The EU and Kazakhstan: economic co-operation and democratic reforms

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

There is still progress to be made in Kazakhstan if it is to continue down the road to reform, writes Bhavna Dave in a May 2007 paper for the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS).

The EU should recommend that the country lifts constraints on the civil right to public assembly, allows the registration of opposition and independent political parties, and ensures the independence of both media and the judiciary, the author asserts. The CEPS paper also recommends that the EU presses Kazakhstan to ensure the independence and impartiality of the Central Election Commission, and amends the election law to end the persecution of opposition leaders. 

Kazakhstan’s continuing socio-economic and political stability, formal commitment to political reform and pro-Western orientation make it the Union’s most reliable partner in the Central Asian region, writes Dave. Its economy has grown from $18 billion in 2000 to nearly $80 billion in 2007, and is predicted to double again in the next 7-8 years. Almost 85% of EU imports from the country consist of fuel and gas. As Kazakhstan’s oil exports continue to rise, its geo-strategic location makes a close long-term relationship with the EU inevitable, believes the author. 

The paper advocates that the EU should develop an internally differentiated strategy towards Central Asia, with Kazakhstan as a strategic anchor in the region, and prioritise the promotion of democratic reforms that can turn the country into a more effective and reliable partner as well as a positive engine for reform in the region. 

In expanding energy co-operation with Kazakhstan, the EU must ensure that the country manages oil and gas revenues transparently, implements policy measures for an equitable distribution of wealth and social welfare, and develops grassroots institutions for civic participation. 

None of the presidential or parliamentary elections held there so far has been internationally recognised as “free and fair”, the author observes. President Nazarbaev has skilfully improvised upon Soviet-era mechanisms of coercion and control to ensure compliance with his rule, erecting a patronage-based system in which an inner circle of close family, friends and business associates exerts influence over economic resources, industries and political positions. 

Dave claims that loyalty to the regime is the best means of attaining career mobility, whereas pursuit of independent political ambition invites severe sanctions. Pro-regime parties control a parliament bereft of genuinely independent members. However, she notes that the appointment of Karim Masimov as prime minister has been an impetus for reform. She speculates that the Kazakh Security Council is well positioned to exert an independent influence in the post-Nazarbaev era. 

She concludes that despite the numerous shortcomings of its political system, Kazakhstan possesses the supporting conditions necessary for a transition to democracy in the long run. 

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