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The Foundation of Central Asia: Kazakhstan’s Journey from Past to Future

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Of the five Central Asian states – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan – Kazakhstan was the last Soviet Republic to leave the USSR. This was most likely due to its close economic ties to Russia.

It is also known for being a secular, modern, prosperous, and racially tolerant country. For a state as young as Kazakhstan, the progress the country has made is nothing short of miraculous despite its history of suffering, tragedy, colonization, domination, crackdowns, and brutality.

Kazakhstan has a highly controlled and centralized polity and, as is commonplace for this type of government, has a reputation for being wasteful and corrupt. However, its leader Narsultan Nazarbayev – who has been in place since the country’s independence – is quite popular. In fact, recently, he was ranked as one of the top five great leaders of the world. His vision and policies has resulted in stability and higher standards of living in Kazakhstan’s short life. Even while dealing with some tension from separatists among the ethnic Russian population, Kazakhstan has managed to remain exempt from many of the problems experienced in the other former Soviet Republics.

Because of its stability, deregulation, and more liberal trade regulations, Kazakhstan has attracted foreign investors – some of which come from Britain, the United States, and France – who seek to capitalize on its vast reserves of resources such as oil, uranium, and minerals. New oil pipelines have been built which have allowed Kazakhstan to reach markets it could not access before. Previously, Kazakhstan’s oil and gas industry depended on Russia’s demand for crude oil. However, since the breakup of the Soviet Union, there has been a drop in production from Russian refineries. Now, with projects such as the Caspian pipeline that links the Tengiz oilfield across the Caspian Sea to the Russian Black Sea port of Novorossiysk and the Kazakhstan-China pipeline that pumps oil to Alashankou and western China, Kazakhstan has become one of the largest producers of oil in the world. It is also quite possible that, in time, Kazakhstan will also become the world’s foremost producer of uranium.

While Kazakhstan’s future certainly seems very bright, it still faces many challenges. Thanks to the Soviet industrial period, it is one of the most polluted nations in the world. The pollution from industrialization combined with the demands placed on the environment from the extraction of natural resources, agricultural demands, increasing urbanization, and previous Soviet nuclear testing have forced the country to attempt to alter its economy and revamp its entire economic infrastructure. Kazakhstan is aware that sites associated with former defense industries and test ranges are radioactive and chemically toxic and pose a serious health risk to the local population and wildlife. The country has been very proactive on this issue and has signed international environmental agreements with the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, the UN Conference on Environment and Development, and the Kyoto Forum on Climate Change. It is very committed to becoming more eco-friendly and recently announced that its Green Economy Concept policy is to become part of its comprehensive national development.

Another problem Kazakhstan faces is the drying up of the Aral Sea. This tragedy is often described as one of the world’s worst environmental disasters. This was once a rich and fertile body of water that supported traders, hunters, and fisheries. In fact, it was the fourth largest lake in the world. Now, it is composed of three smaller separate lakes that are toxic to the people and wildlife that once depended on it. It is saturated with chemicals from pesticides and fertilizers. Kazakhstan and its neighbors – who are also affected by the disaster – are trying to reverse the trend as part of their efforts to become more environmentally conscious.

Following the break from the USSR’s state-controlled employment system, Kazakhstan had to undergo an enormous challenge to construct a functioning economy within a moderately short period of time. Kazakhstan’s giant step from being a socialist economy to becoming a free market economy was fraught with all kinds of challenges. In the few years following independence, the country floundered and finally hit rock bottom in 1994-1995. Then, in 1996, things took a turn for the better when the country’s economic policies started to bear fruit. The spirit of entrepreneurship took hold in this new economic climate and demand for goods and services increased. The country has continued to make positive steps on the road to economic independence ever since.

