The Kazakhstan snap Parliamentary elections were held on 20 March 2016. The snap elections were called amidst economic turmoil and fears that the Kazakhstan government would lose voter and public confidence because of the economic situation in Kazakhstan.
The elections will solidify autocratic President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s rule over the country and make it appear that he has the unwavering support of the people of Kazakhstan. Reports of crackdown of dissent suggest otherwise. The crackdowns, aimed at political dissidents and non-conformists to President Nazarbayev’s policies, is a way to control civil unrest and silence critics which is a longstanding criticism of the Nazarbayev Administration.
The elections did not generate significant differences in the country’s political landscape which has remained relatively unchanged since Nazarbayev gained power in 1989. Arguably, the elections are part of Nazarbayev’s attempts to make Kazakhstan appear as a democratic country and are part of “managed democracy.” The elections are being held against the backdrop of a failing economy, fluctuating tenge, low oil revenue prices and the oil market crash, political dissent, and Nazarbayev’s need to be reaffirmed by the people of Kazakhstan. The election will also show regional countries that Kazakhstan handle economic problems and is a reliable partner. Nazarbayev’s victory was predictable and negative implications stemming from a minor Parliamentary mix-up are non-existent.
A Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) mission monitored the elections. Kazakhstan’s past elections have fallen short of international standards citing lack of competitive candidates and corruption. As many as 234 candidates from the following six parties vied for 98 available parliament seats: the ruling Nur Otan party and the Party of President Nursultan Nazarbayev (127 candidates), Ak Zhol (35 candidates), Auyl (19 candidates), the Communist People’s Party of Kazakhstan (22 candidates), the Nationwide Social Democratic Party (23 candidates) and the Birlik party (eight candidates). Over 1,000 candidates are running for seats in the lower Parliament. Not much has changed as the other parties platforms do not vary that greatly. Political parties are prohibited from forming blocks.
According to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the results of the March 20, 2016, parliamentary elections show, “that three parties will have seats in the Majlis[:]Nur-Otan got 82.15 percent of the vote; Ak Zhol, 7.18 percent; and the Communist People’s Party of Kazakhstan took 7.14 percent.” These results are similar to the 2012 Parliamentary elections which highlights the lack of political variety and true democracy in the country. The elections were hailed a success by regional organizations, the SCO and the CIS. The ODIHR did not agree as Kazakhstan has a long way to go to fulfill its democratic agreement.
International observers were not surprised at the results. As early voting commenced on Sunday, the Kazakh Central Election Committee, stated that the elections were transparent. The OSCE have been heavily involved as “the OSCE/ODIHR Election Observation Mission opened in Astana on17 February, with an11 member core team and 28 long-term-observers deployed throughout the country.”
Whether or not the elections will expedite the reforms or guarantee implementation, the economy continues to slow. If Nur Otan retains its majority in Kazakhstan’s Parliament, the speed of implementation would not be effected. The snap elections directly are not being held to give the government a mandate on “100 steps.” The legitimacy of “100 steps” is derived from the President and support from Parliament and the overall willingness to reform Kazakhstan. Fifty-nine laws have already entered into force citing information from the Astana Times.
The snap elections center on economic recovery and political change. The snap elections are supported by the Majlis, and the miners and metallurgists to allow for “further implementation of reforms,” under Plan of the Nation (or “100 Steps”) and to “understand how we work in a new way, what laws should be adopted to meet the requirements of a market economy,” according to the Kazakh BNews news portal. The Head of the Assembly of Peoples of Kazakhstan (APK) stated elections will benefit the country politically and economically. Kazakhstan’s People’s Democratic Patriotic Party, known as “Aul” Party, also supports the snap elections. Support from Aul makes the elections and the decision not so one-sided appear pluralistic. The Astana Times, published astonishing, but not surprising, poll results about voting in a new Majlis and reforms: “92 percent of citizens believe the early elections make the public more confident the new reforms will be implemented.” Other poll results are similar.
Recently, on 12 January 2016, protests were held in Astana against the Kazakh Bank and the falling tenge. In response, the Kazakh government offered powdered mare’s milk on the global market which “can generate product worth $1 billion (a year)” to mitigate declining global oil prices. Another recent incident was the firing of the Sovereign Wealth Fund manager, Berik Otemurat, stated Kazakhstan’s National Oil Fund would run out in the next six or seven years. The National Oil Fund, often used as an emergency fund, has fallen 17% from $77 billion since August 2014 and the government is withdrawing about according to the Wall Street Journal. The tenge strengthened slightly in February after the currency declined after the government began to float the currency and the country is still experiencing weakened GDP growth. By mid-March the tenge has recovered by 10%.
