By Alexandra Brzozowski
Kazakhstan’s reform efforts after the recent presidential elections could position the country as a key partner for the EU, with the region increasingly slipping out from Russia’s thumb.
In response to the deadly January protests, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev promised comprehensive political and social change, pushing amendments to the country’s laws, including the constitution, approved by the nationwide referendum, which transferred some powers from the executive branch to the legislature.
The early presidential election in November, moved up from the scheduled date in 2024, with Tokayev’s five opponents virtually unknown and none of them scoring double digits faced complaints by the international community about their fairness. An Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) election monitoring report stated that November’s snap election lacked “competitiveness” and showed the need for reforms.
Despite this, the EU had welcomed the “wider political and socio-economic reforms” in the country but urged to “increase political pluralism and citizens’ participation in political life” and to “implement fully” the recommendations of the OSCE.
“We do see that there is a certain debate on certain issues, even if there is no active opposition to the incumbent, but we see an active dialogue taking place, which was unthinkable five or 10 years ago in Kazakhstan,” Alberto Turkstra, Project Manager at Diplomatic World, a quarterly international magazine told a recent EURACTIV event, commenting on the election outcome.
According to him, the new Kazakh administration is likely to be made up of younger reform-minded technocrats, which is part of his wider push to rejuvenate the country’s public service.
“On the economic front, the oligarch casing and the monopolizing the Kazakh economy will require very bold action, ambitious market reform program and confronting powerful and vested economic interest in the economy and rent-seeking behaviours,” Turkstra added.
One significant change following the constitutional referendum in June was that Kazakhstan’s first president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, was stripped of powers granted to him when he abruptly stepped down in 2019, after 29 years in power.
Tokayev had also proposed limiting the presidential mandate to a single term of seven years without the right of re-election, a practice in use for popularly elected heads of state in a handful of states in Asia and Latin America, but so far unknown in Central Asia.
“The upcoming parliamentary elections in the first half of 2023 will be a very important opportunity for Kazakhstan to really demonstrate its clear will to embark on a new model of governance,” Dietmar Krissler, Head of Division on Central Asia at the EU’s diplomatic service (EEAS), told the same audience.
This would not only make it possible to develop further its economic relationship with the EU but raise the interest of the bloc to “cooperate closely with Kazakhstan on improving connectivity options”, Krissler added.
Strengthening Eurasian connectivity, experts believe, would also work to balance Russian, Chinese, and Iranian influence in Central Asia.
Ukraine a key turning point
Since the outbreak of war in Ukraine, Central Asia’s five former Soviet republics find themselves in a difficult position trying to balance their economic dependency on Russia and their strong support of territorial integrity.
Central Asian countries have increasingly been standing up to Moscow, aware of their new-found leverage as Russia looks to their markets and trade routes in a bid to circumvent Western sanctions.
For Kazakhstan, its neutrality pledge had triggered Russia’s response on several occasions last year, with Moscow cutting off Kazakhstan’s access to a Russia-controlled oil pipeline that Astana relies on to export crude to the EU.
Meanwhile, Russia’s war disrupted overland connectivity via the New Eurasian Land Bridge, also known as Northern Corridor, which passes through currently heavily sanctioned Russian and Belarusian territory.
According to Krissler, the Middle Corridor will not be able to fully replace it as an alternative trade corridor at the expense of Russia in the long-term, an option the EU is currently compiling an assessment on.
Russia’s war on Ukraine has presented a key vantage point for Kazakhstan, with Astana making it clear it does not share the Kremlin’s position on the war and not being willing to provide support.
However, Kazakh leadership is not ready to confront Putin directly, also bearing in mind the country’s 6,000 kilometres-long border with Russia.
Institutionally, the country is bound to Moscow through the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) and the Eurasian Economic Union, and analysts do not expect significant changes without risking an open conflict.
Meanwhile, geopolitical pressure and domestic changes and reforms have been driving Central Asian countries to look for more cooperation among themselves.
“Four out of five presidents of the countries in Central Asia are replaced with a younger generation – we hope that Central Asia will become a very important item in the agenda towards international agenda,” Mukhit Ardager Sydyknazarov, researcher at the Eurasian National University, said.