The country must now deal with a typical obstacle for states that find themselves suddenly very prosperous: wealth inequality. Even though the country has grand designs for the future in regards to addressing the wide poverty gap and lack of access to health care and essential services like sewage, clean water, and central air, the reality is that only people living in large urban cities are enjoying the benefits of Kazakhstan’s sustainable development. To address the issue of people living in remote regions, the country has a plan to diversify its economy by moving into areas such as light diversity and banking. This will help realize its more grandiose plans to become a regional financial and trading center and maybe even aspire to return to its ancient Silk Road roots to become a hub for international commerce (for more on this see Crosston’s article in this issue).

Politically, Kazakhstan is sluggishly dragging its feet in becoming more democratic. President Nazarbayev has been very vocal in his belief that democratic change must be a slow process or else the country risks being damaged by hasty or ill-considered decisions. The plan does include strengthening the parliament, reforming local government, improving judicial and law enforcement agencies, and developing political parties. But the focus remains on the economy being the country’s first priority. During a speech to the Joint Session of the Chambers of the Kazakh Parliament in 2007, the President promised that “the next stage of democratization and reform would include reforms to enhance the effectiveness, transparency and accountability of the executive branch, anti-corruption measures as well as steps to decentralize state administration and develop local government.”

The United States has looked favorably upon these reforms. Even though President Nazarbayev will remain in office for life, the US State Department believes Kazakhstan is taking a step in the right direction. In fact, even though it is still relatively speaking in its political infancy, Kazakhstan has proved that it can withstand the strains resulting from rapid political and economic change. The general global consensus regards it as the most stable of all the Central Asian states.

Thus, Kazakhstan is unique in that it has found itself faced with the monumental task of building an independent nation, a market economy and democracy all at the same time but has largely remained stable and positively-viewed by the world community. So far, it has managed to beat the odds. For a country that aspires to become one of the top 30 competitive developed countries in the world by 2050, Kazakhstan seems to have achieved the foundation necessary to begin such a lofty goal.

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Central Asia

Kazakh court case tests Chinese power

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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A Kazakh court is set to put to the test China’s ability to impose its will and strongarm Muslim nations into remaining silent about its brutal crackdown on Turkic Muslims in the north-western province of Xinjiang.

The court will hear an appeal by a former worker in one of Xinjiang’s multiple re-education camps against the rejection of her request for asylum. The appeal illustrates the political quagmire faced by Central Asian nations and Turkey given their ethnic, cultural and linguistic ties to China’s estimated 11 million Turkic Muslims that include 1.5 million people of Kazakh descent.

It also highlights China’s risky bet on being able to leverage its economic power to ensure the Muslim world’s silence about what amounts to the most concerted effort in recent history to reshape Muslim religious practice.

Up to one million Turkic Muslims have, according to the United Nations, been detained in a network of re-education camps in which they are being forced to accept the superiority of Chinese Communist Party beliefs and the leadership of President Xi Jinping above the precepts of Islam.

Beyond the camps, Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang, a strategic minerals-rich province bordering on eight Central and South Asian nations that China has turned into a 21st century Orwellian surveillance state, are forced to refrain from religious practice and custom in public.

After denying the existing of the camps for the longest period of time, China last month felt obliged to acknowledge them and give them legal cover.

Authorities in Xinjiang amended their anti-extremism regulations “to allow local governments to set up institutions to provide people affected by extremist thoughts with vocational skills training and psychological counselling.” China asserts that the crackdown is intended to counter extremism, separatism and terrorism.

China’s acknowledgement was designed to counter the UN report, threats of US sanctions against officials and companies involved in the Xinjiang crackdown, and revelations by 41-year-old Sayragul Sauytbay, a Chinese national of Kazakh descent.

Ms. Sauytbay testified in an open Kazakh court that she had been employed in a Chinese re-education camp for Kazakhs only that had 2,500 inmates. She said she was aware of two more such camps reserved for Kazakhs.

Ms. Sauytbay was standing trial for entering Kazakhstan illegally after having been detained at China’s request.

She told the court that she had escaped to Kazakhstan after being advised by Chinese authorities that she would never be allowed to join her family because of her knowledge of the camps. Ms. Sauytbay was given a six-month suspended sentence and released from prison to join her recently naturalized husband and children.

