It is not easy times on the great Eurasian steppe as the winds of change are blowing. But when had it been easy, one might ask? For two months prior to the 9 June presidential election, Kazakhstan, the world’s largest landlocked country, had engaged in a risk-ridden exercise of power transition, the first in the state’s post-Soviet history.
The world, as well as its neighbours both big and small, watched as the oil, gas and minerals giant carries special weight in the region, where it trumps the rest of the Central Asian republics by its sheer size and economic might. Moreover, its mantra of an equidistant, multi-vector foreign policy presents significant challenges at a time of a renewed great power rivalry in the region: while the European Union and the United States have established a strong economic presence, the country is mindful not to antagonise Russia and China, counties it shares a border with.
What does this election mean for the future direction of the country and what is the role of the West?
The resignation of Nursultan Nazarbayev, the only head of state the country had known in the modern era until he vacated his position on 19 March this year, came to signify the acceptance of reality: change is unavoidable.
To guarantee stability, it is desirable for that to happen in the most frictionless of terms possible, the Kazakh logic probably went. Any attempt at managed change is bound to create opposition, as it did among the seven candidates, complaints were registered, including in reference to the short length of the campaign period (two months from announcement to election day). Yet, and despite irregularities and violations that the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights’ Election Observation Mission noted, the main opposition figure, Amirzhan Kosanov, took part in the elections and scored an unexpected 16.02%, up from 7.9% that pre-election polls indicated, against first-placed President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, who succeeded First President – his official title – Nazarbayev.
Protests on the day of the elections and immediately after that in the capital, Nur-Sultan, and the former capital, Almaty, led to almost 1,000 arrests (with about 180 being held behind bars a few days after, while the remainder were freed with warnings or fines).
Many – government officials and critics included – see this as an awakening: for the first time the voters had a wide choice of candidates to pick from and, importantly, overwhelmingly decided to exercise their right in what can be seen as another step in a nascent yet developing democratic culture. Irrespective of whether some of the protesters might have been motivated to take to the streets by the calls of fugitive banker Mukhtar Ablyazov, who is running away from justice in Kazakhstan and England and whose past dealings are being investigated in Russia and Ukraine, there was genuine protest in place: there are a range of issues parts of Kazakh society has legitimate grievances about, including, in some parts, such as former industrial centres, unemployment. President Tokayev promised to heed such concerns soon after the results were announced.
In the wide spectrum between complete openness – that could descend into chaos – and a transition by appointment – that would guarantee stability but could also backfire, and would be unsustainable in the long-term – Kazakh leaders seemed to have chosen the middle road: gradual openness. Is that good enough? It is certainly a step forward, yet it still falls short of Western democratic standards, per the OSCE/ODIHR report.
In other words, it is qualified progress.
And here we come to the important question – What can Western partners do? As Samuel Doveri Vesterbye, Managing Director of the Brussels-based European Neighbourhood Council suggested in an interview with New Europe, because of falling energy prices included, Kazakhstan is in an urgent need to diversify its economy. To do so, regulatory certainty is key. In the absence of it, investment in the non-energy sector will not get off the ground.
“There is no economic incentive to do so. In the oil sector, the reward is so high that they [energy companies] do it, so it is a different thing,” Doveri Vesterbye says. However, elsewhere, “they [the Kazakh authorities] need to make sure European investors are one-hundred per cent sure that the rule of law in this country is respected.” Along with the need to attract investors comes “better accountability, some degree of transparency, meritocracy, cutting down on corruption.” [These are issues that] would not be sustainable for any government.” Importantly, “this is something that the [Kazakh] government is very willing to listen to in the long term. […] There is a vested interest in Kazakhstan to do this.”
This is where the role of the European Union – the largest investor in the country – lies, in particular: setting benchmarks, including pushing for a human rights and freedom agenda to be implemented, as part of a wider effort to engage the Kazakh leadership on a path of diversification as well as change they themselves have recognised they need. Today’s adoption by the Foreign Affairs Council of the European Union of the New Strategy on Central Asia enhances the framework necessary for such an exchange to occur. It is in the hands of the European leadership to guide the agenda, engaging, not shunning, Kazakhstan and its neighbours.
Tokayev’s pledges of reforms, both before and immediately after the election, provide a perfect opening for just that kind of robust yet respectful engagement.