most worrying for the «average Kazakh»?

— Here I am not going to break any grounds. First of all, it is the growing of the prices and the lowering of the income. More than half of the respondents register inflation. Then, there is the economic situation in the country and unemployment.

I would like to remark on yet another problem that began worrying the Kazakhs about ten years ago. I am talking about the housing problem. If you look at the ratings of the first decade of the century, you will see that this problem is not even listed among the top ten.  

I believe its escalation has to do with the birthrate growth; now these «newborns» are entering the active period of life and small-size lodgings can no longer accommodate them all. Note that the number of those talking about this problem is going to grow: in 2006, only 12% of the respondent were talking about it, now — almost a quarter.

As for the economic situation in the country and its correlation with the financial standing of an individual family, one should note that, on average, the Kazakh citizens believe their own life to be a little better than the life of the country in general.

One would think that we know our salaries are low and the real (unofficial) unemployment level is much higher than the one presented in the statistical data. So why would we regard our own economic standing as high? Perhaps this has to do with «self-employment».

The existence of a sector where one can make money unofficially (for example, working as a taxi driver in the evening while being officially employed by some enterprise for 70 thousand tenge a month) helps the citizens to survive.  

But here we are going back to where we started — the adaptivity of our population. Most of it does not rely on a single source of income trying to find other opportunities to earn money. As a rule, these additional jobs are found in the shadowy sector of the economy where there is no taxation.

In other words when the Kazakh citizens assess the economic standing of the country, they take into consideration some sort of microeconomic parameters; but when they are talking about their own situation, they consider additional possibilities of receiving income. So there is no direct correlation between the situation in the country and the situation of the individual (the situation in the country is worsening and I can feel it).

— They adapt?

— You know, our research regarding the Kazakhs’ behaviour towards the authorities show that about 60% of the citizens either hear the talks about how bad the authorities are or participate in these talks themselves. About 13-15% approve the actions of the authorities (in 2017, this indicator constituted 39%).  

At the same time, the number of those who ignore the actions of the authorities and simply go about their life has grown — from 17% in 2017 to 25% in the current year. And 35-36% say they have to adapt to the existing realia; basically this indicator has not changed since 2017.

Our annual surveys also contain the following question — «to whom do you link the improvement of your living conditions»? Now, the number of the respondents who claim that they are living their own lives and solve their problems relying only on themselves and their friends and family is increasing each year and, today, constitutes more than 50% of the respondents. Proactive people prefer to leave the country.  


And this is true not only for the european ethnicities; ethnic kazakhs leave as well.

Still, most of the people remain in Kazakhstan and try to adapt to the circumstances the best they can. From the perspective of the family economy and income, we are dealing with a redistribution of workload (those who have lost their jobs say that, temporarily, they will be relying on other family members), searching for additional jobs in the informal economic sector, career change and searching for jobs abroad.

— What place does corruption hold in the rating?

— The list of the problems from which the respondents have to choose the most pressing ones consists of 20 options and corruption occupies the 10-12th place on the list. However, when the problem is discussed within the focus groups, it is mentioned more frequently.

Strictly speaking, corruption is a broad term. If a person is unsatisfied with the actions of the authorities, he is inclined to believe that certain authoritative bodies are corrupt albeit he would not offer any proof to support this belief. From this, we may conclude that, when speaking of corruption, the respondents mean something else — inefficiency of performance, low level of professional qualification e t.c.

We research the scale of the corruption spread every year and ask our respondents a multi-layered question — «Have you ever dealt with state structures? If yes, was corruption involved? If yes, what form did it take»? The number of those responding affirmatively to the second part of the question does not surpass 15% and decreases year after year.

— Why do you think that is

— Most of the governmental services are now available online, citizens do not communicate directly with officials.

Let’s take the education system for example. There are now not as many extortions on the part of the teachers due to the established control system; and also the teachers whose salaries have grown began appreciating their jobs, therefore, they are not trying to make up for their low income via receiving gifts from parents. The take-a-number-system of applying to kindergartens has decreased the dependence on a state official. And this has affected the general level of the corruption assessment.

Meanwhile, as far as the healthcare system is concerned, there have been enough instances of corruption over the course of the Covid year. And this is not related to the provision of the coronavirus treatment, rather, these instances had to do with surgical operations and the provision of the fully subsidies drugs.


