Sam Gordon Webb
Naked Politics Blogger
Kazakhstan is at a crossroads. Quite literally. Connecting the East to the West and the North to the South- it is the global crossroads. Completely landlocked and deliciously sandwiched between China, Russia and the Middle East, this quite marvelous geopolitical reality has blessed the region with widespread continental interest and extremely high levels of global investment.
The largest foreign investor in the Kazakh economy is the European Union, seen as it’s closest and most secure ally in the region of Central Asia. Kazakhstan is also crucial for China’s “Belt and Road Initiative”, a bold development strategy involving infrastructural developments in 152 countries around the world. The Italians recently became the first G7 country to endorse the controversial plan.
However, there is a catch and it is quite a daunting one. The sudden retirement of current President Nursultan Nazarbayev shocked and worried locals in equal measure. Political instability is not what Kazakhstan needs right now. The nation’s bold vision for the future involves domestic calm, not strife. Furthermore the threat posed by Russian meddling in its internal affairs is ever widening and tempting trade deals from the Chinese are potentially risky. Dealing with both issues will be a tough task for Nazarbayev’s successor.
Kazakhstan’s policymakers aren’t very trustworthy. Until now economic success is seen as more important to Kazakhstan than anything else, even when the human rights of its own citizens are at stake.
The population of Kazakhstan is tiny and young. Only 18 million inhabitants make up the 9th largest country on the planet, 50% of which are under 30 whilst over 25% are under fifteen. Highly personalised rule pervades it’s current political system in which election results are mostly questionable affairs. The 2015 election of Nazuyubev who somehow managed to accumulate 98% of the total vote share seems testament of this fact. Eyelids were certainly raised in the much of the west.
Nazarbayev is leaving office but not yet ceding power. He will remain head of the security council and the ruling party. Even the capital city of Astana was renamed last week Nur-sultan in his honour. A recent constitutional amendment made him leader for life, immune from civic and criminal persecution.
His successor, 65 year old political loyalist Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, takes the reins, but Nazarbayev will retain key legislative powers and still control major decision making processes. This is no ordinary retirement. As Paul Stronski, former director for Russia and Central Asia for the U.S Security Council, recently suggested, “Nazarbayev’s departure from the presidency does not necessarily reduce his influence.”
This spells bad news for Kazakhstan’s youth, starved of their own voice still to this day. There is little sign yet that Nazarbayev’s departure will change much apart from herald a new dawn of autocratic leadership. The consequences of such minimal political adjustments are grave for everyone involved, not least for Kazakhstan’s population who have no say over their own futures.
This is a moment of great opportunity for Kazakhstan and one that they should take. If Kazakhstan chooses to travel down the path towards democracy- possibly at the expense of minor and temporary economic regression- they would be showing the west what it wants to see, playing by a rulebook built around fair and honest practice.
This would open the door for further mutually beneficial collaboration with western powers. It would also enable Kazakhstan to achieve true global prominence achieving economic, political and social credibility within a democratic framework. Kazakhstan would not only be acknowledged as a superpower, but respected as one too. China and Russia may begin to feel a little jealous.
Nonetheless those days are a long way off. Political rule remains a family affair. The former president’s daughter was recently claimed the role of second in command as the speaker of the house for the upper parliament. These are not the choices made by countries looking to try out democracy. Rather these are the actions taken by autocratic dictatorships intent on vesting power into relatives and taking it away from everyone else.
In this way Kazakhstan is not alone. A similar situation can be found in Azerbaijan, in that the former President’s son is leader and his wife is vice president. Similarly hierarchical systems of power are dominant forces in both Ukraine and Georgia both led by powerful and extremely wealthy oligarchs. The Moldovan leader Vladimir Plahotniuc is a million times wealthier than his average constituent and his control over state affairs is absolute.
For now it seems that democracy matters less when the Chinese come calling or when the Russians purr from above. This must change. Once more, ambition has never been an issue for Kazakhstan, as Strategy 2030- it’s extremely ambitious strategy for future development- would quickly suggest. Policymakers in the region must now convince the rest of the world that it’s ambition is matched by a desire to change the way it runs its domestic affairs. That means reducing (somehow) the omnipresence of Nazarbayev.
That also means coping with civil unhappiness in a way that doesn’t scare people, but brings them together. Instead of locking people up, open dialogue.
Instead of silencing the young, give young people more of a say in terms of shaping their own futures.
Kazakhstan wants to become one of top 30 most developed nations by 2050. The world would marvel far more at Kazakhstan’s efforts if it achieves this goal concurrent with securing democratic elections, building democratic institutions and producing democratic leaders who rule within non-negotiable fixed time frames. Five years. Not thirty.
Until last week, Nazarbayev was the final name on a long list of Soviet era leaders still in power. His retirement therefore has a momentous edge to it and ought to inspire younger folk into greater engagement with Kazakhstan’s political system. Times are changing and hope is in the air.