President’s Nazarbayev University speech is educational, political–and an entertainment extravaganza

06 сентября 2012, 16:03

President Nursultan Nazarbayev strode into the university that bears his name yesterday to deliver what many expected to be an educational-policy speech.

The 2 ½-hour-long event turned out to be a lot more than that.

Listeners ranging from grade-school children in remote locations to Cabinet members on the Nazarbayev University campus got a major political speech as well as an educational address.

They also got an entertainment extravaganza, thanks to the marshaling of tons of broadcasting equipment and television-production manpower.

The president repeatedly reminded the nationwide audience of the progress that Kazakhstan has made since independence. And he asked listeners to pull together to continue the advances.

“Kazakhstan has turned from a developing country” into one that is midway between developing and developed in terms of income level and per-capita economic output, he said.

The country’s per-capita income, he noted, is on a par with Slovenia, Turkey and Malaysia, countries with excellent records of economic achievement in recent years.

Kazakhstan’s poverty rate is a fourth of what it used to be, he said, and residents’ lifespan has increased from 63 to 70.

Kazakhstan has also jumped in the United Nations’ rankings of educational quality, and its children are winning thousands of medals in international academic competitions, he said.

Nursultan Nazarbayev

President of Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbayev. ©Danial Okassov

“Your mission in the future,” the president told 2,000 students at Nazarbayev University and 600,000 watching on television, is to propel Kazakhstan to even greater heights. Half of the students in the on-campus audience were from other universities in the Astana area, including Eurasian National University and Kazakh Agrotechnical University.

President Nazarbayev’s calls for national unity and for Kazakhs to put the country first came against the backdrop of several terrorist attacks and terrorism-conspiracy convictions in Kazakhstan the past 18 months. The latest convictions were of 47 people in April and eight in August. Both cases were in western Kazakhstan.

Underscoring the political nature of the president’s speech, the Khabar television network broadcast it live to millions of people, as did Kazakhstan’s new educational channel, Bilim.

Kok-Tobe TV Center

Inside Kok-Tobe Television Center. ©Yaroslav Radlovskiy

The president’s team took extraordinary steps to make the affair interactive – a master political stroke.

The speech was broadcast by videoconference hook-up to 13 locations in Kazakhstan and abroad, allowing students, Olympic athletes, and even a medical team from the National Cardiac Surgery Center in Astana to ask the president questions.

The appearance of the cardiac team in its green surgery scrubs was designed to underscore Kazakhstan’s progress in health care, including heart transplants.

Those familiar with President Nazarbayev say one of his strengths as a politician is an ability to charm constituents. This interaction usually occurs face to face.

The videoconferencing gave the president an interactive reach that most politicians can only dream of. It allowed him to talk with students, educational-facility staff, parents and others from across Kazakhstan – and even to Bolashak exchange students in Washington.

The star power of some of those interacting with the president added to the event’s cachet.

The group in Kazakhstan with the most luster at the moment, of course, is its 13 Olympic medal winners.

When the videoconference camera swung to those athletes, rhythmic gymnast Anna Alyabyeva asked President Nazarbayev what the key to sports success was.

“Train, train, train,” he replied.

Ann Alyabyeva

Anna Alyabyeva. ©RIA Novosti

Then he quickly swung into what Kazakhstan was doing to develop champions.

The country has 53 sports schools and 17 Olympic training schools, he said. And 30 percent of the over-all population has access to sports facilities.

His answer emphasized the “Kazakhstan’s progress” theme that he repeated throughout his speech and in his responses to the questions.

He took advantage of Alyabyeva’s question to encourage young Kazkahs “to go in for sports – it helps your health.”

“If you’re healthy, you don’t need anything else,” he said.

Another celebrity questioner was the 12-year-old international chess champion Zhansaya Abdimalik, a beloved figure in Kazakhstan.

She asked the president if he’d start a school to develop chess stars.

Zhansaya Abdumalik

Zhansaya Abdumalik. ©Vladimir Dmitriyev

Yes, indeed, he responded, maintaining that there is a connection between the development of chess skills and mathematics prowess.

The president’s mention of the chess school was one of two pieces of news he disclosed during his speech and question-and-answer session.

Another slice of news was that he has asked Nazarbayev University to open a school of mining.

The president didn’t say when the school would start or offer other details.

Kazakhstan has never had a mining school despite the dominant role that minerals play in the country’s economy.  During Soviet times, mining engineers and other professionals were educated at mining schools in Russia.

Kazakhstan has some of the world’s most important minerals deposits, including coal, uranium, copper, zinc, gold, earth minerals and rare-earth minerals.

In addition to the Nazarbayev University students, Bolashak scholars, Olympic athletes and health-care professionals, the president fielded questions from elementary-school students in Pavlodar, military boarding-school students in Karaganda, vocational students in Atyrau, students at Kazazah British Technical University in Almaty and a parent of a kindergartener in Kyzylorda.

With each answer he discussed progress that Kazakhstan has already made as well as plans for the future.

The president started his speech with a message to Nazarbayev University’s 1,000 students and 159 international faculty to live up to the huge expectations that have been placed upon them.

Kazakhstan started the institution because “we needed  a new university with a new mentality” that could become the prototype for a “new kind of Kazakhstan university” nationwide, he said.

“The whole educational system is looking” at you, he noted.

As part of its work, the president said, Nazarbayev University will be creating research clusters where academics and companies will work together on innovations that become products.

He called on educators who have been reluctant to embrace the sweeping changes that Kazakhstan is making in its educational system to climb aboard the train.

“We need to change ourselves in compliance with the changes” going on elsewhere in the world, he said.

Kazakhstan is adopting many tenets of Western education, from a 12-year school system instead of the 11-year Soviet model to the European Union approach to higher education that’s known as the Bologna Process. Some educators who grew up under the Soviet educational system dislike the changes.

During his speech, President Nazarbayev asked all of his listeners – students and non-students alike – to work hard because “each individual’s work leads to security for the whole.”

“Actually, study is work – and very hard work,” he told the students. “Your working day is a 10-hour day.”

And he reminded his listeners of the responsibility that comes with citizenship.

Everyone should ask “What have I done to improve living conditions in my country?,” the president said. “If every citizen would think this way, then every country would have a higher development rate.”

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