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Strengthening Religious Harmony While Stamping Out Extremism in Kazakhstan

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As a country, Kazakhstan has achieved many accomplishments in our first 25 years as an independent nation. Living standards for our citizens have improved dramatically, for example, and the respect we have built up as a global champion for peace and disarmament has seen us become the first Central Asian state to be elected to the United Nations Security Council.

No achievement, however, has been more important than the way in which a stable and harmonious society has been built from our very diverse population. A combination of factors including our geographical location and an often-troubled recent history resulted in people of different backgrounds and faiths living within our borders. We have worked hard to ensure every group is respected, able to make their full contribution to our society and co-exists peacefully.

This is certainly the case with religious beliefs. Although the majority of people in Kazakhstan are considered to be Muslims, our state is secular and followers of all the world’s great faiths are guaranteed freedom of conscience and equality before the law. The Islam traditionally practiced in Kazakhstan has always been linked and gone hand-in-hand with our ethnic habits and ways, and is moderate in outlook with no tolerance of religious fanaticism.

Within our borders, there are 2,550 operating mosques and 294 Russian Orthodox churches to serve the two largest religious groups. Moreover, there are also 108 Catholic churches, 495 Protestant churches, seven synagogues, two Buddhist temples as well as prayer houses for the Hare Krishna and Bahai communities.

Kazakhstan has played its part internationally through successful initiatives such as the Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions to increase understanding between different faiths and to unite efforts in fighting extremism in the name of religion. We are proud of the good relations that exist between faith communities and the state and, importantly, between every citizen. This respect and understanding has been a major part of our success as a country. 

Nevertheless, as it is the case with many other countries, we face increasing threats from outside our borders to this stability and harmony. Last year, Kazakhstan experienced two terrorist attacks, which had their roots in violent religious extremism and radicalism.

We have also seen small numbers of our young people, as has happened throughout Central Asia and Europe, attracted by the savage ideologies of groups like the so called ISIL. We need to step up our efforts to prevent our youth from radicalization.

Linked to these serious threats, Kazakhstan has seen, as is again the case in many other places, the import of more extreme interpretations of religion into our country. These radical beliefs are entirely alien to our moderate national traditions. They undermine the secular nature of our state and risk inter-faith tensions.

It is to counter these threats and protect the right of the overwhelming peaceful and moderate majority to worship freely that Kazakhstan has developed a new framework for the relationship between religion and the state formulated in the Concept for State Policy in Religious Affairs up to 2020. The Concept has two goals:

–         To formulate a system of views and approaches of the state in its interaction with religious organisations;

–         To send a clear message to the population of Kazakhstan on the Government’s attitude to religion.

The Concept will be the basis for policies and practical steps. The aim is to define more clearly boundaries and responsibilities, and put in place new programmes, so our country continues to be known for its harmony and stability, respect for religious beliefs and tolerance between different faiths.

We believe that it is not the government’s role to interfere in the internal workings of religions and there is no intention to do so. The framework clearly declares the continued freedom of conscience for individuals and the right for freedom of associations for over 3,500 faith organisations in our country. However, it is the responsibility of all governments to ensure that a platform is not given to those preaching hatred and violence.

Though the framework rests heavily on our own culture and experience, it was also drawn up after examining how partners such as America, the European Union, China and Russia are responding to similar challenges. It has helped shape the adoption of policies, in particular those which will lead to greater transparency over finances in order to help prevent the misuse of religious donations to fund extremism.

There is, however, no single system of interaction between government and religion. Even within the Islamic world, there is no uniformity in the interpretation of religious dogma. We believe that we have a right to develop our own model which balances the importance of faith for moral and spiritual health with the preservation of our historic and ethnic traditions. Our secular government structure itself is a part of this tradition.    

We are also employing new methods to prevent religion being used as a justification to flout the law or divide communities. We should expect all marriages, for example, to be registered legally. Nor should religion be used as an excuse to damage the education of children or put their health at risk by preventing vaccinations. We will not allow, either, the clock to be turned back on gender equality. 

If we are to succeed in countering religious extremism and preventing division, new rules must be coupled with improved education programmes. In particular, we need to inform young people about the distortion of religion as well as increase their understanding of what the different religions have in common. We are keen for the involvement of all 18 faiths represented in our country to help us ensure  these education initiatives are as effective as possible.

It is clear that Kazakhstan is not the only country which faces these threats to the security and stability of society. Many countries across the world are also struggling with the same challenges. 

We have worked very hard as a country to build a stable and tolerant society and we do not want to see it threatened by religious extremism and fundamentalism, whether it is from beyond or within our borders. The steps we are taking are aimed to protect the stability of our country against those who abuse faith for their own perverted ends while protecting the moral and spiritual values in our national life.

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Central Asia

Religious buildings in Kazakhstan to be labeled 16+

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New restrictions on religious activities are emerging in Kazakhstan. Will they help to fight extremism?

According to the Government bill introducing amendments to the laws on religious activities and associations, adolescents should be forbidden from attending mosques, churches and synagogues if they are not accompanied by one of the parents and don’t have written consent of another parent.

Schools and the media are going to be forbidden from talking about the belief systems of various religions as well.

By implementing these and other measures, Astana intends to combat religious extremism. However, the crackdown on religion has already set the country four years back: in 2017 the Republic of Kazakhstan returned on the list of countries where the religious situation arouses concern of the US State Department Commission on International Religious Freedom. Kazakhstan last appeared on the list along with Afghanistan, India, Indonesia and Laos in 2013.

Is the proposed bill really going to help to contain the spread of radical Islam, and to what extent does it conform with international human rights standards?

The Concept of State Policy towards Religion, adopted in 2017, shows that the authorities strive to expel religion from public space altogether and promote an ideology of “secularism”. Their thinking is understandable: with no contact between members of differentreligions, there will be no inter-religious conflicts.

