I first traveled to Kazakhstan in the fall 1996 on an assignment to evaluate a nascent commodity futures exchange in Almaty. 1 On the face of it, development of a commodity exchange did not seem so far fetched since the Kazakh economy was almost entirely dependent upon the production of basic commodities. These included agricultural products like wheat and livestock, minerals like copper, alumina, lead, zinc, iron ore, and steel, and mineral fuels like oil, gas, and coal. That is, the economy was almost entirely dependent on production of precisely the sorts of commodities for which organized exchange trading had proved to be important in market economies around the world. Although I did find an exchange which in fact held substantial promise to develop into a useful market, I also found the country’s economic transition had a rather long way to go before conditions would be more favorable for the development of exchange trading. Thus, the transition itself became the focus of what was to become my continuing interest in Kazakhstan, where virtually every institution and individual were having to find new ways to survive.
Even by 1996, the main produce market in Almaty carried a (reportedly) vastly increased variety of foods and other goods as compared with a decade earlier or even two to three years earlier. There were several smaller markets throughout the city and individual street vendors with a few items were common in most neighborhoods. At the same time, incomes had been so severely reduced that fewer and fewer people could afford even basic staples. To the sides of the main market were often many elderly people selling almost anything - their possessions, things scavenged from others’ trash, or a few hand-made items - to earn money for food. In one of the parks, a regular Sunday dealers market met where items of Soviet memorabilia of all sorts that families had sold were available. There were frequent popular demonstrations in the city center protesting against the policies which had caused the economic decline. Often, the demonstrations were organized by pensioners whose level of state support had not only declined relatively but was frequently simply not paid. The power company in Almaty had been turned over to a Belgian company, the newspapers were warning all