bottleneck analysis

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Tag Archives: Kazakhstan

Скоро кончится лето – Кино

Almaty, Kazakhstan 

I’m writing my dissertation, that’s why I’ve been so proficient in procrastinating. But it’s crunch time, so I promise this will be my last post until I’m done with my academic writing.

When Viktor Tsoi died at 28 in a car accident in Latvia, the Baltic country had just declared its independence from the USSR. It was June of 1990, a time of change, or “перемен” as Tsoi would have sung it if he had lived to see it. A truly Soviet character, Tsoi was a Korean-Russian with some roots in Kazakhstan’s former sleepy capital of Kyzylorda (his father was born there). A profoundly uneasy artist, who even sounded dark when he sung his less-than-happy songs with his band, Kino.

Every 21st of June, the former Soviet youth celebrates its own Christmas. The birthday of Tsoi revives the Soviet rock scene from Almaty to St. Petersburg. Even a street artist was able to get away with painting a mural in his honor in Almaty, avoiding the ever strict Kazakh police. But I digress. I conducted a very quick analysis of the lyrics sung in the most famous songs by Kino. As I casually listened to the words used, it became clear that the choice made by Tsoi in the 80s was more original than many other songs that usually play in my iTunes.

A mural for Viktor Tsoi - Almaty (Arbat) 2014

A mural for Viktor Tsoi – Almaty (Arbat) 2014

Next to very Soviet words like звезда (star), война (war), земля (land), вперёд (forward), город (city), there are several ones related to natural phenomena – солнце (sun), трава (grass), снег (snow), огонь (fire). Other recurrent words reference the body: кровь (blood) and глаза (eyes). The choice of verbs is also interesting: молчить (to be silent), спать (to sleep), встать (to wake/stand up), остаться (to stay/be left). One very peculiar word that comes up often is брод (ford, “a shallow place in a river or stream allowing one to walk or drive across” tells me the dictionary).

Often, Kino’s songs address uncomfortable situations that disturb the “normal” living experience. When Tsoi talks about being stuck in either an Elektrichka (“Suburban Electric Train”) or on a Trolleibus going East, you can feel the problems that the singer was facing within. You won’t find любовь (love) or сердце (heart), except in their un-romantic meanings. “Love” is used in the locution я не люблю to say “I don’t like”, whereas “heart” is more often the source of pain than excitement.

There is so much sub-text in Kino’s songs that I should dedicate a month to it, not 30 minutes. But time flies, so I’d better go back to my dissertation, listening to Tsoi’s tunes, of course.


Calcio-spettacolo – #JZ4ever edition

Almaty, Kazakhstan

Finalmente sono stati decisi gli ultimi orari delle partite della Serie A, così posso completare il mio umile studio della follia del calcio italiano, che non fa più vedere la luce del sole ai calciatori. Stasera, un’altra nottata per vedere l’ultimo Zanetti.

Trentotto partite. Una squadra che mangia tutto, un’altra che lascia qualche briciola e tante altre mediocrità. Alcune mediocrità hanno speso tanto e hanno fallito i propri obiettivi, alcune altre mediocrità sono salite sul piedistallo e hanno lanciato campioni giovani e maturi e a volte sono state tutt’altro che mediocri, ma solo a volte. Insomma, mentre ancora mi fanno male gli occhi per le partite che ho guardato, ho pensato al motivo per il quale mi sono dovuto fare le nottate qui in Kazakistan. Tutte le cavolo di partite sono giocate la sera!

Spalmare il campionato su più orari, più giorni, più pre-pranzi e pre-cene per vendere meglio i diritti tv. Va bene. Ma bisogna dare un senso a questo “spettacolo”, soprattutto vista la sua qualità. Ho fatto un breve calcolo per le cinque squadre più seguite:

Juventus: 20 partite in notturna (20.45 o 21) e 7 nel tardo pomeriggio (18/18.30/19) – 11 con il sole

Roma: 22 partite in notturna (20.45 o 21) e 3 nel tardo pomeriggio (18/18.30/19) – 13 con il sole

Napoli: 23 partite in notturna (20.45 o 21) e 6 nel tardo pomeriggio (18/18.30/19) – 9 con il sole

Inter: 24 partite in notturna (20.45 o 21) e 3 nel tardo pomeriggio (18/18.30/19) – 11 con il sole

Milan: 26 partite in notturna (20.45 o 21) e 3 nel tardo pomeriggio (18/18.30/19) – 9 con il sole

Soltanto in 3 giornate le partite sono state giocate allo stesso orario (5a, 10a e 30a), tutte alla sera (20.45). Il resto è stata una scelta di palinsesto televisivo. Ora, per chi come me non vive nello stesso fuso-orario dell’Italia ed è costretto a fare le notti per vedersi “la partita”, ecco che le occhiaie cominciano ad allargarsi. Se poi tifi una squadra di Milano, su 76 partite, ben 50 sono state disputate in notturna. Visto il rendimento e il gioco espresso dalle due squadre milanesi, si può solo concludere che queste siano state notti sprecate.

C’è ancora una notturna in programma per l’ultima di campionato, ma quella che brucia di più a un’interista è quella passata domenica scorsa. Stare sveglio fino alle due e non vedere Zanetti sul campo per il derby è stata una ferita simile al 5 maggio. Se oggi, l’ultima a San Siro del capitano di una vita, quello scempio si dovesse ripetere, torno a piedi in Italia e tolgo le zeta dal cognome del mister.

Kazakhstan at the Center of Eurasian Energy (an unconventional article)

Almaty, Kazakhstan

Several things have changed since I wrote this article in October 2013. It was never published and since it’s not topical anymore and it’s not deep enough to pitch it anywhere, I want to embark in an experiment: I’m going to comment it with a seven-month delay to check what has changed in the meantime. Comments are in bold. The original piece was written on October 9, 2013.

October has been a busy month for the energy sector of Kazakhstan. After a very hectic summer, with the launch of Kashagan oil production in September, Almaty and Astana hosted two very important international meetings.

