Kazakhstan Is Far from the Middle East

By Yermukhamet Yertysbayev

On a recent trip to London, I was asked by several experts whether the domino effect that started in the Middle East could affect Kazakhstan and its neighbors. My answer was a simple no for three reasons.

Firstly, there was a popular revolution in Kyrgyzstan in 2010 that did not have repercussions in the four other Central Asian countries. Secondly, the Central Asian countries have been independent for only just under 20 years and are at a different stage of political development from Egypt, Libya and Tunisia. Thirdly, the socio-economic conditions that have given rise to events in the Middle East are different from those in most of Central Asia.

Kyrgyzstan with its 5 million still remains an anomaly in the region because of its concentration of population into a small space, its high levels of poverty and its clan-based politics that create a natural basis for political pluralism.

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Kazakhstan is a very different country both in terms of geography, economic development and, as a result, politics. Its territory is nearly five times the size of France. The country has abundant natural resources, in particular, hydrocarbons, and its economy has grown rapidly since independence in 1991. Compared to 1994, per capita GDP at today's level of $9,000 is now over 12 times higher. Per capita GDP in Kyrgyzstan, by contrast, is little in excess of the 1994 level in Kazakhstan.

No other country in the world has achieved such growth in the first 20 years of independence. President Nazarbayev, who has ruled the country since independence, has consistently prioritized rapid economic development as the basis for consolidating Kazakhstan's sovereignty and ensuring harmony in its complex multi-ethnic and multi-confessional society.

Success of this kind inevitably raises questions about its sustainability. Late last year the desire to see Kazakhstan remain on its current course led a number of politicians, influential businesspeople and civil activists to initiate the idea of a popular referendum to extend President Nazarbayev's current year term (due to expire in 2012) to 2020. Parliament endorsed the proposal in response to a petition that carried the signatures of over half the electorate.

However, the president had doubts about a referendum for several reasons and referred it to the Constitutional Council. It ruled that a referendum was unconstitutional, leaving the president with three options: overrule the Council's decision and hold the referendum, dissolve parliament, or keep to the 2012 timetable for the next presidential election. To the surprise of many, the president settled for a fourth option: holding an early election as a way of defusing the pressure in society.

The presidential election will take place on April 3. Some opposition parties have announced that they will boycott the election in protest at the early date. This is regrettable since Kazakhstan can only benefit from the development of more competitive politics. The opposition in Kazakhstan remains divided and unable to provide any credible alternative to voters.

President Nazarbayev does not need to win elections with 90 percent of the vote. He recognizes the value of competition and is an admirer of the two-party systems in the United States and Britain. He also believes that it is in Kazakhstan's interest to develop a similar model over time. He took seriously the concerns expressed by the United States and the European Union about the proposed referendum.

President Nazarbayev has always said "first the economy, then politics." History will prove that this was the correct approach. Given his high approval ratings, the president is certain to win the April election. Part of his appeal to voters is that he has exciting plans for the next 10 years of Kazakhstan's development, including 30 percent GDP growth based on diversifying away from the extraction of natural resources and an increasing role for small and medium enterprises in the economy. The continued ability to attract foreign direct investment is a pre-requisite for continued development.

These are ambitious goals, but Kazakhstan hit its target for per-capita GDP of $9,000 four years early. It is already the best performing economy in the Commonwealth of Independent States.

Kazakhstan is on course to develop its prosperity and standing in the world. Geography dictates that it must balance its interests between Russia, China and the West. This requires carefully calibrated policies that have created a vital building block for stability in Central Asia. Hopefully, this will act as a beacon to some of Kazakhstan's Central Asian neighbors and encourage them to speed up reforms and cooperate more among themselves.

Kazakhstan will gradually introduce political reforms over the coming years to reflect the growth of the middle class and the need to support economic competition with greater political competition.

Unlike parts of the Middle East that have failed to deliver what their populations want and need, Kazakhstan remains on a dynamic path of development that is widely supported in society.
Yermukhamet Yertysbayev is the chief political adviser to Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev.