By Allen Ruff and Steve Horn. This article was first published on Z Magazine.

On December 16, 2011, Kazakhstan state security forces opened fire on striking oil workers in the Caspian Sea company town of Zhanaozen. According to the official count, 15 died and upwards of 70 were wounded (unofficial casualty counts ran much higher). Jailings and repression of critics and political opponents of the regime have continued since.

The “Zhanaozen Massacre” seemingly went unnoticed by the Western faculty members and administrators working at the recently opened Nazarbayev University, located in the country’s ostentatious new capital, Astana. Opened in 2010, the mutli-billion dollar showcase university came about through a joint venture involving the country’s authoritarian regime under “Leader of the Nation,” Nursultan Nazarbayev, the World Bank, and a number of major—primarily U.S.—“partnering” universities.

As a result of deals shaped and brokered by the World Bank in 2009 and 2010, scores of academics flocked to the resource-rich, strategically located Central Asian country. They remain there despite the fact that every major international human rights monitor has cited the regime for its continuing abuse of civil liberties and basic freedoms.

In the process, Kazakhstan has become a proving ground for the World Bank’s “education reform” efforts and a revealing case study of the deep-seated “soft power” workings of the U.S. imperial order.

Nazarbayev in 2006 called for the establishment of “a unique academic environment” and the “need to create a prestigious, world-class university” in order to improve the resource rich country’s international standing. Work on the $2 billion Astana campus began in 2007. The outside planners of what was initially dubbed the New University of Astana designed it to become the centerpiece of a totally remodeled, market-oriented education system fully tethered to “the West” (meaning, the national and financial interests of the U.S. and its British junior partner).

Reflecting the importance of the project by the regime, U.S. envoys meeting with the Kazakhstan Deputy Prime Minister and Nazarbayev insider Yerbol Orynbayev in October 2009 could answer back to Washington that the University was “the government’s number one priority.”

Projecting an eventual enrollment of 20,000, the school received its first class of 500 students in September 2010.

Human Rights, Kazakh Style

With representatives from the various “partnering institutions” looking on, “Leader for Life” Nazarbayev spoke at the NU campus’s opening ceremony on June 2010. Expressing his hope that the new venture would become the “national brand of Kazakhstan,” the president  also offered the school’s first incoming class some godfatherly advice, “Young people should seek studying here. I agreed it [the university] to be named after me, so don’t let me down.”

A compliant press got the message. After all, Nazarbayev family members and their cronies control or own the dominant media. Independent journalists are subjected to prohibitive fines for publishing anything considered “defamatory” about Nazarbayev, his family, and leading government officials. Critical reporters are jailed and physically attacked, while offices of opposition newspapers have been shut down, vandalized, and even firebombed.

A 2011 U.S. State Department report on Kazakhstan’s human rights practices, described the country as having “significant human rights problems” including “…restrictions on freedom of speech, press, assembly, and association; and lack of an independent judiciary and due process, especially in dealing with pervasive corruption and law enforcement and judicial abuse.”

Transparency International in 2012 ranked the country as “not free” while Freedom House gave it a worsening “democracy score” of 6.54 (with 1 representing the highest level of democratic progress and 7 the lowest).

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have long criticized the regime for its violations of international standards regarding workers’ rights, routine repression of political opposition, impunity of the police, and intimidation and torture of those detained and imprisoned. The mistreatment of immigrants, exploitation of child labor, and human trafficking in the country continue to be documented. Recent legislation has placed further limits on freedom of religion while the post-Zhanaozen repression continues a year later.

Critics have characterized the regime as an outright kleptocracy that has siphoned off billions to Nazarbayev and his immediate circle. Corruption and bribery at all levels of government—the judiciary included—have long been considered “part of doing business” in the country. Bribery of school administrators and instructors for admission and grades has also been a long established practice that apparently has continued, despite newly-instituted “best practices,” according to online discussions.

The Regime’s New Partners

The list of elite institutions holding “strategic partner” contracts with the regime—most of which regularly portray themselves as bulwarks of academic freedom of inquiry, liberal tolerance, “ethical conduct” and the rule of law—is impressive. A team from the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education (GSE) helped design NU’s administrative workings and governance procedures. Carnegie Mellon University’s global subsidiary, iCarnegie, landed a Bank-brokered deal to help run the School of Science and Technology.

