Authors: Sayfiddin Juraev and Gregory Gleason*
As the features of the virus which causes the corona pandemic are emerging with greater clarity, we are beginning to understand the dangers more fully. One of the things we are beginning to appreciate is that the SARS virus is a very unusual foe. The virus is directly endangering the lives of people directly through the severe acute respiratory effects that it produces, but it also has endangered the way societies function around the world. The disruption of international trade and traffic has an immediate effect which we all have observed. Only now are we beginning to see the emergence of the long-term effects on how countries interact with one another and how they protect their own national interests. The SARS virus is a danger to human security and national security alike.
The form of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome known as SARS-CoV-2 operates according to its own rules. This SARS is universal and non-discriminatory. It affects everyone. It does not discriminate between good and bad, rich and poor, north and south or east and west. This dangerous and highly contagious SARS virus, spreading the disease known as COVID-19,isa common threat to all.
It is important that we find ways to prevent this form of the SARS corona virus from magnifying the effects of economic disruption and social upheaval and from further dividing people and setting us against one another. One step in overcoming this challenge is to recognize that this virus is an unusual enemy. Successfully combating this unusual enemy requires that we understand the ways it functions and the ways it can be stopped.
Drawing upon the experience of countries that have done well in the first stages of this pandemic is valuable. The experience of the states of Central Asia offers useful insights into strategies to combat this pandemic.
The damage caused by the spread of COVID-19 in the Central Asian states—Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan—is currently at the low end of the scale in comparison with more economically advanced countries. For example, UK, Italy, Spain, and France currently record the numbers of fatalities attributed to COVID-19 in the tens of thousands. In contrast, the reported fatality figures in the Central Asian countries are much lower. As of June 1, 2020, the World Health Organization reported deaths attributed to COVID-19 as: Kazakhstan—38; Kyrgyzstan—16; Tajikistan—47; Uzbekistan—14. Turkmenistan reported no deaths.
These figures represent the “reported” data. No international organization has the authority to independently collect primary health data in all the world’s countries, nor could it without violating basic principles of national sovereignty. But if these reported WHO data are even approximately accurate, the governments of all the Central Asian states deserve high marks for their ability to stem the “brushfire” spread of the SARS virus and gain time to more effectively address the fundamental questions raised by the pandemic both home and abroad.
What Accounts for Successful Containment in Central Asia?
As the initial cases of COVID-19 appeared in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and later in Tajikistan, the governments swiftly responded, instituting emergency measures, empowering law enforcement and medical authorities to implement a broad range of counter-infection mitigation measures to protect public health. Cross-border travel restrictions were imposed. Lockdowns and sheltering-in-place restrictions were imposed in most major cities and curfews were enforced. Routine commercial air flights were cancelled or significantly reduced in international airports and many domestic airports. New levels of visa restrictions were implemented in all the Central Asian countries. The initial infection containment measures were highly successful in curtailing the early spread of Covid-19duet to the will and capacity of the governments of these states in implementing and enforcing the containment measures urged by medical authorities.
The problems faced by the Central Asian states were much the same as those faced by countries around the world. As in all cases, the success of the governments in responding to the pandemic depends upon addressing five key stages: 1) identification and assessment; 2) containment; 3) mitigation; 4) management of immediate consequences; 5) long-term economic and social consequences. The first stage of response to the pandemic—the immediate medical response stage—involves recognizing and acknowledging the scope of the hazard to public health and empowering medical authorities and law enforcement and public security services to take the steps necessary to get infected individuals under medical care as quickly as possible. Containment means identifying and then isolating those people or those processes which can potentially transmit the infection.
Full information about the transmissibility of SARS-CoV-2 was not available at the beginning of the pandemic. Consequently, many decisions were made solely based on assumptions using the experience from other cases of virus-based influenza. A full picture of transmissibility of the SARS-CoV-2 has not emerged even at this point, but the evidence suggests two primary routes of transmission. One route involves airborne transmission in minor droplets of water transferred in expiration of breath of infected persons. The second route appears to involve fomite transmission on surfaces of objects where the virus has been deposited.
