Kazakhstan election holds genuine strategic importance

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Ambassador Aigul Kuspan [Twitter account of Aigul Kuspan]

This article is part of our special report Kazakhstan elections.

Kazakhstan will hold its parliamentary election on 10 January with a clear intention to reach the democratic levels enjoyed in the European bloc. Despite the obvious challenges of voting during a pandemic, our government is committed to giving our citizens a voice, writes Aigul Kuspan.

Aigul Kuspan is the ambassador of the Republic of Kazakhstan to Belgium and Luxembourg, and head of the Mission to the European Union and NATO.

As we entered 2020, the international community was aware that this year was to bring a set of unique challenges, including to the countries of Europe.

The continent has had to deal with the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the EU, an impending economic crisis and rising tensions between members of the bloc. With the addition of the unexpected pandemic, Europe had to rely on its core values to help it get through this difficult period and aim to come out of it more robust.

The re-calibration of national development and the pursuit of bettering one’s country undoubtedly extend far beyond the EU bloc.

Kazakhstan – one of Europe’s major partners and collaborators in mutual development – has also been actively striving towards progress in all spheres of life.

In the face of the pandemic and shifting national priorities, Kazakhstan’s President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev last month signed a decree scheduling parliamentary elections for Kazakhstan’s lower house of parliament on 10 January 2021.

Despite the obvious challenges of holding elections during a pandemic, our government is committed to giving our citizens a voice. This determination exemplifies the direction the country has been taking since the election of President Tokayev last year.

In the shadow of ongoing global events, it might be easy for Europe to miss the significance of Kazakhstan’s upcoming election. Yet it does hold genuine strategic importance. Kazakhstan remains one of Europe’s strongest economic partners, with thousands of companies and tens of thousands of jobs relying on our economic links.

Over 40% of Kazakhstan’s foreign trade is with the European bloc, which, in turn, accounts for 48% of inwards investment. Kazakhstan’s energy sector has also grown to become one of the safest sources of oil and gas for the bloc.

Our country, geographically sandwiched between the booming markets of the global East and Europe, acts as a natural and respected partner for ensuring smooth trade between each zone, including through the New Silk Road.

And with Italy’s ratification last year, Kazakhstan became the first Central Asian nation to sign the Enhanced Partnership Cooperation Agreement with the EU, paving the way for a new era in the strengthening of ties.

This is not to say that economic relations are the sole foundation of Kazakh-European relations. Our ties have significantly expanded beyond the economic sphere and now cover cooperation across diplomacy, culture and societal development.

As a bloc with such an illustrious history, young nations like Kazakhstan look towards Europe for guidance and best practice for their own journey of development.

The values of democracy and freedom of expression have inspired Kazakhstan since our independence almost 30 years ago. These principles acted as a compass for one of Kazakhstan’s most significant political events – the resignation of First President Nursultan Nazarbayev in 2019 and the smooth transition of power following the presidential election.

As we prepare for January’s parliamentary election, we are reminded of the EU spokesperson’s statement at the time, who noted that Kazakhstan’s presidential election was administered efficiently by the Central Election Commission and offered an important moment for potential political reforms.

Since then, President Tokayev has remained consistent in his belief that Kazakhstan needs to foster open debate and a plurality of opinions in determining the course of the country’s direction.

In this regard, a number of major reforms have been implemented which were once initiated by Europe and which Kazakhstan seeks to emulate.

Firstly, the National Council of Public Trust (NCPT) has been established. It is an advisory body under the President, which conducts open dialogue with representatives of the public in order to develop specific proposals for reforming legislation and the public administration system.

Furthermore, the threshold for registering political parties has been reduced by half to 20,000 party members, making it much easier to establish a new party. In addition, legislation has been updated to make it easier to organise and hold peaceful rallies.

Moreover, a quota for political parties’ election lists of no less than 30% women and young people has been introduced for the first time in our country’s history to bolster the diversity of voices in the democratic decision-making process.

To ensure that our country strives for the highest democratic standards, Kazakhstan has also approached European partners, including the OSCE and the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), to observe the election and report their findings.

The participation of 30 long-term observers and 300 short-term observers, who will closely monitor the election proceedings, underscores Kazakhstan’s commitment to transparency and learning from its European partners.

As this year draws to a close and the preparations for January’s election intensify, Kazakhstan is aware that the pandemic is unlikely to disappear by the start of next year.

To ensure the health and safety of each voter, protective measures, including the disinfection of polling stations and provision of protective personal equipment for all the staff and volunteers will be ensured, and social distancing measures will be mandatory.

Holding a nationwide election is never easy – not least in the midst of a global health pandemic. Nevertheless, Kazakhstan will hold the vote with a clear intention to reach the democratic levels enjoyed within the European bloc.

As former European Council President Donald Tusk noted after his visit to Kazakhstan last year, the EU considers Kazakhstan an important partner and a nation of opportunity and cooperation.

I am confident that January’s election will only strengthen the cooperation between the EU and Kazakhstan, and usher in an era of mutual benefit for decades to come.

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