Since then, Ms. Sauytbay’s application for asylum has been rejected and she has until the end of October to leave Kazakhstan. She hopes that an appeal court will reverse the rejection.

Ms. Sauytbay’s case puts the Kazakh government between a rock and a hard place and is but one of a string of recent cracks in the Muslim wall of silence.

Kazakh authorities have to balance a desire to kowtow to Chinese demands with a growing anti-Chinese sentiment that demands that the government stand up for its nationals as well as Chinese nationals of Kazakh descent.

Ms. Sauytbay’s revelations that ethnic Kazakhs were also targeted in the Chinese crackdown sparked angry denunciations in Kazakhstan’s parliament.

“There should be talks taking place with the Chinese delegates. Every delegation that goes there should be bringing this topic up… The key issue is that of the human rights of ethnic Kazakhs in any country of the world being respected,” said Kunaysh Sultanov, a member of parliament and former deputy prime minister and ambassador to China.

In a further crack, Malaysia this week released 11 Uyghurs who were detained after having escaped detention in Thailand.

The Uyghurs were allowed to leave the country for Turkey. The move, coming in the wake of a decision by Germany and Sweden to suspend deportations of Uyghurs to China, puts on the spot countries like Turkey and the United Arab Emirates, where Uyghurs risk extradition.

Malaysia’s release of the Uyghurs occurred days before Anwar Ibrahim took the first hurdle in becoming the country’s next prime minister by this weekend winning a parliamentary by election.

Mr. Ibrahim last month became the Muslim world’s most prominent politician to speak out about the crackdown in Xinjiang.

Earlier, Rais Hussin, a supreme council member of Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad’s Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu) party and head of its Policy and Strategy Bureau, cautioned that “that geographical proximity cannot be taken advantage by China to ride roughshod over everything that Malaysia holds dear, such as Islam, democracy, freedom of worship and deep respect for every country’s sovereignty… On its mistreatment of Muslims in Xinjiang almost en masse, Malaysia must speak up, and defend the most basic human rights of all.”

Pakistan’s Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony minister, Noorul Haq Qadri, was forced to raise the issue of Turkic Muslims with Chinese ambassador Yao Xing under pressure from Pakistanis whose spouses and relatives had been detained in the Xinjiang crackdown.

Ms. Sauytbay’s appeal for asylum is likely to refocus public opinion in Kazakhstan and other Central Asian nations on the plight of their Turkic brethren.

She will not be deported, we will not allow it,” said Ms. Sauytbay’s lawyer, Abzal Kuspanov.

Mr. Kuspanov’s defense of Ms. Sauytbay is about far more than the fate of a former Chinese re-education camp employee. It will serve as a barometer of China’s ability to impose its will. If China succeeds, it will raise the question at what price. The answer to that is likely to only become apparent over time.

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Central Asia

Why the upcoming Congress of the Leaders of World is so vital for peace and prosperity

Kassym-Jomart Tokayev

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Religion has been, and remains, an immense spiritual force for good in our world. The shared values which underpin all world’s major faiths have positively moulded how we treat each other. Religious beliefs give direction, comfort and hope to billions of people.

Religious communities appear to have enormous potential for addressing today’s social problems. Faith groups across the globe are prominent in feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless and caring for the vulnerable.  Our world would be poorer without the impact of religion on our lives.

Throughout history, religion has also been exploited to sow divisions. Instead of bringing people together and encouraging them to behaving decently toward each other, it has been abused to fuel suspicions and hatred, spread confusion about the true essence of religion. We are facing the problem of ignoring what religions have in common and exaggerating and distorting the difference between, and at times within, faiths.

The abuse of religion continues and is undermining hopes for peace and progress. In recent years, many thousands have died and millions more had to flee their homes in conflicts, in which religion has been used to justify discrimination and violence. Countering these dangerous distortions is one of the challenges that religious leaders should address.

There is no single answer. Yet at the heart of the solution is dialogue between religions to foster understanding and respect. This is an overarching aim of the Congress of the Leaders of World and Traditional Religions which is to be held for the sixth time in Kazakhstan’s capital Astana this month (October.)