A government policy of containment involves identifying those people who have come into contact with those transmitting COVID-19 and isolating them to ensure that they do not transmit the virus to others. Identification and isolation involve “contact tracing”, a form of investigation conducted with local authorities to propose, or even impose isolation measures on those who have been affected. Contact tracing and the imposition of isolation is a highly labor-intensive and highly intrusive government process that must be conducted on objective bases but can only be successful if it is conducted quickly and effectively. Government authorities in the Central Asian states were quick to undertake these steps and, accordingly, were successful in containing the spread of COVID-19 in the initial stages of the pandemic.
Despite initial success, the nature of COVID-19 disease also suggests significant challenges ahead for the Central Asian states as well as for others. If the transmission of the disease is basically enabled by proximity, then distancing and containment will work in individual cases. But the ideas of containment and mitigation which underlie the professional guidance of medical authorities are based on the experience of highly localized cases of successful treatment procedures. Physicians know that to stem the spread of an infectious disease they need to isolate an infected patient. If individual isolation fails, then it is assumed the perimeter should be extended and the room should be isolated. If that fails, then the entire ward should be isolated. If that fails, then the wing of the building, or the building itself or the entire region of the city should be isolated. The idea of a “widening perimeter” is the principle that has now been applied to entire countries. Can such a principle work effectively on a global basis?
The principle of infection isolation is not something that was devised to apply at once to the entire globe. In any collective effort the weak link always endangers the protection of the whole.Ifspecific, geographically defined territorial areas can be isolated the infection can be contained within that area. But as the perimeter grows larger and larger, the task of containment grows increasingly more challenging. As the perimeter widens to a certain quantitative point, the challenge becomes qualitatively different.
SARS—A Different Kind of Foe
The scope of the “widening perimeter” challenge encourages us to look more closely at the dynamics of the disease and the way the disease interacts in international affairs. We do not currently have a complete picture of how the virus operates and therefore we do not have exhaustive knowledge about how to stop it. Medical specialists acknowledge that the urgency of the pandemic forced them in the early part of 2020 to make judgments in circumstances where they had only insufficient data. Based on the advice of medical authorities at that time, policy-makers wanted to know how the virus could be defeated and when it would be expected to retreat. These were obviously the policy-makers’ primary concerns at the outbreak of the pandemic. But asking the questions in this way may have sent many policy-makers in a direction that led them to standard combat tactics. This may have complicated or even interfered with the achievement of their goals.
Combat tactics are designed to overcome a foe who is a purposive enemy. SARS is a different kind of foe. Some microbiologists argue that the corona virus is not alive, at least in the traditional sense of that term. The corona virus does not reproduce itself; it simply replicates itself by relying upon other living cells from which it derives an advantage. From the perspective of some microbiologists, the virus is not a “living thing” but only an “acting thing” which by its nature is not attempting to achieve a purpose but is merely programmed to exploit an advantage. If this view is accurate, the corona virus is not “plotting” against human beings. It is not a “devious” opponent; it is indeed deadly, but not devious. If the corona virus is driven by the pre-programmed goal of continuation through replication, then the strategy to defeat it should be focused specifically on the behavior of the opponent, not on presumptions. Deprive the virus of the conditions for its opportunities for replication, and it has been defeated. The rule is simple: focus not on the virus but on the conditions which enable it.
If the corona virus statistically takes advantage of circumstances which allow it to replicate and multiply, then it is merely existing in a niche of opportunity. As long as that opportunity exists, the deleterious effects of the virus will remain. The tactics to “combat” this virus, therefore, are not those usually used in combat situations. If it is not alive, the idea of “killing” the virus is a metaphor at best, because this virus does not exhibit the conventional attributes of living organisms. If that is true, the goal should not be to combat the virus through killing it but rather to disrupt or “destabilize” and thereby neutralize the virus to defeat it. Tactics should be focused specifically on a narrow goal—deprive this preprogrammed protein of the conditions of which it takes advantage.