Experts from the University of Wisconsin-Madison—famed for its “Wisconsin Idea” progressive tradition, but apparently untroubled by the repressive nature of Nazarbayev’s regime—designed every detail of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences. Duke received the contract to set up and jointly run NU’s Graduate School of Business, while the University of Pittsburgh is involved with the Center for Life Sciences.

Harvard, with prestigious faculty from its Kennedy School of Government and Business School is intimately involved in shaping the country’s post-Soviet path and agreed to establish NU’s medical school. Two U.S. Department of Energy National Labs—the University of Chicago-affiliated Argonne National Laboratory and the University of California’s Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory—are now operating from state of the art campus research facilities.

Additional partners include the UK’s elite University College London (UCL), centrally involved with the country’s broader education restructuring efforts, and faculty from “strategic partner” Cambridge University, now busy with the NU “Centre for Teacher Excellence.” Experts from the National University of Singapore, far from their authoritarian home, helped create and now manage the Graduate School of Public Policy.

“Great Game” Players

The NU project came about in a broader context of international competition and imperial interest, the new “Great Game” for Central Asia. At the center of the region, Kazakhstan sits atop vast reserves of oil and gas, uranium, and additional mineral wealth in an era of increasing global competition for diminishing energy sources.

With its 4,200 mile border with Russia to the north and a 1,100 mile frontier with China to the east, and Iran to the southwest across the Caspian Sea, the country also has major strategic importance for the U.S.

Playing its own game, the Nazarbayev regime developed a shrewd”multi-vector” foreign policy to play off the competing interests of the country’s powerful neighbors with those of the U.S. and lesser imperial interests of others including Japan, Germany, and Italy.

Myriad multinational corporations, meanwhile, have moved into every sector of the country’s booming economy. International financial institutions arrived early on, with the World Bank setting up shop in 1992. Playing their own highly competitive “Great Game,” major universities, in turn, have come on board more recently. The academy’s modern-day missionaries have flocked to Astana, bearing promises of progress and development through a new “knowledge economy.”

Enter the “Knowledge Bank”

NU resulted from a number of initiatives closely coordinated by the World Bank—these days self-described as the “Knowledge Bank”—determined to eliminate global poverty through market-centric “education reform.”

Structured from its inception during World War II to assure U.S. economic supremacy in the post-war world, the World Bank has never simply been a lending institution, but rather an instrument of imperial “soft power.” In tandem with other international financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF), its loan “conditionalities” and “structural adjustment” austerity demands actually functioned to increase national debt and deepen dependency and inequality across the “developing world” through the 1970s and 1980s.

Beginning in the mid-1990s under the presidency of James Wolfensohn and his chief economist, Joseph Stiglitz, the Bank gradually recast itself as a development agency. Moving away from narrow “make you an offer you can’t refuse” infrastructural loans, it turned toward the shaping of programs and policy through “non-lending technical assistance; what Bank critic Paul Cammack has described as a form of “deep interventionism”—the fundamental transformation and full integration of potential centers of economic growth through client “country ownership” and “participation.”

Bank strategists in the mid-2000s shifted focus toward “tertiary education” as a sector vital for “progress.” Understanding “knowledge” both as a source of power and as an increasingly valuable commodity, the Knowledge Banksters also came to emphasize the benefits gained from “knowledge transfers” to and from the centers of a globalized “knowledge economy.” Under the new model, the knowledge gained from experience in one country gets filtered back to Washington for use as “templates for development”—passed off as neutral “best practices” by Bank advisers and hired consultants.

“Knowledge Bank” crtitics Elizabeth Ocampo and Dean Neu have compared its operatives and consultants to the missionaries of an earlier colonialism: “…If we exchange the black robe of the missionary for a pin-stripe suit—each a symbol of power—and the Bible for a bank ledger, with globalization as the holy grail, we may not be far off from an acceptable analogy of how the World Bank operates today…. [Its] practices…are not to be questioned by the congregation. Under the guise of knowing what is best for the people of the borrower country, [their] sacred rites are clearly designed to introduce particular forms of behaviour….” (Doing Missionary Work: The World Bank and the Diffusion of Financial Practices, 2008).