In terms of the scale, the corruption in The healthcare system is now outpacing other fields. This problem cannot be sloved Without a cardinal change in the health professionals’ compensation plan.

— As you have said before, those who do not want to adapt may choose to leave Kazakhstan. How great is this desire in reality? Members of which social groups express it?

— We have been asking this question since 2004 and we have observed that the percentage of those who prefer not to leave the country ranges from 64% to 72%. In other words, we are talking about the solid majority.

But, in regard to this issue, we should talk not only about emigration but also of internal migration when a person moves from a rural area to a city thus improving their situation. Now then, most of the one third that is ready to change the place of their residence speak about changing their location within the country.

As for emigration, in 2020, 17% said that they would like to leave Kazakhstan: 8% would move to the neighbouring countries, 9% — to countries of the far abroad. However, expressing a desire to leave and actually act upon it are two totally different things.

Among the reasons affecting one’s desire to leave, 42% list the low level of life in Kazakhstan; one in four names problems with finding employment; familial circumstances occupy the third spot (for instance when some of the person’s relatives have already left and the family wants to be reunited).

Also those who plan to leave «use» their children for this purpose: they send kids abroad where they study, settle in, gain citizenship and their parents join them then. Such a way is popular for the countries with a relatively liberal immigration law, for instance, the Czech Republic, Turkey, Bulgaria.   

8% of the respondents say they will leave if the situation in the country deteriorates.


Most of those who expresses the desire to leave belong to the age group of 18-44 year-olds.

— To what extent does the state propaganda affect the «average Kazakh» or is he able to resist it?

— Usually people consume information in the following way — in the morning, they learn the news (on TV, radio, online), during the day, they discuss the news with their colleagues, friends, relatives; if a news catches a person’s attention, they search for details on the websites and social networks they consider trustworthy; if a news is particularly interesting, they will follow it up watching the official- TV broadcast.

What does the Kazakh citizen say? They say that the internet is a cesspool, that it is difficult to navigate. The Kazakh citizen does not want interpretations of an event, they want to hear it from the original source and, in the case of the Kazakh citizen, this source is none other than the official television channel. This way of receiving information has not changed for the past several years.  

— Is «the average Kazakh» ready to get involved in politics?

— In one of our researches, when answering the question whether or not a citizen may exert influence over power, only one third of the respondents gave the positive answer. Elections are listed as the top mechanism of such influence (65% of the respondents).

Then we have dispersion. A part of the respondents believe that addressing mass media is enough to exert influence over the authorities. By the way the Kazakh citizens find mass media quite trustworthy to be used as a channel for promoting their interests and requests. Then there are letters and petitions (including the online variety) to the President, the akims, the Nur Oran party, in other words, to the subjects that are considered or proclaimed influential. These are the methods that are called conventional, permitted.

And only 3-5% of the respondents are prepared to employ the non-conventional means — from holding an unauthorised rally (up until recently) to resorting to violence related, among other things, to seizing power. This indicator has remained unchanged over the course of many years regardless of the situation.   


Detailing the portrait of «the average Kazakh»

In the course of a research on the membership in civic organisations, 85% of the respondents said «no». Considering that. out of the 15% that do hold membership in some organisations, 4% are members of an online-network or an internet-community, we can say that 89% of the Kazakhs do not belong to any organisation.

3% of the respondents said they were members of a political party; 2% hold membership in youth or student communities; 6% are members of trade unions; 3,5% are members of other associations (sports, ecological, charity e t.c. organisations).

Speaking of the level of trust in different structures, only 30% of the respondents said they trusted the opposition, 34% — to the NGOs, less than 50% — to the political parties. Only the rating of the central bodies of power, mass media and the army surpasses 50%.  

When we talk about the traits of «the average Kazakh» and conclude that he relies only on himself, we, first and foremost, are talking about the survival issues — the vital, the basic, the social ones.

Speaking about involvement in politics, I believe the Kazakh citizens have not yet reached this level of need or perhaps they do not yet have such necessity.


The number of those ready to emigrate is higher than the number of those ready to hold a rally. And this is yet another trait of the society. 

The Kazakh citizens use all the possibilities at their disposal to improve the quality of life or to maintain it at an adequate level without resorting to extreme measures.