However, according to the European experience, prohibitive policy does not bring the expected results. In a multicultural society, the lack of information about the beliefs of other religions only increases tensions. Silencing the matter of religion and obstructing religious education reduces the ability to critically evaluate the extremist ideologies,while increasing the opportunityto spread false information aimed to promote inter-religious discord.

In addition, various summer camps, excursion and pilgrimage activities organized by religious communities are going to be banned if the bill is adopted. It includes those traditional religious confessions that the Government routinely thanks for promoting the inter-civilizational dialogue, youth development and the maintenance of stability, peace and prosperity in the society. A large number of children and teenagers will be deprived of their usual social circles and leisure activities.

As a result of such unconstitutional state interference and bureaucratic obstacles, children and teenagers will be denied the right to practice the religion of their family even when outside educational, medical and other state institutions. Not to mention that parents will be entitledby law to restrict the right of their children under the age of 16 to choose their faith.

Moreover, according to the proposed legislation, if a minor is found in a prayer room“illegally”, the responsibility will fall on the religious organization in question. Consequently, the clergy will need to alienate and discourage the younger generations from attending their own churches, so as not to get fined and fall within the scope of the restrictions on the religious activities!

At the same time, actual extremist organizations will go underground and get more freedom than their peaceful competitors. Obviously, the unruly youth will turn not to those imams, priests or rabbis unable to go beyond the restrictive framework of formal prohibitions. They will go to the “real” preachers who offer communion, new religious experience, something to devote yourself to, a sense of self-worth (even if as suicide bombers).

It is in the interests of all religious leaders, and indeed the whole world, to prevent such a terrible scenario from happening and to return Kazakhstan on the path of civilizational dialogue and inter-confessional cooperation. Otherwise, any participation in the VI Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions in the Astana Palace of Peace and Reconciliation can be seen as not only dishonorable and hypocritical, but also unsafe.

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Central Asia

Supporting Kazakhstan’s Commitment to Fiscal Consolidation and Long-Term Economic Transformation

Ato Brown

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Kazakhstan’s 2050 Strategy envisages a radical restructuring of the government and the economy by 2050 and recognizes that “the era of the hydrocarbon economy is coming to its end.” The world’s current oversupply of oil adds urgency to the need to accelerate broader reforms of economic structure and fiscal policy.

The World Bank Group’s recent Public Finance Review, Kazakhstan: Enhancing the Fiscal Framework to Support Economic Transformation, provides a set of recommendations to support the government’s move in this direction.

Kazakhstan benefited greatly from the oil boom of 2000–14, which led to income growth and poverty reduction, and helped build a fiscal cushion to stabilize the economy during downturns. As oil output more than doubled during the oil price super-cycle, the Government of Kazakhstan accumulated substantial fiscal savings in its National Oil Fund (NFRK). These funds were used for anti-crisis programs in 2007–10, during which time the fiscal stimulus program totalled US$18 billion (about 15 percent of GDP).

The Government injected more than US$30 billion in foreign-currency interventions in 2014–15, while the current fiscal stimulus package already exceeded US$20 billion (12 percent of GDP) in 2014–17.

As a result, the NFRK balance has fallen from US$73 billion in 2014 to a projected US$57 billion by the end of 2017. The Kazakh authorities moved to a floating exchange rate regime in the second half of 2015 to stop the leakage of foreign exchange reserves. However, an accompanying fiscal adjustment has not materialized. Some policy makers may still believe that the shock is cyclical and maintain hope that oil prices will recover.

Yet that might not be the case.

The low-oil prices environment is not a temporary crisis, but is rather a structural shift to a “new normal”. In this case, Kazakhstan needs to urgently adopt a fiscal consolidation strategy to promote diversified growth and high-quality job creation.

The NFRK’s new management rules, with advice from the World Bank Group and IMF, include:

  • The nonoil deficit, the main anchor of fiscal policy, is to be progressively decreased to 7 percent of GDP by 2020 and 6 percent by 2025;
  • Guaranteed transfers from the NFRK are to be reduced from the present US$8 billion to the equivalent of US$6 billion by 2020;
  • The NFRK is to be maintained at least at 30 percent of GDP;
  • Privatization revenues are to flow to the NFRK; and
  • General government debt and external debt of state-owned enterprises are not to exceed the size of NFRK assets.

Government projections have been made under these assumptions, but it is critical that oversight and reporting of the NFRK rules are applied rigorously.

Failure to consolidate as projected could result in a full depletion of net fiscal savings in around 5-10 years!

At the heart of successful fiscal consolidation should be two things: reducing inefficient expenditure that distorts private incentives while redirecting savings toward productivity-enhancing spending; and eliminating inefficient tax benefits that result in an uneven playing field for investment.

While pursuing a fiscal consolidation effort over the medium-term, there are potential benefits to reviewing Kazakhstan’s fiscal policy framework and institutions with the goal of strengthening their coherence, credibility, and flexibility.

All these major institutional developments will require considerable time, as well as extensive technical support. The World Bank Group suggests to develop a three-phase, time-bound Action Plan consistent with an immediate focus on fiscal consolidation as well as continuing the support programs that are already underway, notably by the World Bank Group, the IMF, and the OECD. Longer-term issues could be discussed at a high level with the authorities in 2018, with inputs from all the involved international bodies.

First published in World Bank

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Central Asia

Great Central Asia, America’s counter measure to China-Pakistan Economic Corridor

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China’s ambitious global geo-political objective has raised concern among American strategists, which China attempts to Isolate America at the global level. The claim has become more evident during the G20 summit when China curbed president Trump effort to pass a joint declaration in order to condemn North Korea’s recent ICBM test.

(more…)

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