Arkalyk, a town of fewer than 30,000 people in the central belt of Kazakhstan, wears its mining heritage proudly. By the municipal museum, a hunk of bauxite stands atop a plinth, close to the excavator bucket that tore it out of the ground in 1964.
After winter storms, brick-red mineral dust still speckles the snow-covered streets. Waste material from the mine, built largely by locally-held prisoners of the former Soviet Union, rises out of the steppe surrounding the town like earthen fortifications.
“First there was a mine, then a town that grew up around it,” said Arystan Aitmagambetov, editor of Torgai, a local newspaper. “They joke that Arkalyk was built by the [Communist youth movement], but it was inmates that did a lot of the work.”
More than 1,000 people are employed at the mine, but reserves are projected to be exhausted by 2022. That presents a big problem for Arkalyk, which is an extreme example of what policymakers in the energy-rich Central Asian state refer to as a “monotown,” or single-industry town.
In early 2012 the government rolled out a plan to boost the local economies of such settlements — weeks after an oil workers’ strike in the western city of Zhanaozen, another monotown, morphed into clashes with police that left at least 14 protesters dead.
Zhanaozen, Arkalyk and 25 other towns were earmarked for increased economic support, including loans and grants to develop small businesses. Residents of the monotowns, which are home to more than 1.5 million of the country’s 18 million people, were to gain new skills, allowing them to find employment in cities with better economic prospects.
“The government has an interest in developing these towns, because many of them have socioeconomic situations similar to Zhanaozen,” said Tulegen Askarov, an economist who heads the Biz Media business journalism center in Kazakhstan.
“The Zhanaozen incident happened when prices for oil and other commodities were high. Now they are low, which can affect salaries and so forth. So the risk of another social explosion somewhere else is not so distant from reality,” Askarov said.
However, the government initiative has not led to huge improvements in the monotowns. Moreover, falling prices for commodities — Kazakhstan’s main exports — have had a serious impact on the project, initially costed at 1.1 trillion tenge between 2012 and 2020.
The country’s ministry for regional development, which was charged with implementing the program, was disbanded in 2014, and funding was scaled back the following year. But an incident at the beginning of 2017 served to reinforce the need to extend support to Kazakhstan’s infrastructure-strapped monotowns.