In Almaty, the 21st Kazakhstan International Oil & Gas Exhibition (KIOGE) opened its doors on October 1st and saw the presence of local and international companies involved in the Kazakh energy sector, in particular in oil and gas from the upstream to the downstream. At the KIOGE Conference, on October 2nd, several influential figures took the floor and talked about the main successes and prospective challenges in the Kazakh extractive sector. Of particular interest, due to its recent developments, was the start of production in Kashagan, which had been the object of several years of investments and drillings in severe climatic conditions. At the press conference, the Deputy CEO of Geology and Projects at the national oil and gas company KazMunaiGaz (KMG), Kurmangazy Iskaziyev dismissed the rumors that regarded the stoppage of production soon after its start. “In such difficult conditions” he said, “it is business-as-usual to encounter such halts to production, it was fully accounted for by the consortium”. Now we know that the stoppage was not a short-term hiccup, but a structural problem which will delay production until the end of 2015, at the very least. Also, why do they always choose to start production with the winter season approaching?

When talking about the export options for Kashagan oil, the main option for the consortium is still the Caspian Pipeline Consortium (CPC), which goes through Russia, to the port of Novorossiisk, where oil is shipped to the world markets. The input of new oil into the market goes hand in hand with the expansion of the CPC, which plans to more than double its throughput capacity in the next few years. Without additional input from a source other than TengizChevrOil, a 56/60 mta pipeline will be hard to fill. And if Kashagan is crucial to the “Future Growth Project”, then what does the consortium hope in terms of further oil supply? 

Otherwise, short-length shipping from Atyrau to the hub in Samara, or barge shipping from Aktau to Baku are both viable options, but less palatable economically. According to Reuters’ head of Commodities in the CIS, Aleksander Yershov, the government’s preference for CPC is “logical”. Quietly present was also the Chinese option, because its viability depends on the expansion of the pipeline network that connect Western Kazakhstan to Western China (an option that is not yet being served at the pipelines table). A few key questions for Kazakh energy were brought to the fore: the maturity of the fields that are being exploited in the country, the need for an improvement of the energy transportation infrastructure, and the beginning of the era of hard oil, also called “inaccessible oil”. This last point was echoed at the VIII KazEnergy Eurasian Forum that took place last week in Astana (8-9 October). There, several experts and famous politicians reminded the energy industry that the “end of easy oil” would entail an  increased of the role of the state in the extractive industries. Only by doing so, countries can ensure that the energy mix in domestic consumption and the portfolio for export can remain balanced. Wim Thomas, Chief Energy Advisor at Shell, depicted two scenarios that varied in the state intervention in the energy sector. Only a scenario that gives more power to the market would be successful according to the head of one among the top companies in Kazakhstan. At KazEnergy, the speakers mentioned repeatedly the ‘shale gas revolution’ in the United States as a game changer, because of its indirect effects on several market nodes down the chain of energy trade. These effects have yet to be seen in Europe, as gas is not yet traded without the link to the oil indexes, which is telling of how slow developments in this sectors can be when the resource is either still in the ground or not-so-easy to transport.

The official line of the Kazakh government is that day-to-day pragmatism has to be kept in place, while new development policies are drafted. Ministers and deputies mentioned the Green Economy legislation as the first step and unveiled on October 8th the Project ‘Evraziya’, which can become a platform for transnational companies and littoral governments in the Pri-Caspian region. The main partners will be Russia and Kazakhstan. Their public officials have promised to take the necessary steps to declassify their geological data in order to allow for an informed period of monitoring through the creation of an international consortium, under the auspices of the Ministries of Energy in Moscow and Astana. KazEnergy has been the broker of this project since the meeting last year, and the signature of an agreement by the end of the year would signify the success of the Forum in its mediation efforts. Nobody has talked about it since then, hopefully they’re working on it behind closed doors, but it would be interesting to check back at the next KazEnergy Forum. 

According to François Fillon and José María Aznar, both former Prime Ministers in France and Spain respectively, the role of the government in these matters should be one of balancing domestic needs with regional and global aspirations, but also one of attracting and encouraging foreign investment. This aim can only be achieved by guaranteeing a stable and reliable legislative framework, something that was repeatedly stressed also at KIOGE by several representatives of foreign companies that work in Kazakhstan. In particular, the new tender system, the question of health and safety of the workers, and the general issue of transparency were addressed. (Although some issues created conflicts among workers in the past months.) However, this last point about transparency was addressed by the V National Conference on the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative in Kazakhstan, held at the end of KazEnergy on October 9th. In this occasion, the working plan for a new study of the penetration of transparency standards in Kazakhstan was laid out, which set in stone the collaboration between Astana and the Oslo-based organization. Competing interests were brought together during these two forums, with the two different understanding of energy security being spelled out by both importers and exporters. The participation of the representatives of the European Union and those of the Persian Gulf countries is telling of the efforts that Kazakhstan puts in place for the solution of one of the most complex equations of the 21st century. The placement of the Central Asian country at the center of the picture, increases the importance of Kazakhstan in bridging the interests of consumers and suppliers from Europe to Asia. No words were spent on India, which had just been sidelined after their offer for a stake in Kashagan was matched by KMG in the summer of 2013, and was later sold to CNPC by the Kazakh state company. Now, the recent developments of the new tenders in Kazakhstan, especially the successful exploration in the Abai offshore bloc, could revive the partnership.

Final note: in the past months, an increasingly depressing picture has been painted on the fate of Kashagan. This is especially true since the problem that it faced at the end of September 2013 is likely to strengthen the Consortium’s headache. Ramping costs, environmental fines, and production delays can only hurt the balance sheet of the operators of the field. Plus, the inability to enjoy the time of high oil prices can also have a negative effect, since the paradigmatic shift in Europe is ensuing and could bring down oil prices. If the “easy oil” era is expiring, the “inaccessible oil” epoch has still to come for Kazakhstan  

Stampa estera, Foreign press, зарубежная пресса

Almaty, Kazakhstan 

This is a trilingual post, perché non mi capiscono когда по-итальянский говорю.

Dieci giorni fa, un blog kazako ha ripreso un mio articolo apparso su “L’Indro” sull’Affaire Ablyazov.Fin qui, ero contento.

Poi ho scoperto, che per un problema di interpretazione dei pronomi utilizzati, il curatore dell’articolo aveva fondamentalmente travisato il messaggio che avevo scritto.

Avrei detto che un giovane imprenditore sarebbe diventato il prossimo presidente del Kazakistan. E lo sapevo solo io?

No, secondo il blog, la loro fallace interpretazione delle mie parole rifletterebbe un sentimento condiviso nella stampa estera.

Di nuovo, contento di essere letto con attenzione in Kazakistan, ma contrariato dall’incapacità di tradurre per bene (dall’italiano al russo).