The Congress was initiated by Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev amid the growing religious tensions and extremism following the 9/11 terrorist attack in the United States. He believed it was critical that the opportunity be provided for religious leaders to work together to prevent religion being used to divide us.

His vision has struck a chord across the world. The Congress, which takes place every three years since 2003 has engaged prominent religious leaders and politicians from different countries around most pressing issues. By 2015, the number of delegations attending had increased from 23 to 80. High-profile attendees included then UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, King Abdullah of Jordan and President of Finland Sauli Niinistö. Discussions centred on the role of religion in promoting development and measures to reduce appeal of violent extremism among young people.

The Sixth Congress, which takes place on October 10-11, will build on this efforts. Its focus is on how religious leaders can work together to play their full part in creating a secure world and prevent faith being abused to set people against each other.

Located at a crossroads of different civilizations, Kazakhstan has placed greater importance on promoting religious harmony and mutual respect. Our country’s history and geography have combined to create a society in which people of many different backgrounds and faiths live within single boundaries. Religious freedom has become a precious asset of our nation, which allows diverse beliefs to peacefully coexist and helps us to negotiate any concerns in a constructive spirit.

Such a mixture could have been, as it has been the case in other countries, a worrying source of tension and conflict. Despite negative expectations such diversity has been turned into a strength in our society where citizens are equally respected and are able to make their full contribution to the common welfare.

As a matter of fact, while Kazakhstan’s population may be largely Muslim, followers of all traditional faiths live in harmony with each other, are free to worship and enjoy equal rights guaranteed by the constitution. It is a source not only of national pride but has also been an indispensable platform for our stability and prosperity at home and growing influence abroad.

In this turbulent world, dialogue and mutual respect has never been more important. Nor has it been more critical to provide the forum where religious and political leaders can work together to prevent any distortion of faith for violent ends. The upcoming Congress is so vital for peace and prosperity.

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Central Asia

Reforms Can Accelerate Economic Diversification in Kazakhstan

MD Staff

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Kazakhstan’s future growth depends on reforms that provide a level playing field for the private sector and support economic diversification, according to a new Asian Development Bank (ADB) Country Diagnostic Study launched today.

The study, Kazakhstan: Accelerating Economic Diversification, identifies the most binding constraints to growth and provides in-depth analysis of structural reforms that will bring the country to its growth potential. The report finds that consistent and successful reform efforts can add an average of 1.2 percentage points per year to Kazakhstan’s gross domestic product.

“Kazakhstan needs to accelerate structural reforms to support the country’s economic diversification,” said ADB Country Director for Kazakhstan Mr. Giovanni Capannelli. “These reforms include improving the country’s business climate, enhancing competitiveness, and increasing private sector participation in the economy.”

Kazakhstan’s economy has transformed since its independence in 1991, mainly due to a surge in oil and gas exports. While the country achieved middle-income status in 2006, the downturn of oil and other commodity prices in 2014 exposed the country’s vulnerability to external shocks and constrained government revenues.

Future growth will depend on identifying sectors in which Kazakhstan has a strong growth potential, according to the study. These include food processing, basic metals, and chemicals. In agriculture, redirecting subsidies toward investment in infrastructure, improving access to finance, and promoting innovation can substantially boost productivity. Greater investment in infrastructure is essential to provide a link to unexploited markets, decrease transport costs, and support the production of tradable goods. Transit trade has a large growth potential, while increasing the efficiency of transport infrastructure can generate additional growth from other tradable sectors such as manufacturing, the report said.

ADB began supporting Kazakhstan in 1994 and has since approved over $5 billion in sovereign loans, nonsovereign loans, and guarantees. ADB operations in Kazakhstan are helping open up transport routes, foster private enterprise, address inequalities, promote inclusive growth, and deliver knowledge products and services. ADB also contributes to Kazakhstan’s participation in the Central Asia Regional Economic Cooperation (CAREC) program.

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