Kazakhstan’s electoral mood calls for more ties with Europe

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

A Kazakh woman at a polling station during the presidential elections in Nur-Sultan (formerly known as Astana), Kazakhstan, 9 June 2019. [Igor Kovalenko/EPA/EFE]

This article is part of our special report Kazakhstan elections.

The European Neighbourhood Council (ENC) conducted interviews over the recent presidential elections, revealing a need for further reforms to overcome an oil-dependent economy, while further deepening ties with the European Union (EU), writes Samuel Doveri Vesterbye.

Samuel Doveri Vesterbye is the managing director at European Neighbourhood Council (ENC) @ENC_Europe

On 9 June President Kassym-Jomart Tokaev was elected President of Kazakhstan with 70.9% of the vote. His main opponent, Amirzhan Kossanov, received 16,23%. The first female candidate in the country’s history, Daniya Yespayeva, came in third place with 5,05%.

The landslide win by Tokaev was widely expected and – ahead of June 9 – the OSCE (of which Kazakhstan is a member) had already raised serious concerns through the election environment and process through the ODIHR Needs Assessment Mission Report

ENC conducted electoral observation and field interviews at 7 out of 35 polling stations in Zhanaozen, a small de-industrialised oil-town close to the Caspian coast.

The interview findings were revealing and indicative of Kazakhstan’s need for further reforms to overcome an oil-dependent economy, while further deepening ties with the European Union (EU), Kazakhstan’s single largest trading partner.

The economic reality in Western Kazakhstan

In order to visit Zhanaozen, a visitor (from capital) must travel by plane for three hours to reach Aktau, a city to the West of the country on the Caspian Sea. From Aktau to Zhanaozen it takes approximately one hour and a half via car along desert areas and pockets of a de-industrialised wasteland.

Some industrial sites from the Soviet period (previous car manufacturers) now decay, unused for decades. In other parts, new companies have moved in, noticeably ones from Azerbaijan (largescale refrigeration centres used as a logistics hub to store and distribute, for example, fruit from Turkmenistan), China (providing infrastructure and services linked to oil production), Turkey (constructing roads/highways and asphalt factories), and Korea (supporting oil and gas logistics).

During interviews in the area, the generally accepted economic success-story (of connectivity) and the added-value of oil-production was regularly questioned by locals. Most interviewed voters expressed deep concerns about unemployment, youth, migration, worker’s safety and China’s role in the region.

At the same time, long rows of workers’ houses (with reported co-ownership by the workers) are visible along the road between Aktau and Zhanaozen. Most of these recent constructions show that the Kazakh government is fully aware of this problem and gradually tries to alleviate social burdens through housing.

Competition, declining oil prices and automation will increase such pressures in the near future, as the global economy changes rapidly and workers lose faith in their government’s ability to protect their rights.

Kazakhstan is blessed with the gift of raw-materials, but cursed with the danger of ‘putting all its export-eggs in one basket’. Put differently, Kazakhstan today faces the choice of staying a middle-income country with a GDP per capita of €11.400 or move up the global ladder to join the club of sustainable innovators.

The later is fundamentally feasible considering its levels of GDP, education and geographic connectivity. Currently it is uniquely positioned to do this, having signed both agreements with the EU, in the form of the ECPA in 2015, and with the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU).

Election day calls for better ties with Europe

Voters in Zhanaozen are allocated a polling station, in accordance to their domiciled residence. There are 35 stations, each of which consist of between 1.500-2.500 registered voters. Station staff arrive at the stations at 6 am, while voting takes place between 7 am and 8 pm.

Between 8 pm and 8.30 pm, counting takes place, followed by the transfer-of-numbers to the city and regional levels of electoral committees. Observers cannot touch or interact physically with the counting/ballots, but have the right to stay in the room (and report irregularities) at an approximate distance of 2-3 meters from the ‘counting table’.

According to a verbal report (from polling station S.85) 10 national observers are present, including 7 staff members, meaning a total of 17 people inside the main counting room. National observers also have the permission to accompany the station staff in delivering the ballots to the city-level/regional electoral committees.

During ENC’s electoral observation, the following technical irregularities were found:

  • Practically no technical voter irregularities were detected during the observation of 7 polling stations on June 9 in Zhanaozen;

During ENC’s electoral observation, the following observations were made:

  • A very high degree of support for Kossanev, both among  voters and most national electoral observers (NGOs), including ones from competing parties;
  • All political parties were represented (with minimum one national electoral observer) and present at each of the polling stations;
  • Kossanev national electoral observers were fully aware of their political party’s platform. National electoral observers from Kossanev, Tokaev and the NGO (Nur Otan – which represents ex-President Nursultan Nazerbayev) were the most informed about their political party/NGOs platforms/ideas. Many of the other national observers knew little about their NGOs and party platforms;
  • The Communist Party were registered on paper, but was rarely present at any of the polling stations;
  • Both voters and national observers were vocal about youth issues, severe unemployment levels (30-40%), migration to cities (especially youths), labour protection needs, lacking minimum wages and protection against environmental degradation, undemocratic practices, land expropriation by foreign (Chinese) companies and government contracts;
  • One national electoral observer suggested adding live-streaming during the counting process to guarantee impartiality, anti-corruption and transparency;
  • Not one single national electoral observer reported any technical irregularities. Many voiced concerns about the lead-up to the elections;
  • Not one single reference or mention was made of the protests, killings and arrests which took place in 2011.

The conclusions are simple:  Kazakhstan is a booming demographic trading hub with momentum for transition and political openness. Now the choice lay with its citizens and government in deciding whether it wishes to promote peace and interconnectivity, increase trade and ties with European universities, while developing independent democratic institutions.

Further EU support and regulatory harmonisation with an emphasis on education and institutions could finally allow the Kazakh’s to transition away from an oil-dependent economy. The results could determine what country Kazakhstan and its citizens will live in decades from now.

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