Ho lasciato un commento sul post, ma solo dopo che più di 4.000 persone avevano visitato la pagina.

Ora capisco come si creano i cicloni di false notizie.

Andiamo avanti.

Ten days ago, a blog in Kazakhstan reported an article of mine on the Ablyazov Affaire, published on “L’Indro”.Up to this point, I was happy.

Then I discovered that, due to a problem with the interpretation of the pronouns I used, the person that blogged the piece fundamentally missed the point of my message.

I apparently said that a young entrepreneur would have become the next president of Kazakhstan. And was I the only one who knew?

Not according to their blog. In their opinion, the fallacious interpretation of my words reflects a feeling common in the whole foreign press.

Again, I’m happy that people in Kazakhstan read me, but I’m grumpy, for they are incapable of translating well (from Italian into Russian).

I wrote a comment on the post, but only after more that 4,000 people had visited the page.

Now I know how small mis-interpretations become hurricanes of false news.

Let’s go forward.

Десять дней назад, блог в Казахстане сообщил, мою статью на Аблязова Affaire, опубликованным на “L’Indro”.До этого момента, я был счастлив.

Тогда я узнал, что, из-за проблем интерпретации местоимений, которые я использовал,  блогер существенно ошибился мысль моего сообщения.

Я, видимо, сказал, что молодой предприниматель стал бы следующим президентом Казахстана. И был я единственный, кто знал?

Не по их блога. По их мнению, ошибочна интерпретация моих слов отражает общее мнение, которое можно увидеть на зарубежной прессе.

Опять же, я счастлив, что люди в Казахстане меня читают, но я я недоволен, потому, что они не смогли хорошо переводить (с итальянского на русский).

Я написал комментарий на блоге, но только после более 4000 человек посмотрили страницу.

Теперь я знаю, как маленькая плохая интерпретация становятся ураганы ложных новостей.

Давайте вперед пойдём.


Almaty, Kazakhstan

It’s been 3 months since I moved to Kazakhstan and almost 4 months since my last post.
There are reasons for this. Shortly, I’ll list them below.

– I am successfully continuing my collaboration with the newspaper ‘L’Indro‘, where I publish two weekly columns on the post-Soviet region, covering mostly politics and economics, with a pinch of energy, of course. With the newspaper I also got to experience the “press pass” for the first time and talked to several fellow journalists at KIOGE in Almaty and KazEnergy Forum in Astana.

– I am also on the lookout for opportunities to publish stories in English again.

– I was interviewed twice. Once by ‘MilanoFinanza‘, the ‘Financial Times‘ of Italy. The long interview was on one of my favorite topics: the future of energy in Russia. It occupies the first 4 pages of a special issue of the weekly magazine that was distributed at the G20 in St. Petersburg in September. The last interview, was taken today, with a journalist from Barcelona working for the new information platform Extramurs, “planetary” news in Català. We discussed about the Arctic and the geopolitical challenges around it. I probably talked too much about energy, but I structured my answers around the vicious circle Global Warming – Northern Route – Oil&Gas Drilling – Global Warming… If we leave it to the Smithian invisible hand of market forces, we’ll pretty soon live an eternal summer.

– I enrolled in 6 graduate courses at KIMEP University. The most challenging of which, is Kazakh language, of course (look at the bad pun in the title, Alma-Ata, Alma-Mater…)

– I am in the process of finishing 2 academic publications. One is a comparison of the effects of EU accession in Bulgarian and Lithuanian nuclear energy policies (edited volume, published by Brill, The Netherlands). The other is a paper on my dissertation topic: bringing Gramscian concept to the study of energy and foreign policy in the case of Caspian pipeline politics (edited volume, published by ibidem, Germany).

– I will also finish up my economic research on Nord Stream as soon as I get my last interviews back.

Work, work, work… But life in Kazakhstan goes well nonetheless. Nice and warm here in Almaty. I met several beautiful people that accompany me in the everyday struggle against Soviet-era bureaucracy.

A highlight was the meeting with an Italian singer that has captured the ears and the hearts of many Kazakhs: Son Pascal. Originally, I approached him for an interview. Then, soon after we developed a fresh friendship. I’m sure our adventure at the sauna last week with the two oldest Kazakhs alive, talking about the internet (?!), open-heart operations (?!), and wives (?!), was not the last.

Oh, and most importantly, the NEW PROJECT that I’ve been working on for 2 years now will see the light before the end of the year. It’s going to be awesome and it will make me happy. I will soon share the details.

Marketing Academic Achievements

Oakland, CA

Roughly one year after the publication of my MA thesis as a book, I received in the mail a special package, containing the first peer-reviewed and fully-recognized publication of academic relevance I have ever written. This one sounds more like the first real step into the academic world.

The book, although cherished by parents, relatives, and friends, was crafted by me, with the dear help of my mentor and my partner. The paper published by European Perspectives weeks ago was the outcome of my first international conference as a protagonist and the first peer-review process. One question keeps me confused: what should authors do to emerge from the crowd and make their voices heard in the midst of a world where publishing (and self-publishing) has become easier and easier?

My youngest cousin was born on 11/11/2011. The doctors planned the date for the cesarean section for that unique day. However, I was already set to go to London for my first international conference as a speaker, the presentation ready and a first draft of the paper completed. I was disappointed to miss such a happy family event, but everybody had a full understanding as I was going to set a milestone as well. Small, lively, and intense, the One-Day Energy Workshop organized by Diana Bozhilova and Tom Hashimoto was a great success and featured young scholars from all over the world. Two emerging experts in energy politics, Diana and Tom arranged everything to be smooth and effective at the Bulgarian Embassy where the meeting was held. From the final applause onwards, we knew we had to work hard to finish our work, include the suggestions received, and send it to an academic journal. The plural used for the following part relates to the fact that this publication was co-authored with colleague, friend, and dreamer Elvira Oliva. November passed and the January deadline approached. Rushing through our many occupations (Elvira actually has a structured, real one!), we send in the paper, get a very thorough peer-review, and edit it accordingly. Finally, the paper is ready, shifted to another journal, and published. Granted, we could have done a better job with the graphs and with some of the content, but this effort, which lasted almost one year, generated our best achievement so far.

