Kazakhstan is still seen as a rather unusual expatriate destination; there are very few online resources or even guide books to help prospective expats prepare for their new life. This little-known country – famous in the past for mounted warriors hunting with golden eagles, rocket launchers, gulags, camels and yurts has now become a regional economic superpower with modern cities to match, while the remnants of the older way of life can still be seen in the villages out on the steppe.
Kazakhstan is a young country with an old soul. Just over 20 years ago the country gained independence from the Soviet Union and in that time the Kazakhstani people have tried to establish the country as a bridge between Asia and Europe. The Soviet regime all but wiped out the traditional nomadic way of life, forcing people to settle on collective farms, suppressing the Kazakh language and traditions.
Language barrier in Kazakhstan
While Russian is acknowledged as the ‘language of business’ in Kazakhstan there has been a push to increase the use of Kazakh and to re-introduce lost traditions in the country. Most expatriates working in Kazakhstan will need to learn Russian as this is universally understood in the workplace. However, even a few words of Kazakh will be highly appreciated by the locals.
Although there is some discussion about altering the alphabet and moving the Kazakh language over to Roman script, both Kazakh and Russian are written in the Cyrillic alphabet. This can seem a little daunting on arrival but it makes sense to learn the letters as quickly as possible as this helps expatriates adapt to life in Kazakhstan through language acquisition and in understanding what you are buying in a restaurant or supermarket.
Most Kazakhstanis are keen to learn English and there is no shortage of opportunities to learn Russian and/or Kazakh through a language exchange agreement.
Bureaucracy in Kazakhstan
The post Soviet bureaucracy in Kazakhstan is highly developed, confusing and often frustrating to both expatriates and Kazakhstanis alike. The bureaucratic nightmare, more than anything else, is often the biggest cultural shock for expatriates arriving in Kazakhstan.
On arrival all expatriates are required to register with the authorities (employers will often arrange this) and renew the registration each time they leave the country or every 90 days if they have not gone abroad in that time. A passport has to be carried at all times and shown to the authorities on request.
Most officials may deal with expatriates only infrequently and therefore may not be aware of the exact requirements to fulfil a particular request, for example to register a car to an expatriate owner. Therefore, it helps to research the exact requirements before meeting with the relevant authority and bringing along evidence of what is required. Remain polite at all times and keep a sense of humour and you will find most people willing to do their best to help.