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.