The process of academic publication is fairly long. You have to make sure your writing is impeccable, clear, and inequivocal. You have to take care of style, subdivision, quoting and referencing, and spelling rules. Once this process is complete – and of course, the content must be outstanding, original, and intriguing – you get slashed on something you had not previously taken into consideration. Ah, the beauty of many eyes and brains! Collectively, the whole work is perfected and solidified. Freshly out of the printer and freshly linked online, this paper conveyed the sensation of being a delicious cookie.

Back and Front of the European Perspectives journal

On another note, I just received the yearly statement for my book which has sold eleven copies. Not enough for generating royalty payments (I would have needed at least double the amount), but enough for boosting my morale even further about the recognition of my efforts. Eleven brave individuals have emptied their Amazon cart with my – rather expensive, unfortunately – book in it. Soon, after I complete my editing and I add a section on China, Russia, and Central Asian energy, I will be able to publish it for free on the website of the research center I am working with (PECOB). Free means more access and more opportunities for intellectual dialogue. As I complete my first year of relationship with my publisher, I would not repeat the experience if I were to publish another book. Mainly because the book was placed at a very high cost on the market and, although not asking for anything in return, the publisher gave me back less than I had dreamt of. [Incidentally, I think the book would have sold way more copies were it put at 1/4 of its current cost. Probably more than 4 times as much copies would have been sold. Making still zero returns for me, probably higher profits for the publisher, but chiefly, making the book available to more readers! – Here I am teaching marketing…]

The question, the main puzzle keeps standing. How should academic publications be advertised, promoted? I go around on Facebook, Google,, Twitter, and other social media, I published several articles online which linked to my work. I started a blog also with the purpose of promoting my writings. I received a few rewarding reviews that allowed me to improve my understanding of my own work and my mistakes in it. However, I feel that the work of this young researcher has been left out from some circles in which I was eager to participate. What sould I have done? What should I do in the future? Carpet-bomb academics, libraries, and journalists with emails about the new cookie? Have promotional events (although I hate “events” and that would accrue a significant cost and therefore push me towards the need of sales)? Circulate free copies of the manuscript? I did a mix of all of the above, minus the event, and I would like my eclectic audience to suggest what marketing strategies should I have undertaken and how much “poking around” is enough.

Education in Motion

on BART, between SFO and Oakland.

During the past year and a half I’ve been looking for something to do with my life – and not only mine – after graduating from my Master degree in Italy. Willing to keep studying and having enjoyed the US research environment, I decided to try applying – again – for a PhD program here. However, my previous and recent experience with the standard way of assessing applications, left me with a sour taste, again.

During my NEET (not in education, employment, or training) period, I kept enjoying the beauty of studying through libraries, where I entered thanks to my old IDs. It sure feels good to be involved in reading academic texts without the pressure of the exam. I had a project in my sleeve, so I just explored more and more the world of energy and tried to gain knowledge in fields where I lacked one. Freedom to read also gave me the possibility of reading novels and more political texts. Meanwhile, I struggled to earn a minimum for my subsistence, which I barely managed in such a bureaucratized world.

I concentrated my interest in a few projects that allowed me to be eclectic in my future path: the issue of hydrocarbons in the Arctic, the Bulgarian nuclear energy sector, the struggle for power and gas between the Kremlin and Gazprom, and the relevance of energy in diplomatic cooperation in the Caspian region. These might sound boring to many, but to me they spark interest and excitement. They are also deeply rooted in recent history, but they keep their impact in contemporary daily news. As I sit through conferences more and more frequently, I realize that what’s intriguing to some could be irrelevant to others.

Without much illusion of succeeding, thanks to the last drop of self-esteem that was left in me, I found the energy to apply for a very interesting Erasmus Mundus program. Erasmus Mundus was recently set up to link “Erasmus” countries – that have their university systems already interconnected through student, staff, and faculty exchanges – and third countries in the extended neighborhood of Europe, such as the Middle East, the Caucasus, Central Asia, etc. The program to which I submitted my application was a new one, coordinated by the University of Glasgow: the International Master in Russian and Central and Eastern European Studies (IMRCEES). The program had already existed for a few years, but this was the first year that the consortium obtained EU funds for it. Glasgow is in fact teamed up with a few other institutions from Poland, Estonia, Hungary, Finland, and Kazakhstan. As soon as I read Kazakhstan I became interested. I laid out my plan and submitted the many documents needed for the contextual application to the program and to the scholarship. A couple of months later, when my expectations for further education had vanished, I received a letter that confirmed my admission to the program. I shook my head: I had to change plans again, but this time it would have been more fun!

So I packed my luggage and tried my best to give and get a Glasgow impression by participating in the annual conference of my future department. I went there during my crazy May, just before my trip back to the US, on which I embarked with a very different motivation compared to the previous ones. This is my last stay in this beautiful and strange country for a while and I am going to use it as a trampoline for my next English-language adventure.

My first stop will be Scotland in September. There I will spend one academic year, trying to learn Russian one more time, carefully engaging with my professors on matters that my experience has told me a lot about, and enjoying the Tropical weather. One of the previous resolutions is clearly false, I’ll let you guess which one while I go to the store to buy a raincoat.

The next summer is going to be full of travels and surprises, as my plan is to go to Azerbaijan for research, but I might have to stop in Estonia first, for additional academic reasons. Anyway it goes, the 2013 summer term will be short, as I will continue my eastbound ride to Kazakhstan, to the former and prospective capital city of Almaty, which is supposed to re-gain its status in 2017. I will spend another academic year there before completing yet another thesis, in order to gain yet another Master degree. What will this lead to? There’s no use in asking, as my future keeps changing weekly.

The Challenge of Languages

Giarre, Italy

This post was clearly inspired by the blog series by Calvin, an American friend of mine, whose first goal is to deconstruct, analyze, and confront challenges for twenty-somethings in particular era we are living these days. His series has been going on for quite some time now (it all started on January 9, 2012) and I’m sure it’s becoming a challenge in itself.

There are many challenges life has put before me in the past years of being a “twenty-something”. Love, houses, exams and graduations, travels, money, friendship, family matters, jobs… the internet! … are only the major among many tough issues I’ve had to cope with. The feeling of being an unsettled individual is one of the most pleasant challenges I face every day.