The Kazakhstan Initiative

Despite (or because of) the authoritarian but stable nature of its regime, Kazakhstan became a proving ground, of sorts, for the Bank’s “knowledge economy” education initiatives. Bank planners saw it as a place to work out new strategies in a relatively well-off “middle income country” not so much in need of massive loans as an unhidden guiding hand. What better environment to work out a strategy for the retooling of a society could there be than an authoritarian cash-flush petrostate?

The Bank proposed plans in late 2007 to upgrade and “commercialize” the nation’s research and development efforts. Part of that blueprint called for the creation of a network of university-housed, market-oriented research and development centers based primarily on U.S. models. Subsequent World Bank proposals for the revamping of the country’s technical and vocational education followed suit.

The Knowledge Bank then had to overcome one major hurdle—a financial institution, the Bank had never explicitly been in the higher education business, as such. It looked for assistance to those major universities, the homes of countless education policy planners and think-tank experts all eager to enter the new frontiers of the “global knowledge market.”

According to the Bank, it received a formal request from the country’s Ministry of Education and Science (MOES) in 2008 to assist in the construction of the “New University at Astana.” But Bank involvement began well before then. The Bank’s “knowledge economy” specialists, in conjunction with the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), had already issued “Higher Education in Kazakhstan” in January 2007. The 226-page report diagnosed problems with the country’s education system as an outmoded, but potentially re-workable, growth engine in need of major overhaul.

That study, essentially a blueprint for the restructuring of the entire education system, provided the basis for the MOES “sector-reform strategy.” It was produced by the Joint Economic Research Program (JERP), an innovative partnering effort between Bank development advisers and various Kazakhstani apparatchiks.

With the Bank providing the expertise and the regime picking up most of the tab, JERP initiatives during the preceding ten years provided policy analysis, strategic planning, and “best practice options” for various sectors. Those efforts became the cornerstone of the Bank’s “Country Partnership Strategy” and made Kazakhstan “a pioneer in drawing on the Bank’s pool of knowledge…[and] an example to other countries.”

The JERP’s prescription for the renovation of Kazakhstani education called for a rapid transfusion of “Western” expertise, technique, and new institutions built around market-driven competitiveness and “commercialization.” Nazarbayev University, viewed as the centerpiece of the entire restructuring effort, would require a U.S.-modeled administrative structure and procedures, curricula, “rules of engagement” with industry, and “twinning arrangements” with top rated universities around the world.

Partnership Development

The challenge was to make sure the new university would have an institutional structure that would “offer the dividends from a knowledge economy” and a sound “internationalization strategy.” With that in mind, and the new campus initially projected to open in fall 2009, Bank advisors arranged a JERP “Workshop for the New University” in December 2008.

That two-day Astana meet-up brought together a Bank team of consultants and MOES officials in an effort to define the “global knowledge” needed “for the successful design and implementation of the New University” and to help develop “a clear, strong governance structure,” a “financing plan,” and a “quality assurance framework.”

“Knowledge Bank” handlers then escorted a high level MOES delegation on a month-long, around-the-world “Partnership Development Tour” (PDT) in February 2009. The trip’s prospectus promised the delegation would, “see first-hand a range of governance structures, financing mechanisms, quality assurance systems, internationalization strategies and curriculum development at established, top-ranked universities…while gaining exposure to the recent experiences of young, emerging universities on the other.”

The objective, according to the Bank, was twofold: “to apply the lessons learned to the establishment and expansion of the new university of Astana…” and for “host institutions to learn about the concept and strategy of the University of Astana.” The Kazakhs and their guides visited multiple institutions, most of which eventually landed a “partnering agreement” from Nazarbayev.

Stops on the PDT globe trot included visits to Stanford, Harvard, MIT, Cambridge University, and the University College of London. The journey also included stopovers in Qatar and Singapore, two examples of capitalist development driven by an authoritarian state.

Outside Doha, the group visited the Qatar Science and Technology Park at “Education City,” home to a cluster of joint projects with U.S.-based universities including Cornell, Georgetown, Northwestern, Texas A&M, Virginia Commonwealth, and Carnegie Mellon brokered through the Bank—in some ways the model for things to come at Astana.

Delegates also met with higher ups at the National University of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. Named after the mini-state’s long-time “benevolent dictator” and “minister mentor” long admired by Nazarbayev, the school was a forerunner in the establishment of “partnering relationships” with major universities in the U.S., UK, Japan, and China. It soon won a “twinning” contract to help create and run NU’s Graduate School of Public Policy, currently slated to become the leading research and training facility for Central Asia’s politicians and state bureaucrats.