Two activists in Kazakhstan, Serizkhan Mambetalin and Ermek Narymbaev, were convicted and sent to prison for two and three years respectively for Facebook posts “inciting national discord” (Article 174 of the Criminal Code) and the “authorities claimed the clips amounted to a ‘serious crime against peace and security of humankind’ ” according to Human Rights Watch. The two men were arrested in October 2015 and their trial began 9 December 2015. A third activist, Bolatbek Blyalov, has movement restricted for three years and cannot “[change] his place of residence or work, or [spend] time in public areas during his time off.” The punishment for the three activists violates many of Kazakhstan’s international commitments. On 22 February, the head of the Union of Journalists of Kazakhstan National Press Club, Seitkazy Matayev, was arrested on charges of corruption—accused of tax evasion and embezzlement of funds. According to TengrinNews, “the state anti-corruption agency said Matayev was detained along with his son Aset Matayev who heads the private KazTAG news agency.” Seitkazy Matayev was President Nazarbayev’s press secretary from 1991 to 1993. The Committee on Protecting Journalists reported that the Mateyevs sent statements to Adil Soz (a local press group) indicated harassment by city and state authorities began in January 2016.
There was also a recent protest in Almaty on 18 March 2016 about the incarceration of activist Yermek Narymbayev, one of the facebook activists, jailed for incitement ethnic strife (Kazakhstan Criminate Code Article 174).
Kazakhstan repeatedly has fallen short of commitments for democratic reforms (particularly press freedoms) and instead has strengthened Nazarbayev’s soft authoritarianism. Edward Schatz categorizes Kazakhstan as a soft authoritarian regime that engages in managed information and “[discourages] opposition and [encourages] pro-regime authorities.” Information management, according to Schatz, is not only through media, but by staging “many events to convey information dramatically.” Nazarbayev has a history of staging political events. Applying this notion to snap elections, Kazakhstan’s citizens know of the economic troubles. Snap elections are unnecessary to highlight the problem and snap elections give the impression the government is actively handling the problem and that political change is imminent.
Kazakhstan does consider itself a democracy and whether or not Kazakhstan’s democracy meets international standards will be revealed once institutions are strengthened. The Kazakhstan-based Astana Times calls the 20 March elections the first step towards returning “to the levels of growth and prosperity we experienced.” Constitutional reforms may give more power to the lower house, redistributing more power from the strong Presidential system the country now has (in theory).
Poor economic conditions are simple a pretext for squashing dissent and reducing political opposition. The poor economic conditions should be viewed as an opportunity to engage and strengthen civil society, establish dialogue between the government and non-governmental organizations, strengthen financial institutions, and explore alternatives in the energy sector. The crash of the commodities and oil markets presents Kazakhstan a unique opportunity to diversify its economy. The elections also present the opportunity to implement electoral reform as Nazarbayev has not picked a successor which greatly increases political instability and the possible formation of a power vacuum.
Kazakhstan during its time as the Chair for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe has failed to live up to its democratic obligations. The early Presidential elections of April 2015 showed that democratic reforms have yet to materialize. However, failure of democratization (all-encompassing to include media and political rights) and constant criticism has not stopped Kazakhstan from taking on the role of an international mediator on many high-profile conflicts—Iran and Syria—and from becoming a reliable and cooperative economic, trade, and security partners to its neighbors. Kazakhstan’s slow rise on the stage fuel autocratic behaviors.
Kazakhstan’s elections, while varied, reflect Kazakhstan’s wavering commitment to democracy and lack of party pluralism. Snap elections and early Presidential elections provide an opportunity for Kazakhstan to slowly implement electoral reforms and most importantly media reforms. Kazakhstan’s Election Law is weak as it does provide for equal party distribution and fails to provide a concrete and non-ambiguous criteria for campaign finance.
Preventing Violent Extremism through Education in Central Asia
The UNESCO Almaty Cluster Office in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan and UNESCO Headquarters, in collaboration with the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), held a Sub-regional workshop on the prevention of violent extremism through education on 13-15 November in Almaty.