Tactics used by the governments of the Central Asian countries in the initial stages of this pandemic were effective because they focused on physical distancing. This was crucial for flattening the epidemic curve. Central Asian governments responded to the challenge by imposing strict lockdowns and even surveillance measures on citizens. For democracies, the implementation of such strict measures, even if only temporarily, places pressures on democratic institutions which, in turn, risk undermining public trust. Some analysts view the corona pandemic as a global crisis that presents particularly unique challenges for democracies. In contrast, the outcome of the response of the Central Asian government deserves high marks. A “brushfire” spread of panic and disorder was prevented.
SARS, the “Widening Perimeter” and International Cooperation
The current form of the SARS virus may attenuate entirely or may in the future end up in returning in waves and only gradually recede in importance. The unprecedented costs SARS has already exacted in terms of those who have suffered and those who have died are compounded by the costs of those whose lives have been severely disrupted socially or economically. In the time ahead these human, economic and social costs are likely to be multiplied by the national security costs in terms of the increased international tensions and the diminished capacity to conduct international affairs in traditional ways.
The corona virus pandemic requires us to think of solutions that may be outside of the more traditional ways of thinking. To begin with, defeating this unusual foe will require two things which on the surface may seem to be opposed to one another—first, only capable and effective national governments will be able to succeed in addressing the immediate challenges of counter-pandemic containment and, second, only international cooperation will succeed in addressing the global aspects of the spread of disease.
Globalization itself bears much of the responsibility for this infectious disease. If it were not for the high-tech linkages of air, rail, and shipping connections linking the entire globe, there could not be such rapid transmission of this new and dangerous virus. But if globalization is the cause, global cooperation may also be the only viable solution to the problems it has created. Many of the problems produced by this corona virus pandemic will be achieved through the close connections of science, information, communication, and international cooperation. Only a new form ofglobalization—what we might call “improved globalization”—can make this possible.
* Gregory Gleason is professor of security studies at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies. The Marshall Center is a partnership between the German Ministry of Defense and the U.S. Department of Defense. This article does not necessarily represent the views of the U.S. Department of Defense.
Power without Soft Power: China’s Outreach to Central Asia
The People’s Republic of China has become increasingly interested in the Central Asian countries—Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan—for both internal and external motives. As such, the resurgence of terrorism and religious extremism—Islamic and Buddhist—in mainland China has prompted Beijing to increase its upstream presence with military troops stationed in the Wakhan Corridor in Afghanistan (officially to combat narcotics trafficking) while implementing a policy of re-educating Uyghur Muslim dissidents in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in Northwest China.
Beijing’s approach has been severely criticized in the United States and Europe, and Western countries are exploiting the Xinjiang Vocational Education and Training Centers (Xinjiang internment camps) to damage Beijing’s international image, without necessarily taking into account the reality on the ground in a region of the world where China’s policy is helping to contain the spread of Islamist groups, including ISIS.
The Chinese dual approach, which is essentially aimed at containing radical Islamism in the immediate periphery and at home, is likely to be reinforced in the years to come, as the U.S. Department of Defense recently announced the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan, thus leaving Beijing in charge of security in the region, as Central Asian states do not have the financial and logistical means (e.g. GEOINT) to contain the spread of terrorism. The Chinese presence also avoids the need to ask for help from Russia, whose involvement is often perceived as a form of “post-Soviet colonialism.”
In Central Asia, where resources—especially water—are scarce, coupled with a high birth-rate and a lack of economic and military means, Beijing’s presence is seen as an economic advantage by all, although it gives rise to differing political views regarding such topics as religion.