However, as I approach a new academic experience that will bring me to study in the Post-Soviet area, I have to greet, once again, the challenge of languages. The reason I use the “Post-Soviet” term to refer to Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan – the countries where I will end up living – is because they share a basic knowledge of the Russian language, which was the Soviet language for nearly sixty years. Stalin’s program of “carpet” Russification in the non-Russian Soviet Republics was felt, of course, as an imposition from abroad. The colonial attitude by Moscow towards its fellow Soviet neighbors during the Cold War helped the development of anti-Russian sentiments in the periphery.  In the last days of 1991, the Soviet Republics all of a sudden realized they were independent. Interestingly, their leadership still remained very “Soviet” inside.

Despite regrets, arguments, clashes with drunken Yeltsin, and confusion over what to do, “former Soviet” leaders transformed themselves into “newly independent” leaders. Most of them were seasoned politicians and they could seize the opportunity given by the political and socio-economic uncertainty to use their chamaleon powers and root their legitimacy in  a nationalistic rhetoric. The countries I will be visiting have been the most stable, US-friendly, and economically growing among the Post-Soviet subjects. The Aliyevs in Azerbaijan have established a quasi-hereditary monarchy (even though they like to be called “President”) and Nazarbayev in Kazakhstan enjoys the same popularity as the Pope among Catholics. In both countries, since the last days of the USSR, the nationalistic trend has gone back to the Turkic tradition. On the one hand, they strive to appear as Western as possible in order to attract foreign investments, but on the other hand, the ancient tradition is recovered by laws and day-to-day social(-ly imposed) changes.

The major reflection of these nationalistic changes is evident in the language. Russian has been downgraded as the “accompanying language” to the official one, which, in many cases is just one variety of the many dialects that the inhabitants spoke before the Tsarist and Soviet invasions. This long historical context serves as a background for my personal challenge with languages for the next few years. Here, you might find handy another set of background information.

I learned to master the Spanish language through my year in Granada as an exchange student. Then I turned my eyes to Russian, which I needed for my studies. However, having lived in Russia for less than a full week, I could never get beyond the elementary-to-intermediate swing. Then came my journey to the United States, where I did take Russian, but I started writing and speaking everything that was processed in my brain through English words. While good on the English-language side, my Russian bent spoiled. What’s to be done now? I will investigate more and more Russian-language documents as my research will still be centered on energy issues in the Caspian, but at the same time I will be living in countries where the usage of Russian is withering away.

My experience in Washington has taught me that Kazakhs are still reliant on Russian, especially for their diplomatic and political speeches and jokes. Yet, again, nationalism is kicking in: one very nice Kazakh diplomat invited me to their embassy on 16th Street, kindly answered to my questions in English, and then showed me the room with the display of traditional garment and weaponry used by Kazakh tribes “back then”, as he uttered walking me to the door. Nevertheless, I think my research experience is going to be smooth if I get back on the books and prepare myself in the Russian language.

The real challenge comes with the language for my daily interactions. I want to be able to live in these countries, even though my experience will surely be restricted to a few months, because of the structure of the program. For this reason, today I browsed a few YouTube videos with introductory courses for the Kazakh language. I will dedicate a few hours per week to a serious study of this language, which draws from many different linguistic roots (Arabic, Mongol, Greek…) and developed from many different dialects, all of which were hybernated during Stalin’s imposition of Russian. I’m sure I won’t be able to deal with the Azeri idiom as well, but my journey to Baku is still uncertain and will surely be shorter than my stay in Almaty.

Yet, as an unsettled being, I maintain a feeling of uncertainty about learning languages I might stop using sooner than expected. The challenge will therefore be to “enjoy it while it lasts”. Like many challenges faced by erratic twenty-somethings.

Repost: “Kazakhstan: Astana at a Turning Point”

Giarre, Italy

As my physical and academic journey towards the Caspian approaches, I want to start taking direct inspiration and insights from who knows first-hand. Here’s Nate Schenkkan from Eurasianet:

You see banners all across Kazakhstan, strung across government buildings, on airport runways, and on billboards lining the streets of provincial capitals. They all say the same thing: “The primary values of the state are stability and the unity of the people of Kazakhstan. – N. Nazarbayev.”

For much of the last decade, that slogan seemed to define Kazakhstan. But in the past year, Kazakhstan’s reputation for stability and unity has faced a formidable challenge. First, there was a series of terrorist attacks, beginning in Aktobe in May. Then, in late 2011, there occurred a bloody clash between police and striking workers in Zhanaozen.

It’s no coincidence the unrest took place in Kazakhstan’s oil-rich west. A vast, barren region blessed with enormous reserves of oil and gas, western provinces are experiencing wrenching demographic and economic changes. Although the government has been aware of social, economic and religious tensions in the west for several years, it has not fundamentally changed its policy approach. Instead, it is funding more and bigger development schemes, appointing new leaders answerable only to Astana to run the regions, and intensifying repression. Such tactics seem unlikely to solve existing problems. Instead, they stand a better chance of making them worse.

The background to Kazakhstan’s recent unrest can be found in the country’s demographic transformation. Since independence in 1991, European nationalities have emigrated en masse. The number of ethnic Russians in Kazakhstan dropped by over one-third between 1989 and 2009, with approximately 2.3 million leaving. The community of ethnic Germans shrunk by approximately 770,000, and roughly 545,000 Ukrainians also departed. By 1999, 17 percent of Kazakhstan’s 1989 population had picked up and left.

As Europeans were emigrating, the Kazakhstani government was encouraging ethnic Kazakhs from surrounding countries to return. About 860,000 “oralmans” — returnees in Kazakh — ended up coming home. That influx, bolstered by the natural increase of the population, enabled Kazakhstan’s population to rebound to its 1989 level by 2011.

Returning oralmans settled largely in the south and the west. Joining them are internal migrants and illegal immigrants from nearby Uzbekistan. Economic opportunity was the chief allure for those settling in the west. As tough as life can be on the steppe, wages are higher in Kazakhstan’s energy belt than in Central Asia’s depressed agricultural regions, whether in southern Kazakhstan or Uzbekistan.

The flood of migration – the population of Mangystau Province grew 67 percent from 1999 to 2009, and Atyrau’s grew 32 percent over the same period – created inflationary pressure. Housing, in particular, is now scarce and expensive because Soviet-era buildings are deteriorating and new construction has been inadequate to meet demand. Meanwhile, the national 5.4 percent unemployment rate does not include almost one-third of the working-age population that is considered “self-employed.”