While at Cambridge, the Kazakhs were greeted by Anne Lonsdale, at the time Deputy Vice Chancellor of the University. As NU got underway in 2010, Lonsdale briefly became the university’s Provost with oversight over the vetting process for many of the Western faculty hired to teach at Astana.

Upon arriving in Astana, Lonsdale, as part of NU’s executive staff, worked alongside Shigeo Katsu, the decades-long World Bank career man, former regional vice president for its Europe and Central Asia division, and now the Rector (President) of the University.

The University College London

In April 2009, JERP organizers brought “key potential partners”—including representatives from Carnegie Mellon, Stanford, Cambridge, the University College of London, Singapore’s National University and others—to Astana for a “Partnership Development Forum.” Following an NU campus tour, they met with Kazakh officials and Bank go-betweens to finalize “partnering agreements.”

One of the first to sign was the University College of London (UCL). It took charge of a campus-based “foundation program” designed to tutor incoming NU students in academic and technical English. The College signed an additional “partnering” contract in 2011 to help run the NU School of Engineering.

Michael Worton, the UCL rep who sealed the deal, understood the Great Game stakes. Noting that, “Kazakhstan is emerging as a key strategic partner for the UK,” he continued, “It also is a country…committed to modernisation and internationalism (sic)…[with] enormous natural resources.”

Penn’s Part

Personnel from the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education (GSE) became involved early on in the planning of NU. Its experts helped develop the university’s governance structure and policies.

According to the GSE’s account, a “chance encounter” led to the Penn-NU partnership. As the story goes, in October 2009 Alan Ruby—at the time a guest lecturer on global education at the GSE—happened to be working as a consultant with the Kazakhstan finance ministry, “when word came about President Nazarbayev’s plans.”

Telling his Kazakhstani associates that it was “not just a matter of magicking up a university,” he informed them that they had to think about admissions, curriculum, faculty, governance, etc. When asked if he knew how to do such things, he informed his Astana colleagues that he just happened to know people at Penn who had the needed expertise.

At the time, Ruby was working as a private consultant for the World Bank, his former employer. As an operative with “a longstanding interest in education reform, globalization, alliances between unions and governments, and the role of education in developing economies,” Ruby earlier had led development programs in China, Vietnam and Indonesia as director of the Bank’s East Asia Human Development Sector.

As a result of Ruby’s “chance encounter,” a Kazakh planning team went to Penn in February 2010 for a one-week crash course on university administration led by the heads of GSE’s higher education management division and other Penn experts.

While the Kazakh planners enlisted help with academic programs elsewhere, the Penn advisors assisted with larger institutional issues. As a result of GSE input, Kazakhstan’s rubber stamp parliament passed legislation requiring all the country’s colleges and universities to develop Boards of Trustees by 2020. The Penn team, according to Ruby, also assisted in the recruitment of NU’s Rector—the former World Bank person, Shigeo Katsu.

Continuing on as both a Bank consultant and a NU advisor, Ruby helped plan the Nazarbayev Intellectual Schools, a national network of secondary schools created to prepare elite students for technocratic and managerial career track programs at NU. He also has played an ongoing role in restructuring the country’s education system through its “National Education Development Program.”

English Only

The first crop of NU students began classes in Sept. 2010 taught by a largely non-Kazakh faculty with instruction entirely in English, an entrance requirement.

The country’s entire academic curriculum had previously been taught in Russian or Kazakh. But, according to official accounts, Nazarbayev followed the advice of his fellow autocrat, Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew, and made English NUs primary language, viewed as the lingua franca for international scientific, technical, and business success.

Alongside Kazakh counterparts, increasingly mindful of the Anglo-American comparative advantage in higher education, the Knowledge Bank’s advisers and academic specialists also promoted an “English only” curriculum. Critics of such requirements have described them as a form of “linguistic imperialism,” a means of tethering client state institutions to U.S. corporate and strategic interests. English currently is being mandated and taught at all levels in the Kazakh system, beginning with pre-school.