While China is a technological leader and the best economic opportunity for Central Asian states, Beijing’s approach to curbing the spread of Islam is frowned upon by many Central Asian countries. As a matter of fact, Islam has grown in influence since the disappearance of shamanism (the native religion of the Central Asian peoples) and the end of the Soviet Union (atheistic policy), which is nowadays leading to growing diplomatic divergences between China and the neighboring states.
Chinese Politics in Central Asia
Beijing’s approach to Central Asia and Afghanistan is not comparable to that of the United States or the Soviet Union in that Beijing is offering to deploy its military troops as compensation for paying the debts of countries, with the agreement of the local governments.
As of today, all Central Asian countries are economically dependent on China for both exports and imports of goods, especially medical equipment and pharmaceuticals where Beijing is a world leader; and the debt is growing.
Initially, the Central Asian countries tried to balance their trade with Beijing, notably by exporting gas. China imported a total of 43 billion cubic meters (bcm) from Central Asia in 2019, according to the estimates from the BP Statistical Review. Back in 2010, that figure was just 3.4 bcm. Turkmenistan, Central Asia’s largest gas exporter, became especially dependent on China when its exports to Russia slid to zero in 2016. In mid-2019, Russia agreed to resume importing 5.5 bcm per year of gas from Turkmenistan, a fraction of what goes to China.
It soon became clear, however, that selling gas would not be enough to pay off the debts, which meant Beijing was given the option of stationing troops in countries such as Afghanistan with the approval of the neighboring states.
Therefore, Chinese diplomacy in Central Asia is not based on soft power as Beijing opposes the spread of Islam, an attitude that offends Central Asian citizens, and there is little exposure to the Chinese language or spontaneous adoption of Confucianism considering China’s economic prominence in the region.
Beijing adopts a similar attitude; and while countries, such as Kazakhstan, are a necessary route for the transit of Chinese products to the European Union and Great Britain, China sees the Central Asian countries as antagonists due to their religion and to historical factors, as the former nomadic conquerors (e.g. Genghis Khan) still leave a negative resonance in the Chinese mind. In addition, there are territorial disputes between China and Kyrgyzstan/Tajikistan, which hinders any deep development of diplomatic relations with Beijing when one considers the importance China attributes to its territorial sovereignty (e.g. Taiwan and the Diaoyutai Islands).
As such, cultural differences push China to cooperate with Central Asian countries within the framework of international organizations, such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, rather than on a one-to-one level, allowing it to take a global view in the region and avoid mentioning bilateral frictions.
Chinese Military Approach in Central Asia
In contrast to the cultural dimension (soft power), China has a more proactive stance in the military sector. For instance, it collaborates with Russia, the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) members and with the countries of Central Asia in carrying out joint military exercises.
Moscow and Beijing moved their relations towards a global strategic partnership of coordination in a new era, committing themselves to closer coordination on global security issues and mutual support. For the second consecutive year, China took part in the Russian strategic command and staff exercise (TSENTR-2019) held this year in the Russian Central Military District. The aim of the exercise was to test the readiness levels of the Russian army and interoperability between regional partners, while simulating a response to terrorist threats in Central Asia. China represented the largest foreign contingent, deploying some 1,600 ground and air troops from the PLA Western Theatre Command and nearly 30 planes and helicopters, including H-6 bombers.
However, in the Chinese perception, Central Asian countries are of little military relevance and Russia remains the main partner, so exercises with Central Asian and CSTO countries are a way to strengthen cooperation with Moscow but not fundamentally with the Central Asian countries.
This Chinese vision seems relevant insofar as Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are not nuclear powers and do not have sufficient military means to envisage an equal partnership with Beijing. China’s military budget in 2020 was $252 billion, while that of Central Asia as a whole was $2.2 billion in the same year.
Beijing is therefore using the motive of joint exercises and the repayment of national debts of the countries in the region to increase its military presence, especially in the Wakhan Corridor.
