Kazakhstan: Not a Golden Ticket

ASTANA, Kazakhstan | Kazakhstan’s National Science Fund recently rejected a job applicant because he was just too cocky.

The applicant had studied at the University of Chicago and worked in Kazakhstan previously, mainly at science institutions. But something was awry.

Cover of "Bolashak", a quarterly magazine for university students published by the Kazakh education ministry.

Cover of “Bolashak”, a quarterly magazine for university students published by the Kazakh education ministry.

A representative of the fund said the applicant told his interviewer that he deserved a high position in the country for one simple reason: he is a Bolashak alumnus.

The Bolashak Scholarship is a government-sponsored, merit-based award that pays everything from tuition to living stipends for Kazakhstan citizens who want to study in any of more than 600 universities abroad. The program aims to develop the nation economically and politically by bringing young people trained abroad back to Kazakhstan.

While some Bolashak alumni hold high-level government positions, others have trouble finding good jobs. This is often because they are too optimistic about the value of a foreign education in Kazakhstan.

Many graduates believe the Bolashak, which means “future” in Kazakh, is a golden ticket to success, but reality is harsher than some realize.

According to statistics from the Center for International Programs, which oversees the scholarship, 67 percent of Bolashak graduates hold entry-level jobs as junior managers or specialists. In fact, finding work has been so difficult for many alumni that last year the center was charged with finding employment for every graduate.

To make that search easier, recent government policy dictates that each ministry must have at least one vice-minister who is a Bolashak alumnus. The Agency for Civil Service Affairs notes on its website that Bolashak graduates with master’s degrees may apply to lead departments in any government body, regardless of job experience. And all Bolashak alumni can have their CVs automatically put on file in the general waiting list for government jobs.

Executive Connections

Some Bolashak alumni find jobs by taking advantage of the scholarship’s close association with the president. The Bolashak was founded as the personal initiative of President Nursultan Nazarbaev, and he has always taken an interest in its students. In some cases, the president’s favor for Bolashak alumni causes resentment among job applicants who feel it creates an undeserved advantage.

At a Bolashak alumni forum with the president in January, one woman who graduated from Brandeis University in the United States with a master’s degree in public health complained that there was not a single Bolashak graduate working in the Ministry of Health. The president told her, “You will be the first then,” and made note of her name. She is now working as adviser to the minister.

One government official who spoke under condition of anonymity, said: “I do not want to criticize the president, but I don’t think the minister felt he had much choice [but] to hire her somehow.”

Banking on the scholarship’s prestige and their own ambitions, most Bolashak graduates seek government jobs in Astana or positions with large companies in Almaty. The rural regions, where pay is lower and high-ranking positions are few, see little benefit from the scholarship.

According to the Center for International Programs, 97 percent of alumni work in Astana or Almaty. In total, only 115 graduates work outside of these two cities. The scholarships have been awarded to more than 3,000 students since 1994.

Nazarbaev addressed this problem at the January forum, saying that the scholarship must be awarded to more rural students, even if it means fewer scholarships for students from the large cities.

But graduates who are willing to work in the regions could have trouble finding a good fit for their education. Leila Kulbaeva, who graduated from Columbia University in 2003, noted that it also took her some time to find a job where her U.S. education could be applied. She has changed jobs three times since returning to Kazakhstan, she said. “Unfortunately, the local mentality cannot always follow the new ideas and the way global economy works.” She now works at a major investment bank in Almaty.

Bending the Rules

Favoritism in the selection process also lets some unqualified students into the Bolashak program. They come out the other side overly self-assured.

Nazgul Yergalieva, who studied at the University of Richmond in 1994 in the first group of Bolashak Scholars, said she met some fellow students who bragged about their connections. “They were doing poorly in school, having problems with police, and they confessed that they did not [take] even one entrance exam to pass the Bolashak selection because their parents took care of everything,” Yergalieva said.

A former manager of the Center for International Programs said that while he never saw anyone try to bypass the strict selection process, children whose parents held high posts in the government were able to get scholarship information more easily than others. Selection involves a minimum grade average, language testing, psychological testing, and an interview.

“The fact is that government officials can get the direct number of center executives and top management is going to see their problems through,” said the former manager, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “If a parent from a normal family calls with a problem, there is less priority given.”

Apparently in answer to corruption charges, the president told alumni at the recent forum that he had fired two ministers personally for attempting to influence the selection committee to take their children.

While the scholarship does not document the incomes of scholars’ families, anecdotes reveal that there are scholars who come from humble origins. The former manager recalled one applicant from a small rural village that lacked a telephone.

“You had to call his brother at work in a nearby town and wait until he went home at night to pass on the message,” the former manager said.

Still, perception of corruption can be another strike against the credibility of Bolashak alumni when they apply for jobs.

“People do not like Bolashakers because there is a general opinion that all Bolashakers are the children of government officials who bribed other officials to receive the scholarship,” Kulbayeva said. “It is wrong to apply this opinion to all Bolashakers. However, several cases irrevocably damaged the reputation of the program.”

Still, there is optimism about the scholarship’s influence on Kazakhstan. Violetta Cook, director of sponsored students at Texas A&M University, which has hosted Bolashak scholars since 1994, said: “Students have returned to Kazakhstan and have found good jobs which will be the building blocks for the future of Kazakhstan.”


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