8th Dec 2023


Kazakhstan and the limits of Europe's 'democracy-promotion'

  • Kazakhstan wants to emulate Singapore's marriage of enlightened autocracy and economic modernisation - a strategy that imagines Kazakhstan as a Central Asian 'tiger' of high-tech start-ups and green innovation (Photo: Wikipedia)
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The collapse of Western nation-building efforts in Afghanistan brings to a final close an era that began with break-up of the Soviet Union 30 years ago. The hope was that with the end of communism and the decline of authoritarian rule more generally the world would move gradually and irreversibly towards a common destiny of political and economic freedom.

But as the EU was hailing the promotion of democracy as a "universal value" in its 2009 agenda for action, authoritarianism had already begun a comeback that has now stretched to 15 consecutive years according to Freedom House.

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Kazakhstan is among the countries that never really reached first base in the transition to democracy. Central Asia's largest and wealthiest state has observed certain formalities, such as regular elections, and made reformist noises when necessary, such as in 2007 when Kazakhstan was awarded the chairmanship of the OSCE in exchange for pledges to strengthen media freedom and human rights.

But those promises have never been translated into substantive change. Indeed, human rights monitors reported a continued slide in democratic standards during its leadership of the OSCE.

The carefully-choreographed 'departure' of president Nursultan Nazarbayev in 2019 was designed to achieve continuity rather than change.

His successor, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, came to office with a commitment to "pave the way for the development of a multiparty system", but there is little sign of progress two years later.

Parliamentary elections in January were marred by a campaign of intimidation against independent NGOs and a boycott by opposition parties convinced that the vote would be neither free nor fair.

Meanwhile, Nazarbayev remains in control behind the scenes in his new role as chairman-for-life of the Security Council and leader of the ruling party, Nur Otan.

The institutional underpinnings required to establish genuine pluralism remain weak, especially in relation to the rule of law. The judicial system is susceptible to corruption and lacks the independence needed to resist government pressure.

Even foreign investors lack the protection of law. This has been highlighted in a number of cases, the best known of which involves Tristan Oil, a company backed by European and US investors.

The seizure of its assets by the Kazakhstan in 2010 was deemed by the Stockholm Court of Arbitration to be an illegal expropriation under the Energy Charter Treaty in a ruling three years later. Despite being upheld on its final appeal, Kazakhstan has refused to pay the arbitration award of $500m [€430m]. Other foreign companies have experienced similar treatment.

This weakness of judicial standards is a problem for a country that needs large amounts of foreign investment to diversify away from mineral exports and realise its declared goal of becoming one of the top 30 economies in world by 2050.

Singapore model?

Much of this ambition is linked to Kazakhstan's self-conscious efforts to emulate Singapore's marriage of enlightened autocracy and economic modernisation.

The government's development strategy imagines Kazakhstan as a Central Asian 'tiger' of high-tech start-ups and green innovation attracting capital and trade from across the world. But whereas Singapore has long ranked among the top economies in international surveys for respecting property rights and the rule of law, Kazakhstan's remains a laggard by comparison.

The gap is even wider when it comes to corruption.

Transparency International puts Kazakhstan in 94th place out of 180 countries in the most recent edition of its Corruption Perceptions Index, compared to 3rd place for Singapore. As a recent report from the Institute for Labour Economics in Berlin points out; "Kazakhstan's 'bad' politics both squeezes the space for, and distorts benefits from, 'good' economics."

It is often assumed that the rise of China has further reduced incentives for political reform in the region, not least because the Chinese leadership has positioned it as a clear civilisational alternative to the West.

In president Xi Jinping's formulation, China represents "a new option for other countries who want to speed up their development", one that comes without unwanted human rights conditionality.

But the growing closeness in Kazakhstan's relationship with China masks wariness at both elite and popular levels about the risks of over-dependence. Kazakhstan aspires to be much more than a transit corridor for Beijing's Belt and Road Initiative.

There is a consensus on the need to maintain the "multi-vectored" foreign policy that has allowed Kazakhstan to play a more autonomous role in world affairs than might otherwise have been possible. This has required a careful balancing act in relations with different power centres within the region and beyond.

A 'gift' from Russia

Kazakhstan's relationship with Russia is crucially important in this respect, but not without complications of its own. Kazakhstan reacted angrily last December when two Russian politicians described its territory as a "gift" from Russia. Although the Russian foreign ministry downplayed the comments, president Vladimir Putin has also appeared to question Kazakhstan's statehood in the past.

Far from marginalising Western influence, China's rise and Russia's assertiveness serve to increase the importance of the EU and US as "vectors" of Kazakhstan's foreign policy and a means of restoring balance. This partly explains why the foreign minister has been keen to talk up his government's commitment to democratisation and political reform in the Western media. There is an opportunity there, but one that shouldn't be overstated.

Kazakhstan is not about to become a full electoral democracy. The goal must be to focus on institutional reforms that correspond to Kazakhstan's development goals and have the potential to create the foundations for future progress.

Both the US and the EU have recently launched programmes with Kazakhstan aimed at strengthening the rule of law.

Greater transatlantic coordination and a willingness to back it up with clear benchmarks and heavyweight political support might yield tangible results. It isn't the high road to democracy that many saw opening up in 1991, but it offers a practical means of giving renewed momentum to the idea of political reform is possible. Small steps, but steps nevertheless.

Author bio

David Clark was special adviser on Europe at the UK Foreign Office (1997-2001) and now works as an independent analyst specialising in foreign policy and European affairs.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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