Whether in Aktau, Atyrau, or Uralsk, these are the complaints one hears every day: high prices, scarce housing, and a lack of work. The 2008 economic crisis exacerbated the situation, freezing development and eliminating hundreds of low-skilled jobs, especially in construction, which, in turn, stalled housing development.

So while social issues in the west garner a lot of attention, the fundamental catalyst for tension is economic—tens of thousands of un- and underemployed people, many of them recent migrants, who see vast resource wealth being extracted, but live in crowded, dilapidated, yet expensive conditions. Government programs so far have failed to adequately address this lack of socio-economic balance. And it looks like public policy is moving in the wrong direction.

The government approach hinges on ambitious, centrally designed development schemes. A national program, Affordable Housing-2020, is supposed to spend $236 million annually from 2014 to 2020 to build up to 4,000 apartments per year. In his January State of the Nation speech, Nazarbayev announced a new national employment program, which aims to create 1.5 million “quality jobs” by 2020. Nazarbayev also emphasized a series of enormous capital investment projects in the west, including a 1,200-kilometer railway connecting Mangystau with the central hub of Zhezkagan, a $1.7-billion oil refinery in Atyrau, and additional investment in the $6.3-billion chemical and gas processing facility in the same city.

Money is not a problem for Kazakhstan. The government is already generating healthy returns from energy development, and at least two new major hydrocarbon projects will go online in the coming years: the enormous Kashagan oil field offshore from Atyrau, and the third phase of development of the Karachaganak gas condensate field, 150 kilometers from Uralsk.

When it comes to finding a new socio-economic balancing point in the west, the problem is in execution. As in Russia, the allocation of resources rests on the so-called “power vertical.” And responsibility for implementing programs lies with officials directly appointed by the center, whose constituents are in Astana, not the communities they govern.

Such conditions provide ample opportunity for corruption. Much of Zhanaozen’s leadership, including the last two mayors, has been arrested, indicating that a culture of graft had developed over the past decade in the city. Meanwhile in Aktau, a newly appointed governor is only now raising questions about the privatization of a central park and huge stretches of the city’s scenic waterfront, which local activists have complained about for years.

The power vertical, of course, needs a coercive component in order to be viable. Accordingly, security services harass and intimidate independent journalists, activists and average citizens who try to oppose, or even question government policy. Whether the subject is workers’ rights, oralmans, Islam, or the environment many people are now afraid to talk publicly.

In a system where many are intimidated into silence, government development schemes remain unaccountable to the people they are supposed to help. Until Astana can develop mechanisms that allow local communities to hold authorities accountable, there is little reason to expect the new wave of development will significantly alter the inequalities driving discontent in the west.

In his January speech, Nazarbayev highlighted the importance of improving local self-government and increasing citizen participation in order to avoid a repeat of the Zhanaozen events. He tasked the government with developing a “Concept on the Development of Local Self-Governance” by July 1. Genuine local self-governance, though, requires that non-state interests and other centers of political power be allowed to develop—in other words, it requires actual democracy.

Acephalous Violence is Beheaded again in Kazakhstan

I have been writing this article over the course of a week. Partially because of my phisical move from San Francisco (my last activity at the Java Café on Ocean Avenue) to Oakland (the first effort in a house that keeps getting busier with much needed stuff). But also because the unraveling of the events shows how illusive is the first set of news that pops up from the papers. I guess Gutenberg was not happy of the first sheet that came out of his press. And he didn’t even write the Bible! Nowadays, instead, we read freshly-puked articles from mainstream media as if they were the Bible. Why not getting a new perspective, or just imagine there is another one?

San Francisco and Oakland (on the move), California

(a) The Logo for the Celebrations

Kazakhstan has been independent from the late Soviet Union for 20 years now. It has become the friendliest post-Soviet economy for the West and has actively participated in many international organizations. In the past couple of years, it has diversified its hydrocarbon export routes and has developed a great international reputation in the energy sector (including nuclear). Power is firmly in the hands of Nursultan Nazarbayev and his extended family since 1987 and nobody questions it. There is a caste system that dates back to the pre-Imperial Russia period and only thanks to a presidential push, the Kazakh language is spreading within all sectors of society – although the diplomatic community speaks Russian. From the West, the view of this immense country  is filtered through dollar-shaped lenses and dazed by the smell of oil. Only the facility of filing taxes, just a touch away from your mobile phone [1], and the convenient investment environment for foreign firms have drawn attention.

Welcome to the Nineties

Kazakhstan is the country where Chevron could lead a consortium of firms for the exploitation of the “giant” oilfield in Tengiz (see green pin on the map below), the contract being signed i 1993, just over a year after independence, with negotiations starting already in 1988. Later in the Nineties, TengizChevrOil was the leading force pushing for th first privately-owned pipeline project in the post-Soviet space, the Caspian Pipeline Consortium, which saw the light in 2001, linking Tengiz with the Russian port of Novorossiisk. The OECD was fast in labeling Kazakhstan among the fastest transitioning countries, allowing presence of western firms and holding seemingly “contested” elections. However, Nazarbayev knew that a full-fledged laissez faire approach would have pleased the West and risen tension among its neighbors, chiefly Russia, headed by Nazarbayev’s personal adversary, Boris Yeltsin.

(b) December 16, 2011 – An Arc de triomphe replica is unveiled in Astana.

When Kozyrev the “Westernizer” left Moscow’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs to make room for Primakov, Nazarbayev understood that the time was ripe for a clear sign of detachment from the giant neighbor. When Moscow unveiled that the presence of many Russian citizens – who were provided passports during the first half of the Nineties – could become an anchor for revanchist programs, [2] Nazarbayev acted decidedly and in 1997 moved the capital city from Almaty (Alma Ata) to Aqmola, in the Aqmolinsk province [3], renamed Astana, “capital”, for the occasion. The northbound move was a clear sign of Kazakhstan’s unwillingness for any attempt of annexation, not just an emulation of Ataturk’s abandonment of Istanbul and its spiritual charge, in favor of the more secular Ankara.

The 1998 crisis that hit the Russian Federation mitigated the revanchist threat on Kazakhstan. Western development programs were at pace and easily shaped the institutional friendliness of a country in much need for customers to buy its immense energy endowment.

