For someone not very familiar with the processes and peculiarities of the Kazakh political space and relying on second sources it is obvious that Kazakhstan has entered a new stage of political and socio-economic transformation in the first year of the presidency of Mr. Kassym-Jomart Tokayev.
As the first president Mr. Nursultan Nazarbayev stepped down in March 2019, his successor Mr. Tokayev marched onward.
That political currents in Kazakhstan have been shifting which was signaled by the fact that President Nazarbayev left office voluntarily, something which no Central Asian leader had done since independence. From that moment on, President Tokayev continues to implement the state’s current course. At the same time, he brought a new impetus, ensuring evolutionary development. Furthermore, Mr. Tokayev devised a new direction of state development based on dialogue with the society, pluralism of opinions and diversity of views. In his address to the nation in September 2019, Mr. Tokayev advanced the notion of the “Listening State,” which “quickly and efficiently responds to all constructive citizens` requests.”
There are reports that many Kazakhs have welcomed the ongoing changes and reforms. President Tokayev’s reforms are also receiving positive feedback from certain local and international observers. Few of them even cynically observed a relative decline of protest activity. But in order to solve the challenges of domestic reforms in Kazakhstan, international turbulences and the COVID-19 pandemic of late, it’s essential to continue building and maintaining a platform for an interactive dialogue with the respective citizens and attend to their needs.
The impression is that President Tokayev is continuing to build a social welfare state, where special attention is paid to improving the quality of life of every citizen. Payments and benefits have been increased, the most vulnerable citizens have received support, student scholarships have increased, and people who were left homeless due to man-made disasters and those who lost their incomes during the coronavirus pandemic have not been forgotten. One of the key initiatives of the President of Kazakhstan was the formation of the National Council of Public Trust (NCPT), which leads the conversation about the most pressing issues on the domestic agenda and has become a true direct communication platform with the civil society.
“Expectations are that Kazakhstan’s economy will grow on average by five percent annually by 2025.“
The welfare state relies on a strong national economy. Expectations are that Kazakhstan’s economy will grow on average by five percent annually, by 2025. This will be helped primarily by export of its huge reserves of oil, uranium, and other raw materials. But, in the immediate future, the development may be affected by a threatening global recession.
So, as Mr. Tokayev has asserted earlier, agriculture is the main resource for Kazakhstan. The country is well-positioned to be a major provider of grains, livestock, and seeds to China, and Asia. Also, the implementation of structural reforms and the modernisation of state apparatus and business standards as well as an improvement of education and medical services have been obvious even before COVID-19. The tragic phenomenon has accelerated and outlined the power of the digital dimension of human interaction, and the necessity for the authorisation of national digital agenda in the economy, trade relations, social changes, as well as security issues.
The Tokayev government, eager to oversee a peaceful transition, underlines continuity and stability. The government has an intention to adopt many new policies and programmes, and they are deemed as significant. Such are political reforms, including sensitive issues like public assembly, the law on political parties and elections which should also be gradually changed.
In an effort to engage the society more deeply in governance, Kazakhstan’s authorities institute and seek to manage the aforementioned reforms. President Tokayev is oriented towards “maintain continuity” yet nonetheless calls for “systemic reforms.” He appears to mean both. New domestic political paradigms have been: different opinions – single nation, successful economic reforms are impossible without modernizing the country’s sociopolitical life, a strong president, – an influential Parliament, and – an accountable Government. In his address to the Nation, President called it the “Listening State” which “quickly and efficiently responds to all constructive citizens’ requests”.
Mr. Tokayev is well aware that today’s citizens of Kazakhstan, and particularly young people, differ sharply from his own generation. He is among the most active users of social media of all Eurasian leaders and realizes fully that the government must now deal with organized groups of environmentalists, new media, mothers, civil libertarians, Islamists, and others, all of them seeking immediate change.
“We will base our work with a focus on the highest development goals. There should be no place for populism”
Mr. Tokayev understands that alternative opinions and public debate are some of the main requirements of development. “We will base our work based on the highest development goals. There should be no place for populism,” he said during the second meeting of the NCPT in December 2019.
Like reformers everywhere, Tokayev rails against his country’s ineffective and corrupt bureaucracy, especially provincial governors and their staff. It is obvious that the reform programmes could prove stressful for large segments of the population, who are already burdened with debt. Therefore, reformists actions will require a rare combination of deftness and firmness.
So, moderation and caution are the hallmarks of the new administration in Nur-Sultan. President Tokayev believes that steps towards liberalization are important in principle, absolutely necessary, and unavoidable. But in his Address to the Nation Mr. Tokayev underlined that “explosive, unsystematic political liberalization,” could lead to instability and ”loss of statehood”.
Kazakhstan authorities may have ample reasons, both domestic and international, to be cautious and to apply its step-by-step approach. It seems Mr. Tokayev has chosen a strictly top-down approach to reform. The government has to take the initiative.
It is beneficial that the transition of leadership and policy began several years before First President Nazarbayev formally stepped down. Those early moves included the first steps towards administrative decentralization and the strengthening of parliament. As a result, the new leadership had ample time to plan strategy, rank priorities, and assemble a team. Therefore the new leader was not caught unawared or unprepared.
If President Tokayev persists in his cautious but publicly declared effort to reform and open Kazakhstan’s governmental system, it will doubtlessly have a significant impact across the region. Otherwise, Mr. Tokayev declared at the Munich Security Conference in February that Kazakhstan would continue to remain the “locomotive” of Eurasian integration, together with Russia.
It should be assumed that Kazakhstan’s political establishment wishes to be the subject of international relations without limited space for that and other countries of Central Asia to manoeuvre politically. The best option would be that all the countries of the Eurasian space should be included in the process of developing common security measures and visions.
Such viewpoints fit with opinions that the current version of Kazakhstan’s foreign policy will not diverge too markedly from the path traced in the last three decades. In observing the principle of balance in its foreign policy, the Government, that has pursued continuity in many policy realms, will probably not introduce drastic change in an area as crucial as foreign policymaking.
Nevertheless, a perfect storm has struck international relations. The crisis in the Middle East continues, the frictions around the OPEC and the sharp drop in oil prices occurs, the dilemma of arms control is growing, and the global COVID-19 pandemic rages. Above all, the aggravation in the wavering relations between the US and China will be a cornerstone of the international balance of power.
Indications are that a very difficult geopolitical period awaits the countries of Eurasia in which Kazakhstan has a central position. For official Nur-Sultan, the ability to adapt and manage changes at the foreign policy level is a strategic necessity. It is very good that in such sensitive times, President Tokayev is at the helm of the state. He has rich experience in politics and diplomacy acquired over decades serving as Chairman of the Senate, Prime Minister, Foreign Minister, Director-General of the UN Office at Geneva and diplomat posted abroad. This would help to shape Kazakhstan’s future and foreign policy outreach.