Early in 2011, Kazakhstan’s rubber stamp parliament unanimously passed and President Nazarbayev signed a new law, “On the status of Nazarbayev University, Nazarbayev Intellectual Schools and Nazarbayev Fund.” The enactment granted NU and the “Intellectual Schools” a range of “special status” exemptions from Education Ministry regulations and mandates.

The law granted NU administrators the authority to set academic and governance practices in line with “Western educational standards.” It also called for the “integration of education, science and industry—the inseparability of educational process from scientific and practical activities in [the] University and…[the] provision of strategic partnerships with science and business organizations.”

A line in the enactment narrowly defined the “principle of academic freedom” solely as “independence of the University…in defining and selecting educational programs, forms and methods of implementation of education activities, and the directions of conducting scientific research.” The “guiding principle” dealing with “Autonomy and Academic Freedom,” states that the University will, “[E]nsure independence and collegiality in management and decision making based on democratic principles and personal responsibility of each individual involved; guarantee academic freedom of teachers and researchers within their research, and educational activities.”

While seemingly enshrining “autonomy” and “academic freedom,” the new law also grants ultimate authority over the University, its feeder Instructional Schools and its specially created endowment fund to a “Supreme Board of Trustees” comprised entirely of Nazarbayev loyalists and personally chaired by the Leader for Life.

The Nazarbayev Fund

The new autonomy law formally establishes the “Nazarbayev Fund,” designed to emulate self-sustaining university endowments in the U.S. and elsewhere. Like much else associated with the University, the World Bank assisted in setting up the Fund. Its investments are currently managed by Cambridge Associates, a multinational leader in the handling of major university endowments.

With no successful alumni on hand, initial contributions to the fund came from “some of Kazakhstan’s world-class companies, such as its petroleum and mining giants.” Wealthy donors with close ties to the regime immediately ponied up. The Kazakh-based mining multinational, Eurasian Natural Resources Corporation (ENRC), largely controlled by three Forbes 500 billionaires and Nazarbayev associates, contributed $98 million to the total endowment, estimated to be worth $370 million by mid-2011. Heavily invested in mineral mines in Africa, Brazil, and elsewhere, ENRC has been subject to a number of investigations surrounding allegations of corrupt investment practices and “insider trading.”

Industrial Knowledge

The restructuring of Kazakhstan’s education system with NU at its center has nothing to do with the values of liberal democracy or academic freedom—except, of course, in some of the self-serving rhetoric of those signing contracts with the regime or perhaps some academics who somehow believe their presence as the bearers of “Western values” will induce a positive change “over time.”

Still underway, that restructuring has had everything to do with serving corporate demands for “applied science” geared to industrial needs and the “commercialization” of all intellectual property and discoveries. Fully operational, the system will systematically turn out a technocratic and scientific “elite of the future”—a corps of technicians, administrators, and bureaucrats in service to an authoritarian state and its corporate partners, foreign and domestic.

A member of the NU’s administrative Executive Council, Kadisha Dairova—former staffer at Kazakhstan’s Washington embassy who administered the state’s “study abroad” Bolashak Program—stated it clearly: “Industry and the university must cooperate, otherwise the universities graduate students with skills that aren’t applicable. Industry must tell us what kind of students to produce and train.”

In that vein, the University has set up its own advisory Industrial Board comprised of executives from a number of firms to assure “education-research-industry integration.” Dairova candidly spoke of NU as “a unique project that was from the outset created as a testing ground for new innovative educational and research projects…” She explained elsewhere that, “Nazarbayev University is a kind of educational and scientific hub of Kazakhstan and in the future will be one for Central Asia and the entire post-Soviet space.”

While some conservative academics and ideologues have long claimed that the “free market” and democracy are inextricably tied together, program developers and World Bank operatives have long understood that dictatorial regimes can be quite efficient in propelling economic growth and industrial development. The Kazakh leadership, despite its lip service to “democracy,” “autonomy,” and “academic freedom”—encoded in the law but violated in practice—has certainly understood that.

The 2012 Freedom House country report framed it well, stating, “Kazakhstan has used the rhetoric of reform and democratization to appease the West without demonstrating a genuine commitment to these processes in practice.”

Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

Allen Ruff is a U.S. historian and investigative researcher. His primary work centers on opposition to U.S. "grand strategy" and interventions in the Middle East, Central Asia and elsewhere. He hosts a weekly a public affairs program on WORT, 89.9 FM in Madison, Wisconsin and blogs at