2000s: The Party is Over and Mixed Emotions Arise

Around the turn of the century, while Putin was rising to power in Russia, an exploration off the Kazakh Caspian coasts prospected the existence of a relevant oil basin. Kashagan became the new Tengiz and foreign firms jumped on their boats and poured money in for winning the bid to administer the project. The western excitement, however, was to be countered by a novel strong stance by Kazakh authorities in terms of natural resources ownership. In 2002, the various state-owned agencies that were assigned with energy-related tasks fused into a single body, KazMunaiGaz, chaired by Nazarbayev’s son-in-law, Timur Kulibayev [for a recent update, see below]. This move created an energy ogre that became the main interlocutor for foreign firms to secure contracts in the Kazakh territory. Moreover, in 2005 Kazakhstan scrapped the Production Sharing Agreement legislation and became more hostile to foreign intervention, especially in the energy realm.

Meanwhile, the Parliament put forward the proposition to grant Nazarbayev lifetime presidency. Nursultan Abishevich’s NUR-OTAN party was in control of the national assembly, of the polls, of every election, and it had already suggested that the capital were renamed Nursultan, but the president himself called for a de-personalization of Kazakh politics, to counterbalance the Turkmen example. As though it wasn’t plain and clear that there was only a few, related individuals in charge of the fate of the country.

OSCE finally admitted that electoral results with 90% or more of all casted votes in favor of just one party or one person were not to be labeled “free and fair”. However, its retaliation was to defer by two years its gift to Astana: the Vienna-based organization honored Nazarbayev with the first post-Soviet chairmanship in 2010.

Oil Workers: When Were We Socialist?

(c) The Coat-of-Arms of the Kazakh SSR

Socialism was superimposed in the lands of post-Tsarist Russia as a natural consequence of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. However, a few countries in the Caucasus and Central Asia had seized the opportunity of the fall of the Romanov dinasty and created their own independent sovereign states. These were “taken back” by St. Petersburg shortly after and to their administration, the Politburo often assigned native Russian cadres. Without attachment to the population and in direct contact with the central organization of the USSR, the local secretaries were in charge of administering the division of labor within the Union, which became stricter and faster-paced with Stalin’s plans, especially around the period of the Second World War. While Khrushschyov was rising to power, Leonid Brezhnev, the future Party Secretary, was assigned the highest post in Kazakhstan. The Khrushchevian “Virgin Land policy” accompanied by Brezhnev’s corrupt practices initiated a whirlwind mechanism that brought in a strong re-personalization of local politics in Central Asia and a rigid and corruption-ridden economic structure. Dinmukhamed Kunayev became the uncontested leader of the Kazakh Communist Party for decades upon Brezhnev’s departure to Moscow.

The fundamental question here is where to find Socialism, with capital “S”, within the experience of Soviet Kazakhstan. How and when did Kazakh workers emancipate themselves from the alienation typical of industrial economic relations?

To such a question posed by my Socialist imaginary interlocutor, I would respond in historical terms. Kazakhstan has been dominated by “hordes”, nomad dinasties descending from Mongol tribes that were charged, throughout history of different degrees of prestige. Upon annexation to the Russian Empire, tribal politics faded away, given the little of emphasis posed on it by Russian governors. Tribal politics however, managed to survive the neutral “Soviet” and “Kazakhstani” periods when the law did not treat citizens differently according to the horde they belonged to. In fact, today, even without a formal legal framework, a much stronger caste system permeates the Kazakh society.

Kazakh has also been the “storage compartment” for chemical, spatial, and nuclear industries, which constantly called for skilled Soviet labor, – besides Russians, many Ukranians and Germans settled in the northern regions, especially near the Baikonur cosmodrome – and for dissidents from the Caucasus, who, shortsightedly, hailed as liberators the Nazi army during the battle in Stalingrad and were sent to labor camps in the Kazakh steppes. St. Petersburg and Moscow have in turn operated as the deus ex-machina of the fate of the land of the Kazakhs, especially in terms of the working class.

When Marx was writing about his solution of the contradictions of capitalism, he had in mind English factory workers, not nomad peasants and foreign skilled workers installed in a man-made industrial complex. Lenin could not have forseen this either, notwithstanding his comprehensive study of the peasant question, because he came from a very European environment. What is here to be argued about what came to be “the Kazakh working class” is that it has never seen an original institution and the atomization of the country has led to a very stable country united under the flag of the main party NUR-OTAN and the figure of Nazarbayev, who was able to build a widespread cult for his persona and to become the dear leader of Kazakhstan.

(d) NUR-OTAN – Nazarbayev’s Party

The workers have had little chances to organize and to grow an understanding of their condition, especially in the oilfields. There, skilled workers earn from three to four times as much as the national average wage and are often protected by the immense structure of multinational corporations, who act as benevolent giants, as long as they can extract oil without hassle. The difficulties in building a class conscience has brought to a imperceptible movement against the violation of human rights and liberties that this one-man regime carries out every day, not least the very right to protest. One fact is certain: there has never been any hint of Socialism in Kazakhstan.

To draw a similitude, independent Kazakhstan at 15-20 can be compared to the People’s Republic of China at 50-60. There, dissent with the established power framework is causing riots and protests that are unknown to the media and of which there probably is no record. However, the protest is acephalous: a political direction of the struggle is lacking, and what is hailed as “democratic opposition” in the West is generally driven by wealthy businessmen that only maintain the objective of overthrowing the established power to replace the political figures with more friendly allies. [4] Meanwhile, there are widespread corruption and nepotism tackling workers’ rights with a clear distinction between local manpower and foreign skilled contractors – which has enhanced social unrest within the working class (see below).

In the Press and in Academia

On the day that marked Kazakhstan’s 20 year anniversary of the independence from the Soviet Union, clashes between workers and the police erupted in Zhanaozen, an oil town on the eastern shore of the Caspian sea (see yellow pin on the map below). At least 14 people are reported killed in the incidents, many more were injured and over 70 were arrested. The official source of information in Kazakhstan, KazInform has also pointed out that 46 sites were “looted and burned” during the mass protests, including one house pertaining to the director of the operating company UzhenMunaiGaz.

(e) – An Image from the Protest

One of the President’s Aides told the press that “All citizens of Kazakhstan condemn the events in Zhanaozen”, seizing the role of people’s spokesman. The Federation of Trade Unions, in cahoots with the structure of power, released a declaration condemning the incidents and assuring that none of their affiliates took part in “inconstitutional and illegal actions”. Kazakh authorities labeled protesters with the much worn Russian term хулиган, “hooligan”, often used to address naughty children, and established a three-week long state of emergency in the town. It must be noted that, during the clashes, state authorities acted with with an extraordinary firm fist against the spread of violence. Notably, “Kazakh telecommunications firm Kazakhtelecom turned off social media site Twitter, while phone service in Zhanaozen was reported to be unpredictable.”