The Wakhan Corridor
The Wakhan Corridor is a narrow strip of territory in Afghanistan, extending to China and separating Tajikistan from Pakistan and Kashmir. The corridor, wedged between the Pamir Mountains to the North and the Karakoram range to the South, is about 350 km long and 13-65 kilometers wide and has been used as a trade route to connect China since antiquity.
Beijing is specifically interested in this region because it is in Afghanistan, one of the strongholds for Islamic terrorism, and easy to send troops from the mainland. With the withdrawal of American forces and the reduction of NATO’s presence expected in September 2021, China can then try to replace the United States in the region. Furthermore, the Corridor leads directly to the Chinese border, and Beijing’s (unofficial) military base in the region ensures control of the illegal traffic of drugs and weapons.
In addition, having a facility in the area allows for rapid intervention in the two countries that share a border with the Corridor—Tajikistan and Pakistan—with the latter also known to be a bastion for terrorist hiding from the rest outside world (e.g. Osama bin Laden).
Unlike in the case of Djibouti, China refused to openly mention its military presence in the Corridor and has used the fight against drug trafficking as an excuse since a number of reports of a permanent Chinese military presence have emerged. The reason for this Chinese secrecy is due to several factors:
- It is likely that a large part of the military activities is actually fighting against drug trafficking which is common in the area (Afghan opium) ;
- The Chinese presence in Djibouti has been seen by the United States, France, Italy and Japan as a significant development that aims to supplant their influence on the continent. Similarly, such open display of Chinese ambitions in Central Asia has reinforced international apprehension about China’s global military ambitions.
Although aware of China’s activities in the Corridor, the Kremlin could perceive a Chinese official communication on this subject as a deliberate choice by Beijing to challenge Russian military influence in the post-Soviet space.
Russia’s presence has been limited since the end of the USSR and the end of the war in Afghanistan (1979-1989), and apart from the Russian language, Moscow is now a secondary economic partner in Central Asia, behind China, so the loss of Russian military influence could be misinterpreted.
China and the Water Crisis in Central Asia
While the international community focuses on the Uyghur Muslim and the Wakhan Corridor, the main threat to the Central Asian states will continue to be the lack of water supplies, which will lead to conflicts between countries in the region and, perhaps, with neighbors such as China and Russia.
The mismanagement of water resources had been a recurring theme in the CIA’s analyses, which as early as the 1960s mentioned the long-term effects of overuse of the available capacities. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the newly independent Central Asian countries have failed to implement a relevant strategy to save water and stem population growth, ultimately leading to an emerging crisis.
China will have to ensure the security of its own national water resources but also develop an approach to supply the countries of Central Asia with blue gold to avoid a major economic crisis that could harm Chinese gas supplies and the development of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
Researchers at Oxford University ran 738 simulations combining possible changes in water consumption with 80 future climate scenarios, ranging from warmer and drier to warmer and wetter conditions. Most of the simulations point to the same grim conclusion: Central Asian states are running out of water.
The lack of water is not only due to a poor management on Central Asian states. In 2020, an American-Kazakh-Chinese team using satellite data estimated that irrigated cropland on the Chinese side increased nearly 30 percent between 1995 and 2015, and they found no significant increase on the Kazakh side in the same period.
To avoid further tensions, a long-term option for China would be to provide water management solutions to Central Asian countries in exchange for the gas and other resources they have to offer.
Chinese military presence is expected to increase from September 2021 because of the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan. Although critical of its national policy towards the Uyghur, the fight against terrorism in China and abroad is producing results in a region of the world where radical Islamism abounds.
The Chinese military presence is, therefore, an opportunity for the Central Asian countries, but also for the Western world insofar.
Although it may seem paradoxical, Pakistan as a Muslim country has understood the importance of China’s policy; for this reason, Islamabad continues to serve as Beijing’s communication bridge to the Muslim world.
In 2016, China announced that it will set up an anti-terrorism alliance including Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Tajikistan, while in December 2018, Pakistan’s government even defended China’s re-education camps for Uyghur Muslims.