UNESCO’s approach to preventing violent extremism through education is related to its work on Global Citizenship Education (GСED). Based on its long-standing commitment to peace and human rights education, the GCED strives to foster respect for all, create a sense of belonging to humanity and help students become responsible and active citizens. Thus, the GCED creates conditions for strengthening students’ commitment to renouncing violence and peace and creating conditions for protection from hatred, discrimination and violent extremism.
The workshop was organized within the framework of the partnership of UNESCO and UNODC on “Education in the spirit of global citizenship in support of the rule of law”. It strengthened the capacity of education stakeholders to implement educational measures and approaches to prevent violent extremism in an effective and appropriate manner. More specifically, the workshop provided a common discussion platform for a clearer understanding of the issues of violent extremism in the Central Asian region, as well as discussed new tools and innovative approaches and drew up a plan for further action to prevent violent extremism through education in Central Asia.
During the workshop, the participants also had a chance to visit the Nazarbayev Intellectual School and Almaty State College of Tourism and Hospitality Industry and observe open classes on global citizenship education and values.
The workshop brought together education stakeholders from all over Central Asia, including representatives from the ministries of education and community development, universities and research institutes, as well as youth organizations and civil society. International experts from France, UNODC, UNESCO as well as other UN agencies and international organizations also took part in the event.
Developing the IT sector will make Central Asia more united and independent
This September marked the second anniversary of the death of Islam Karimov, the former President of Uzbekistan, and the de-facto accession to power of Shavkat Mirziyoyev (who was later officially elected to the presidency in December 2016).
In record-breaking time President Mirziyoyev solved border disputes with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan – which had previously been considered unsolvable, significantly strengthened relations with Kazakhstan, conducted sweeping economic reforms, and opened Uzbekistan to foreign investments.
The activity of the new reformist president led to positive changes not only in Uzbekistan itself, but in the region as a whole. The change of power in Uzbekistan – the most highly populated Central Asian country, located right in the middle of the region – marked the beginning of the Central Asian Spring, which, in contrast to the Arab Spring, has been characterized by gradual reforms and, above all, economic liberalization.
In March 2018, for the first time since the beginning of the 2000’s, a summit of the Central Asian countries’ leaders took place in Astana, Kazakhstan. It was attended by presidents of every country in the region (except Turkmenistan which was represented by the Chair of the country’s parliament). This summit, along with a notable strengthening of connections between the two most prominent countries of the region – Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan – laid the ground for talks regarding the creation of a new regional union, the goal of which would be to strengthen the economic independence of the Central Asian region, and later its political independence as well.
The first attempts at economic unification of Central Asian countries date back to the mid-1990’s, and were being undertaken as late as the mid-2000’s. However, each time those attempts were beset with insurmountable obstacles – the position of the late Uzbek president Islam Karimov who basically isolated Uzbekistan from any foreign influence, the border conflicts between Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan, and the personal ambitions of the Central Asian countries’ leaders.
It is rather ironic that Uzbekistan – which for а long time halted the process of regional integration – is today, along with Kazakhstan, its primary moving force. Riding the wave of “the Uzbek thaw,” and highlighted against the backdrop of problems associated with the functioning of the Eurasian economic Union, for the first time in many years the conditions for the creation of a regional union are favorable.
For now, the countries of the region are treading very carefully when it comes to this idea. There have been too many unsuccessful attempts at unification in the past, and interstate contradictions are still too strong, as well as the differences in the countries’ approach to issues. Besides, such unification may not be well liked by the “Big Neighbors” of the region – Russia and China – who may put forth efforts to prevent the emergence of a strong and independent regional player.
The geographic location of Central Asia also provides its opponents with an advantage: each country individually (and the region as a whole) is landlocked, and as a consequence the operation of logistical and energy chains is fully dependent on the goodwill of the “Big Neighbors.” Only fundamental changes to the very structure of the regions’ economy can help overcome this dependence. Such changes are now underway.
Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are striving to abandon the natural resource-dependent model and develop innovations. An example of that is the “Astana Hub” – a financial and technological center which has the capabilities to speed up the technological upgrading not just of Kazakhstan alone, but the entire Central Asian region.
The simultaneous development of an IT ecosystem of innovations in the countries of Central Asia will create new possibilities for regional collaboration, as well as for collaboration of the Central Asian IT sector with global centers of the IT industry.
