Kazakhstan: Rising star or falling short of results?

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

Energy-rich Kazakhstan is a key country for the European Union as it seeks to diversify its energy supplies in Central Asia and the Caspian region, write Jos Boonstra and Tika Tsertsvadze.

Jos Boonstra is senior researcher and Tika Tsertsvadze an advocacy officer at FRIDE, a Madrid-based international relations think tank. Boonstra is head and Tsertsvadze the manager of FRIDE's Europe-Central Asia Monitoring programme.

The EU is Kazakhstan’s first trading and investment partner. On 1-3 June, European Commission President José Manuel Barroso will visit Astana to discuss with President Nazarbayev ways to improve EU-Kazakhstan bilateral relations, including trade and investment.

The meeting will be held amidst slow-pace negotiations on an Enhanced Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA) between the EU and Kazakhstan, which aims to deepen cooperation in several sectors, including trade, investment and political dialogue.

But while a lot of emphasis is placed on trade and economic cooperation, the human rights situation and democratisation are regressing in Kazakhstan. The strategies put forward and pledges made ahead of Astana’s 2010 chairmanship of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) have not been realised.

The so-called 2007 ‘Madrid Commitments’ outlined the ‘perfection of election legislation, genuine support for political parties’ growth, meaningful improvements in the media sector and local governance as Kazakhstan’s comprehensive vision for continued reform. In 2009 the country adopted a ‘Path to Europe’ strategy and its first National Human Rights Action Plan.

But since then little progress has been recorded while international and national Kazakh human rights watchdogs report deterioration in basic freedoms and rights.

One example of Kazakhstan’s backsliding on democracy and human rights was the long and extensive oil workers’ strike in the city of Zhanaozen, which culminated in harsh police action in December 2011 resulting in 16 protesters dead and many arrested. These events were followed by the imprisonment of political opponents and the closure of around 30 media outlets in 2012 and 2013.

Kazakhstan is the only Central Asian country that has achieved certain economic development and where a middle-class is emerging. During his visit to Brussels in January, Kazakh foreign minister Erlan Idrissov stated that his country aimed to become one of the 30 leading countries of the world by 2050, both in terms of economic advancements and democratic institution-building.

With the exception of Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan is the only Central Asian country that not only has expressed a wish to fully democratise, but that has also adopted strategies and action plans allegedly to advance in this area.

Considering Astana’s growing economic importance and its ambition to attract more foreign investments, it should dedicate more efforts to speed up democratisation and reverse the negative trend in this area.

In July 2011 the EU and Kazakhstan launched negotiations on an Enhanced PCA. While little is known about what the enhanced part of the agreement will imply in practice, the EU should make sure to include a serious commitment to reform, as so far promises have been curtailed to rhetoric. This could possibly include setting democratic institutional reform and human rights benchmarks prior to the signing of agreements.

This may prove challenging since a large part of the PCA focuses on trade and investment, which in practice lie in the remit of European companies and their Kazakh counterparts.

However, potential and current investors would also benefit from a stronger human rights record, stable and democratically-run institutions and a firm upholding of the rule of law. Whereas Kazakhstan will resist such linking between reform and trade it is unlikely to completely ignore discussions on this matter.

The EU is a crucial export partner for the country, which seeks to maintain its multi-vector foreign policy and diverse trade partners, also to avoid being left alone between two giants such as Russia and China.

The EU’s Strategic Framework for Human Rights and Democracy supported by the 27 member states in June 2012 places human rights and democracy at the centre of the EU’s engagement with third countries, including in trade and investment agreements.

The general preamble on democracy has always been a part of EU bilateral agreements; however, it was more of a one-size fits all than a tailor-made approach addressing a country’s specific challenges.

The new strategic framework is designed to better address grey-zones in the democracy narrative and making trade and bilateral agreements conditional to democratic advancements. Democratisation will enhance Kazakhstan’s growing economy while providing European business with stronger incentives to work long-term with Kazakhstan.

The EU should take advantage of Barroso’s visit to Astana to continue building its relations with Central Asia’s biggest country as well as share some concerns over the Kazakh domestic situation and lack of reform. In light of Astana’s reform pledges, democracy does not seem to be a ‘Western-imposed concept’.

If Kazakhstan genuinely intends to become one of the world’s 30 leading countries in terms of economic indicators and democratic institution-building it should make the best out of the EU’s democracy expertise.

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