This article is part of our special report Kazakhstan: New political realities.
The next President of Kazakhstan will have to oversee that there is no backsliding in economic, social and political reforms, and reassure international partners that the external policy of the country remains unchanged, writes Eli Hadzieva.
Eli Hadzhieva is Director of Dialogue for Europe
The resignation of Kazakhstan’s long-standing leader Nursultan Nazarbayev on 19 March is seen by many as a step in the right direction for the country’s democratic development.
And the snap elections on 9 June called by the interim President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, who replaced Nazarbayev following constitutional procedure, are the right call to determine a legitimate successor to the country’s founding father.
Nazarbayev is often likened to Turkey’s Atatürk for his success to gain his country’s independence from the Soviet Union, his secular, modernising and reformist ideas, his visionary plans for the socio-economic development of Kazakhstan, his nation-building efforts and his peaceful foreign policy.
The task bestowed upon him was not an easy one. In an era, where most former Soviet Republics struggled with conflicts threatening their territorial integrity, he managed to delimitate Kazakhstan’s borders with giant neighbours, such as Russia and China, while striking contracts with international companies, which helped develop the country’s natural resources.
Despite the country’s proximity to the Islamic Republics of Iran and Afghanistan, secularism, multiculturalism and religious tolerance became the motto of Kazakhstan, where 125 minorities co-exist peacefully. While the majority of the Kazakh population is Muslim, 26% of Kazakhs practice Christianity and a small part of the population follows Judaism. The Kazakh state not only guarantees religious freedom in its Constitution but it also promotes it internationally by hosting the Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions. Even during the month of Ramadan, cafes, restaurants and bars in Kazakh cities, such as Almaty, are crowded with people.
The modernity of the Kazakh capital Nur-sultan (formerly Astana) built from scratch by international architects, symbolises the rapid economic development of the country whose GDP rose from -11% in 1991 to an average of 6% in the 2010s. Even in the aftermath of an economic downturn, caused by plummeting oil prices and indirect effects of sanctions imposed on Russia, the country has maintained its growth rate at 4%.
Long-term plans are put in place to develop a digitalised and green economy in order to reduce reliance on raw materials, to enhance the private sector and foreign investment, to support the SME sector and to achieve the full potential of human capital. The opening of the Astana International Stock Exchange last year – in cooperation with NASDAQ and the Shanghai Stock Exchange – demonstrates the country’s aspirations to become a regional financial centre. These economic and social transformations are guided by a vision to make Kazakhstan one of the top 30 developed countries in the world by 2050.
While continuing to have good relations with Moscow as part of the Eurasian Economic Union, Kazakhstan also engaged in its own nation-building efforts. Russian is still one of the two official languages in the Caspian state, where ethnic Russians constitute 20% of the population. At the same time the Kazakh language, which was nearly extinct during the Soviet time, has been promoted and is widely used in schools and administrations. While the Soviet legacy played well for Kazakh women, whose labour force participation is a remarkable 65%, its gulags, famines and nuclear weapon tests are still vivid in the memory of the people. During the Soviet period in the early 1930s, nearly 40% of ethnic Kazakhs starved to death at collective farms, where they were forced to work.
As with Russia, Kazakhstan has good relationships with its south-eastern neighbour China in the framework of Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. The Kazakh state is seen as a buckle in the Beijing-led Belt and Road Initiative, due to its logistics and infrastructure networks.
The country is also in close cooperation with the West. Being a member of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe and a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council in 2017-2018, Kazakhstan signed an Enhanced Cooperation and Partnership Agreement with the EU in 2015. The EU recognises the importance of the region with a recent strategy, which allocates EUR 1,1 billion to development cooperation with Central Asia. Since 2010, Kazakhstan and the U.S. have an agreement on transit for cargo to Afghanistan, which was extended in 2018, enabling the US to use two Kazakh ports as a transit route.
Following the elections on 9 June, the next President will face important challenges, the first one being to ensure a smooth transition. Then he will have to oversee that there is no backsliding in economic, social and political reforms, re-establish trust for international partners and continue the peaceful relations with the main actors having stakes in this region of key geostrategic importance.