Pakistan’s support for China’s policies is not an excuse for practices that violate human rights, but attests to the Islamic threat in the region that is detrimental to its development.
The water crisis is also going to be a fundamental factor in the development of terrorism and extremism in Central Asia from the summer of 2021, as the lack of resources drives the development of radical ideologies. For this reason, the water issue will certainly become central to BRI’s development policy and to bilateral relations between China and the whole of Central Asia.
 In 2008, less than 8,000 tons were produced, mainly in Afghanistan, and this drug remains in Chinese minds because of the Opium Wars, two wars waged between the Qing dynasty and Western powers in the mid-19th century.
From our partner RIAC
China and Russia Build a Central Asian Exclusion Zone
Last month, State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi hosted the China+Central Asia Foreign Ministers’ meeting in the Chinese city of Xi’an. This is the second such meeting, which increasingly focuses (with Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan) on geopolitical issues. More broadly, it signals China’s lack of concern for what Russia considers its vital economic and political interests in the region. Top of the agenda was Afghanistan, as China worries about possible spillover to Central Asia and its eastern provinces as U.S. and allied troops prepare to evacuate in September.
Yet the greatest issue in Central Asia’s changing geopolitical landscape is economics and trade. China promised a number of new projects during the Xi’an gathering. Increased cooperation was pledged in agriculture, health and education, trade, energy, transportation, and even archaeology. More importantly, China vowed to help Kyrgyzstan to alleviate its debt pile and pressed it to approve a railroad linking China to Uzbekistan. Set to play a major role in connecting China with the Middle East and South Caucasus, the project has seen constant delays. Partly, that is due to economic and political troubles in Kyrgyzstan, but Russia too is partly responsible, fearing the corridor would divert a significant portion of transit cargo from its railroad tracks. Regardless, the direction of travel is clear: each economic agreement makes the region more closely aligned to China.
China has recognized that large and unwieldy summits often fail to provide the expected results and now increasingly favors small meetings. It does the same with other regions, including South-East Asia. This is far more efficient and as by far the biggest power in the room, it can dominate the agenda and outcome.
Naturally, these developments have a significant effect on Russia, the traditional powerbroker in Central Asia, and invites the question of whether it has been eclipsed. It certainly maintains significant military capabilities — recently improved — through bases in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, and intermittent military cooperation with the region’s other countries. Russia is also a powerful economic player: it is a major trade partner for the five states, a vital source of investment, and a significant source of remittances from Central Asian migrant workers. Furthermore, Russia has joint security and economic initiatives in the region such as the Eurasian Economic Union and the Collective Security Treaty Organization. Last but not least, the region is close culturally to Russia through the use of Russian as the lingua franca.
China has taken aim at every sphere of Russia’s influence, and it would be surprising if these developments did not cause grievances. Certainly, there is a growing narrative in the West about an impending geopolitical showdown between the two sides in Central Asia.
The reality, however, might be more nuanced and the analysis mere wishful thinking.
To understand the nature of the China-Russia competition in Central Asia it is crucial to look into the evolving world order and what non-liberal powers seek to achieve. One of the peculiarities of the post-liberal order is the extreme regionalization of geopolitically sensitive areas. Large powers neighboring the region seek to exclude third powers. Russia pursues it successfully in the South Caucasus where together with Turkey and partially Iran, it seeks to dislodge the collective West. A similar process is underway in Syria and can be applied to the South China Sea, where China tries to settle territorial problems directly with its neighbors and without U.S. involvement.
Appearances might be deceptive. Russia and China are competitors, but they are unlikely to turn into rivals. The West should reconsider some fundamental aspects of its thinking in regards to this Central Asian partnership.
Engagement with Central Asia could certainly help, and its absence would simply hand over Central Asia to the two powers. The region is in a dire need of rebalancing, and more room to maneuver. Both Russia and China are appreciated and feared in Central Asia. The West’s position will be critical though, and it must formulate a coherent strategy for economic and political engagement with Central Asia, or be locked out.
