New Kazak world is a soap opera Kazakstan: The dawn of the capitalist age in Kazakstan has spawned Central Asia's most popular soap opera -- about people struggling to adjust to new Western ways.

Sun Journal

June 06, 1996|By Susan Milligan | Susan Milligan,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

ALMATY, Kazakstan -- You could think of it as "The Guiding Light" with a political subtext.

Lydia and Ermek are struggling with a mixed marriage: She's ethnic Russian; he's Kazak.

They live in a one-room apartment in this newly independent nation, trying to make ends meet with the uncertain profits from Ermek's news kiosk.

Gleb and Camilla, another Russian-Kazak couple, also are feeling the pressure. Gleb is being hassled by unsavory types who want him to pay protection money from the proceeds of his cafe.

If that's not enough, Gleb's former wife, Lucia, is trying to win back custody of their son, Erik.

Such is life in contemporary Kazakstan -- at least in the fictional sphere of "Crossroads," this new nation's first soap opera.

According to its producers, "Crossroads" is the most popular TV program in Central Asia, reaching an estimated 60 million homes in four countries: Russia, Uzbekistan, China and Kazakstan.

Entertainment is only part of the purpose.

Helping people to adjust

The stories are designed to help the people of this former Soviet state deal with something that might be called privatization stress, a common ailment in former Soviet republics.

People formerly exposed only to what Westerners called socialist propaganda now find a message with a distinctly capitalistic hue.

"TV is the most important medium for propaganda and ideology," said Kostya Salykov, a Kazak producer of "Crossroads." He sees it as "a platform to teach people about privatization and the change to a market economy."

Unlike many people in the former East Bloc nations, the Kazaks had little exposure to market-economies. Rural people in a massive and diverse nation founded by nomads, Kazaks have known little beyond a collective farming economy.

Bit of a shock

The idea that they are to open businesses and negotiate with investors from the West is a bit of a shock to them.

So, the lives of "Crossroads" characters mirror the struggles of the average Kazak, and could help him or her adjust, said Kanat Kabdrakhymanov, one of the eight Kazak scriptwriters.

The story's businessmen and -women are brand new to the world of selling.

"They don't know the rules of economy and banking," Kabdrakhymanov said. The aptly named program introduces the charac ters and their audience to some of these rules.

Some of the program's economic benefits are more obvious: It's helping to preserve the country's television talent pool.

During the Communist era, KTK, the state TV station in the capital of Almaty employed 3,000 people. Now, the cash-strapped station has a skeleton staff, said Katya Krausova, director of Portobello Pictures in London, which is co-producing the series.

Portobello was hired by Britain's Know-How Fund, a government group which invested $1 million in the project.

Western television experts and artists are in Almaty training local residents to take their jobs. That way, the project can continue with local support, and will keep a few more Kazakh television workers employed. All 25 actors in the show are Kazakh.

It's a small step toward the large task of developing the country as a whole. Kazakstan is dealing with the most fundamental problems of nation building. Almost everything -- from foreign policy to macroeconomics -- has to be created anew.

Developing the politics and economics of this central Asian state, of course, will take more critical skills.

A largely agricultural nation, Kazakstan looms as a burgeoning market for Western business people anxious to develop the country's large oil and metal reserves.

Short on cash and expertise, the government welcomes the influx of outsiders.

"We need a certain infrastructure, and we need investment," said Nigmatzhan Kabatayevich, the first vice premier of Kazakstan. And they are getting it.

Investors are making the trek to Almaty, the "city of apples" near the Chinese border. They find two divergent worlds: Locals drive battered, horse-drawn carts on streets that sport Mercedes-Benz dealerships.

Run-down, cement-block housing stands near the luxurious Marco Polo resort hotel, which offers rooms at $275 a night and up.

Suited business people at the hotel discuss big-money deals for oil and mineral development, relax in the hotel health club and consume liquor and meat flown in from Austria and elsewhere.

Outside, the scene is markedly different. Kazaks gather at the huge, colorful central market, bargaining for household goods, food and clothing.

They stop by the rows of white-coated old ladies to buy a cup of "kimiz," a tart and slightly alcoholic concoction made from fermented mare's milk.

Piles of raw meat for sale sit unrefrigerated. Outside the capital, Kazakstan's tradition and diversity is even more apparent.

A country of 17 million, Kazakstan has more than 100 ethnic groups. It is more than 1,500 miles from north to south and almost 2,000 miles wide, stretching from the Caspian Sea and the lower Volga valley on the west to the Altai Mountains and Siberian plains on the east.

Siberia is better known

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