— In conclusion, what diagnosis can you make regarding the Kazakh society?

— Before making «a diagnosis», I would like to highlight the two other traits indicative of the modern society.

One of such crucial traits that is «social optimism» which means that «tomorrow is going to be better than today». From 2004 to 2016, this indicator had not changed and constituted 50% (with the peak of 59% in 2015). However, starting from 2016, a decline of all the indicators (including social optimism) has begun.  

This indicator depends on a number of factors — the level of individual income, the financial standing of the family, the situation in the country e t.c. In 2021, only 34% of the Kazakh believe that, in the future, their life will be better than it is now. 30% cannot say what is going to happen next year.

Another crucial indicator is life satisfaction. It also has been declining since 2016. Back then it constituted 76%; this year, only 60% of the respondents said they were satisfied with life.

Given the decline of these indicators, I believe that the society has become more even-minded. The emotional tension and the inflated expectations of the first two decades of the independence no longer exist. 

When building a capitalist society in the 1990s and the beginning of the 2000s, we thought that the market economy would allow anyone to start their own business and become rich, successful and famous. This driver had existed for about 10-15 years and, in the surveys, the young people expressed the desire to become entrepreneurs, to launch their own business, start risky enterprises.

Nowadays, many of those who, in their youth, have had negative experience in business and were unable to achieve certain success are afraid to take risks and try to retain the existing status quo. And today’s young people (those no older than 34) are less inclined to play fast and loose than the previous generation for they are more pragmatic in their attitude towards life.

For instance, if during the initial years of the independence, people could drop everything and move to Almaty from a faraway aul, nowadays, nothing like that exists on a massive scale. The new migrant model means finding some kind of «symbolic capital» in the form of network connections: people find acquaintances in the cities, assess the new reality, lay the groundwork and only then make a carefully weighted decision. People make a lodgement in the social niches that they are occupying already.

And when we ask «To which social group do you belong»?, the percentage of those who say they belong to a place (I am a resident of such-and-such city, village e t.c.) is rather high. Next we have the group of professionals. The third position belongs to the social group (I am a person with such-and-such income). Even ethnic characteristics have become less important than they used to be say five-ten years ago.

I believe that, objectively, the identification and integration processes within the society are working towards completion and have acquired direction. Thus, soon we will see a social structure that corresponds to the internal fabric of the society.


We have also asked Gulmira Ileuova about the Kazakhs’ attitude towards the Covid-19 vaccination.

— Gulmira Tokshalykovna, judging by the sentiment expressed on social networks, most Kazakhs, despite the state propaganda efforts, get immunised only under threat of being fired. Why?

— If we hadn’t lived in the Soviet Union with its system of preventive medicine, screenings and health check-ups, we would get immunised upon the state’s whistle, we would have nothing to compare the situation with and wouldn’t ask any uneasy questions.

A significant number of people understands that, before making such a decision, they must closely examine their state of health, weight all the «pros» and «cons» against each other and determine whether the vaccination will not affect their health in a negative way. Our people are not so stupid and illiterate as they are habitually portrayed, they have their own opinion and the right to make their own decisions as far as their personal health is concerned.

What do I find the most surprising? Not a single governmental campaign in any field of our life has had enjoyed an unconditional support on the part of the people. Why did the Ministry of Health decide that the Covid-19 vaccination campaign was going to be vigorously supported? Clearly, today’s society is no longer monolithic and homogeneous, so why should one assume that people would rush to get immunised as soon as Alexey Tsoy talks about it?

In February, we conducted a survey on this subject. Only 22% of the respondents said that they trust the vaccine as a means of Covid-19 prevention. If the healthcare authorities had conducted such an analysis beforehand and took the results into consideration, they would have been able to develop a differentiated propaganda policy aimed at — the «nuclear» (those who trust the vaccine and are prepared to get immunised), the «supporters» (those who are ready albeit upon certain conditions), the «doubters» e t.c. They would have had an understanding of each of these groups, they would have had developed a strategy and an action plan targeting each particular group.

But they chose to see people as a thoughtless body without an opinion — hence the low Covid-19 vaccination figures. 

— Thank you for the interview!

The original publication on KZ.MEDIA at this link.


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