Kazakhstan under President Tokayev – transformation in all spheres
Around two years ago, a change of leadership took place in Kazakhstan, when Kassym-Jomart Tokayev took over as Head of State following presidential elections. Since then, numerous reforms have been implemented in the country. Prior to these elections, Nursultan Nazarbayev was the president for almost three decades until 2019 and built a foundation that enabled Kazakhstan to become the biggest economy and top investment destination in the region. Under Nazarbayev, Kazakhstan also managed to build good relations with all its neighbours, as well as with Europe and the United States.
There has been a shift in focus after 2019. President Tokayev is concentrating not just on economic reforms and foreign relations, but also on political changes in the country. Prior to change in leadership, the country primarily focused on economic development and investment attraction. Indeed, Kazakhstan still has the ambition to become one of the top 30 most developed countries in the world. Yet according to Kazakhstan’s current president, political changes are necessary to achieve economic development. One may wonder why these reforms matter outside of Kazakhstan. Yet the country is the top trading partner in Central Asia for the European Union and plays a key role in facilitating trade between China and the rest of the world through the Belt and Road project. Kazakhstan is also a founding member of the Eurasian Economic Union and is an active member of the international community, supporting the United States, Russia and other global powers in the resolution of conflicts in Syria and Afghanistan. Ultimately, the political and economic course of Kazakhstan impacts not only the country itself, but also the wider region and beyond.
One of Tokayev’s most significant changes is bringing the population closer to politics, and establishing what he calls “a listening state” – a government that listens to the feedback and criticisms of the population. To enhance dialogue between the government and the people, a National Council of Public Trust was established by Tokayev in 2019. Its aim is to develop specific proposals for reforms and legislation, taking into account the suggestions of civil society and the wider public. Making the national and local government more accountable improves its effectiveness and enables it to better fight long-lasting problems, such as corruption. In this regard, the country’s legal system has been transformed by transitioning it to a service model of work, which calls for a more active and responsible role for law enforcement personnel.
Public administration also required substantial reform as it is plagued by serious bureaucracy. As such, Tokayev instructed the government to reduce the number of civil servants by 25% while also hiring younger cadres. The President, who himself frequently uses social media, also made it a priority to digitise government services to increase efficiency.
In addition to political reforms, Tokayev has prioritised diversifying the economy to avoid excessive dependence on natural resources. For this reason, despite the lure of focusing on oil, gas, uranium and other raw materials that Kazakhstan exports, Tokayev has instructed the government to maximise the potential of agriculture, especially due to the fact that Kazakhstan neighbours China and other rapidly developing Asian countries, which require vast amount of seeds, grains and livestock.
Social reforms have also been realised. Tokayev recently stressed that “economic reforms are justified and supported only when they increase the income of a country’s citizens and ensure higher standards of living”. In practice this means protecting the most vulnerable, as well as individuals and companies that depend on loans to start a business. As such, Tokayev is aiming to expand the amount of bank loans, and direct them to companies that increase value by means of innovation, while reducing the number of inefficient enterprises run by the state. To support those that suffered the most from the economic consequences of the pandemic, the president offered his support to cancel penalties for bank loans.
Another interesting social measure that is likely to have long-term effect is Tokayev’s attempt to gradually revert the idea that higher education should be the ultimate goal of every student. Instead, Tokayev aims to reduce the number of universities to promote vocational centres and colleges that teach specific technical skills. The belief is that this is necessary in order to adapt to the needs of the market, which requires a variety of specialists.
Overall, while it is too early to assess the long-term impact of Tokayev’s presidency and his reform programme, it is clear that he is trying to fight old demons domestically, by shifting Kazakhstan away from old Soviet thinking and system of governance. The interplay between the domestic and external challenges aggravated by the test of COVID-19 and its consequences, will demonstrate whether Tokayev’s reforms are strong enough to help the country cope with the new era.
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