(f) The Riot in Tengiz

Protests had arised in 2004 in the Caspian oilfield of Tengiz, and later in 2006, when oil workers from Kazakh origin came to clash with Turkish workers, all employed by the TengizChevroil consortium. This ethno-international confrontation was not a single case in Kazakh-Turkish relations [5]. Hardly just a personal quarrel, it is a sign of the careless approach to labor issues when multinational ventures are assigned energy projects in countries with lax legislation on workers’ rights. It is unsurprising then that in Nazarbayev’s latest condemnation of the Zhanaozen protests, he referenced the oralmany, ethnic Kazakhs from other countries, and asked them to “be grateful to the state.” [6] It is clear that more than an Arab Spring- or terrorist-inspired uprising, the government is trying to play the card of Kazakh authenticity in order to placate the spirits in the country.

Western and the Russian-based media, for different reasons, aim at the same objective. Kazakhstan is a good partner only when it is 100% stable. The first sign of instability triggers very harsh language, acrobatic comparisons, and evergreen allegations. The US Department of State did not hurry, but resolved to condemn the violence three days after, although with much more caution than the OSCE. RIA Novosti titled that the clashes could be a product of the Arab Spring, however fortunately the article itself was a much more clever read. European and American newspapers throw the “terrorism” buzzword in order to make up for their lack of understanding of such a remote region in their readers’ minds.

Thanks to a native scholar, Adil Nurmakov, we learn who financed the organization of the protest from behind the scenes. Mukhtar Ablyazov is a businessman that co-founded an opposition party in 2001, the Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan, and was then arrested in 2002 and sat through a very political trial. Authorities released him after three months of prison upon the promise-obligation that Ablyazov would not be involved in politics anymore (the DCK was dissolved in 2005). The newspaper Respublika and the TV station K+ are directly linked to him and were the only source of information for the Zhanaozen events. How impartial this source could be is for the reader to judge. Be it possible to draw a middle line between governmental news agencies and not-so-democratic opposition, we would live in a logical, almost mathematical world. Alas, we cannot and our judgement must remain devoid of any quick resolution.

[UPDATE] To further blur the picture that many consider perfectly clear in the past few days Nazarbayev has decidedly beheaded the giant holding Samruk-Kazyna, which controls KazMunaiGaz and was chaired by his son-in-law Kulibayev. Dinara Nazarbayeva (or Kulibayeva, depending to the occasion), one of the most influential Central Asian women according to RFE-RL, must be very disappointed seeing her husband and future leader of the country being sacked just like two KMG board members after the Zhanaozen riots. The president perhaps thought that by giving a clear signal of holding the bridle, the raged horses rampaging the streets of western Kazakhstan would be hindered from more action.

The Headless Chicken Keeps on Running

Something holds true however. There is increasing unrest in many countries where capitalism has failed to concede enough protections to those that are being exploited. Capitalism has learned the lesson of crisis management and, due to the apt use of Cold War rhetorics, it has survived the most dire crises throughout the XX century. Nonetheless, debates within business, academic, and political circles seem to prove that capitalism has forgotten the lesson. The hurriedly defined “Arab Spring” [7], the “OccupyWallSt” movement, the white collar protests in Moscow illuminated by the LED light of twittering smartphones, and the Zhanaozen clashes are all offsprings of the same uneasy sentiment. An unconscious class is rising up against the financial system, the great protagonist of the post-Berlin wall era. An economy alienated by itself, where money is generated by money, has provoked a mass discontent vis-a-vis political structures that are unable to sustain themselves through election and welfare.

Where will this bring us to? A graphic similitude can be individuated between the protests and chickens that keep scurrying even after having had their heads cut off. This everlasting period of crisis hinders our ability to stop and think, gather together and design a better world. When you are striving for your daily share of bread or rice, it becomes very hard to reason on of the best way to end inequalities and reach a happy life among happy people. And, what’s worse, there is no room for confrontation and discussion in the highest form. It becomes very hard to share ideas on what to do and how to organize in order to transform will into action. Therefore, we witness confused and disconnected protests that the media is trying to tie back together but in fact have each a peculiar root. Should we finally realize that it is not the single issue but the whole system that is rotten and needs a revolution – in the scientific definition of the term – then we could finally understand that the path to follow has always been in front of our, shortsighted eyes.


[1] From a private conversation with a Kazakh diplomatic officer in Washington DC, March 2011.

[2] See  writings by Aleksandr Solzhenitsin (! – yes, the one known and praised in the West for writing “Gulag Archipelago”), Sergei Karaganov, Andranik Migranian, and Igor Ivanov.

[3] Interestingly, Aqmola means “white tombstone” in Kazakh and was renamed Tselinograd during the Soviet occupation. After regaining the original Kazakh name, Nazarbayev thought it would be nicer to change the name of the prospective capital in something more pleasant than marble-for-graves. This is where the name Astana, directly translating into “capital”, was drawn from. Too bad that, as it always happens in such complex, bureaucracy-ridden states, the name of the province could not be changed. Just like today’s St. Petersburg, Russia’s western jewel mounted in the Leningrad region, Astana lies in the Aqmolinsk province. The permanence of old jurisdiction names led to an awkward consequence for the “capital” of Kazakhstan, which sits in the “white tombstone”.

[4] See the cases of Khodorkovsky in Russia and Tymoshenko in Ukraine.

[5] See Saulesh Yessenova, her article on Central Asia – Caucasus Analyst “Worker Riot at the Tengiz Oilfield: Who Is To Blame?”, February 21, 2007 and her chapter “Tengiz Crude: A View from Below” in Boris Najman, Richard Pomfret, and Gael Raballand (Eds.), The Economics and Politics of Oil in the Caspian Basin: The Redistribution of Oil Revenues in Azarbaijan and Central Asia, Routledge, London, 2008.

[6] Source: Twitter account of Nate Schenkkan, @nateschenkkan

[7] Don’t read this article, please. It is a juvenile ethnocentric attempt at individuating an “Arab Spring” offspring in such undefined and incoherent protests in Kazakhstan.

Photo Credits:

(a) (d) KazInform

(b) kjfnjy album on

(c) Wikipedia