Central Asia’s old economic model relied on each of the countries having different and separate economic relations with its “Big Neighbors” and – facilitated by those “Big Neighbors” acting as intermediaries – with countries of the West. The new Central Asian model envisions the five countries – Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkmenistan – being integrated into a common economic market and having direct connections with Western markets, bypassing the intermediary function of the “Big Neighbors.” As shown through the success of the European Bank’s ‘Investing in Central Asia’ forum which aimed to highlight opportunities for business expansion into the region, Central Asian countries will become integrated into the world ecosystem both in the information and economic realms.
However, in order to implement this plan both the Western business world and the political decision makers have lots of work ahead of them. As the new “IT tiger,” Central Asia may be interesting to the world industry’s giants only as a united region, and they must view it as such already, by extending a certain credibility to the new economic initiatives originating in that region. This means opening regional offices in the local IT clusters and entrusting them first with outsourcing and then with R&D, serving as evangelists of the new economy in contacts with representatives of the Central Asian countries’ governments, and considering the possibilities of investing into local startups jointly with governments. Western policymakers will need to get ready to provide the most favorable environment to the IT industry for any trade and economic relations with countries of the region.
As energy exports are the foundation of economic well-being for the majority of the region’s countries, it places those countries in the position of competitors who are dependent on their neighboring states, above all Russia and China. Developing advanced technologies, attracting Western investments and Western experience, and creating a Central Asian IT market will serve a dual purpose: in reducing the Central Asian countries’ dependence on their neighbors, and in becoming the catalyst for unification processes in the region.
Turkmenistan, the heart of the Silk Road
Over 140 years have passed since Ferdinand von Richthofen, a German geologist, geographer and traveler and the president of the Berlin Geographical Society, coined the term Silk Road. Several more decades had passed before scholars in different countries became seriously interested in this phenomenon of the antique and medieval world and began to study specific routes of caravan trade where Turkmen land had an important place. The Silk Road era, which lasted for more than 15 centuries, has left thousands of monuments and landmarks along the entire route from the Mediterranean to the Far East. Many of them are located on the territory of Turkmenistan.
In the modern era, the legendary route is being restored in a new quality, carrying the idea of revitalizing and strengthening trade, economic, humanitarian, and cultural ties between states and peoples. In his book, “Turkmenistan, the Heart of the Silk Road,” Turkmenistan President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, citing facts of national history, ancient tales and legends, as well as events and developments from the country’s modern life, notes that a fundamental role in the evolution and active use of the Silk Road, each of its branches being on the UNESCO List of World Heritage Sites, belongs to, among others, the Turkmen people.
Thus, as our state carries out major transport projects of the century, a modern history is being written and the idea of restoring the Silk Road – the heart of which is independent and neutral Turkmenistan – is being revisited.
The Kazakhstan-Turkmenistan-Iran transnational railway line that has been put into operation can carry up to 10-12 million tons of cargo and makes it possible to connect to transport infrastructure in the east and south, gaining access to dynamically developing markets. Turkmenistan believes it is essential to focus efforts on ensuring that the opportunities for Central Asian and Caspian states arising in connection with these major transit projects be used to the maximum degree possible.
Convenient and safe international corridors using rail, motor, air, and water transport ensure the sustainable development of the entire region, foster neighborly relations between nations, strengthen cooperation, expand the volumes of trade turnover and help address a number of social issues. As a strategic goal defining the contours of a new, large-scale format of cooperation on the continent, they help create wide-ranging and promising geoeconomic configurations. In this context, it is important to note that an international sea port in the city of Turkmenbashi is due to be put into operation in the very near future.
The state invests heavily in modernizing the material and technical base of the transport sector and improving management through modern technology. High priority is given to developing sea and river transport infrastructure. Active work is under way to improve passenger and cargo transportation, develop ports and port facilities, and streamline state oversight over the safety of shipping and navigation.
Central and South Asia is a space for active international cooperation. Ancient trade routes passed across these territories for centuries, bringing Asia and Europe closer together. At present, countries in these regions play an important role in expanding global economic partnership. The implementation of projects in these areas opens up great prospects for the optimization of transport, energy and cultural ties in the Eurasian space. Therefore, as Turkmenistan President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov noted, our region is emerging as a major link in the formation of a new trade and economic partnership model on the continent, which, in turn, opens up opportunities for creating a platform for more wide-ranging cooperation. This is a vivid example of deeply innovative thinking in the global geoeconomic configuration and a vision of strategic perspectives for its development.
First published in our partner International Affairs
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