What happens in Kazakhstan also matters for the EU because the 27-member bloc is the number one investor in Kazakhstan.
Kazakhstan’s new president, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev (pictured), has marked his first year in office, with a pledge to forge ahead with more reforms. Tokayev won the presidential election on 9 June 2019 with 70% of the votes, running against six other candidate. He is widely praised for introducing far-reaching reforms in the country, the eighth largest in the world though with a population of just 20 million.
In his first major speech, the president defined his policies in all fields of the economy and society.
In the state-of-the-nation address he promised to oppose ‘unsystematic political liberalisation’ and instead carry reforms ‘without running ahead’. Crucially, a large part of his one-hour speech was devoted to improving living standards for the Kazakh people.
He also emphasised his goal of having a strong president, an influential parliament, and an accountable government. This reflects the government’s continued focus on reducing inequality in Kazakhstan and improving Kazakh citizens’ quality of life.
At the same time, the president also focused on political and economic development, including supporting micro, small and medium-sized businesses.
While much of President Tokayev’s first year in office has focused on – successfully – delivering on these promises prioritised domestic reforms, he has also paid heed to several foreign policy priorities for Kazakhstan.
Most recently, of course, the focus has been very much on combating the ongoing health pandemic.
Last month, he admitted that this “has not been easy for our country.” He also warned, “the crisis has not yet been completely overcome. The epidemic has not completely disappeared. A pandemic is still dangerous to public health.”
Several key issues, he believes, still need to be resolved in the near future.
First. Improving the self-sufficiency of the Kazakh economy.
Second. Kazakhstan has allocated around 1 trillion tenge for the implementation of the president’s Employment Roadmap and, following the implementation of the projects, an analysis of their socio-economic efficiency will be carried out.
Third. the construction of affordable housing will give a powerful incentive for economic development, employment growth and social support.
Fourth. the time has come, he insists, to work out the issue of introducing a progressive scale of individual income tax in respect of wages and other types of income.
Fifth. Support for national business.
Sixth. The country should switch to working directly with each capital holder to boost increased competition for foreign capital.
So, what is the verdict on his first year?
Mukhtar Tileuberdi, the minister of foreign affairs of Kazakhstan, says, “The President has been quick to implement his ideas. In his first few months in office, he has shown his commitment to promoting the development of a multi-party system, increased political competition, and pluralism of opinions in the country”.
High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy/Vice-President of the European Commission, Josep Borrell, said that in recent months “the breadth and depth of our relationship has progressed immeasurably.”
This is partly due to the fact that president Tokayev, in March this year, signed an Enhanced Partnership and Cooperation Agreement with the European Union, he said. In doing so, Borrell notes it became the first country in Central Asia.
The Spanish official, a former president of the European parliament, adds “The European Union is the country’s biggest trade and investment partner, while Kazakhstan is by far the EU’s largest trade partner in Central Asia. What is more, we have invested heavily in strengthening governance, supporting its justice, social and economic reforms.”
Borrell says that, under the president’s tutelage, “We are turning the page and beginning an exciting new chapter.”
Polish MEP Ryszard Czarnecki, the Chair of the EU-Kazakhstan Friendship group in the European parliament, is equally enthusiastic, saying “In Europe, the prevailing opinion is that Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, in fact, is building a social welfare state, where special attention is paid to reducing inequality, improving the quality of life of every Kazakh, and where priority is given to solving the day-to-day problems of the people.”
The ECR deputy adds, “In the field of foreign policy, Kazakhstan, as has been the case before, pays special attention to its partnership with the European Union. On 1 March 2020, the European Union-Kazakhstan Enhanced Partnership and Cooperation Agreement came into force. On the basis of this document, we expect that the parties will be able to fully reap the benefits of their partnership. As EU-Kazakhstan Friendship group chair I will do my utmost to further our relations to our mutual benefit.”
But the president has also overseen a whole raft of other changes, including abolishing the death penalty and reaffirming the need to strengthen the role of the Kazakh language as a state language.
He is spearheading a rapprochement between the EU and the Eurasian Economic Union and also promoted freedom of expression for his country’s 20m citizens.
The president is also intensifying efforts to attract foreign direct investment, support farmers to market their products to foreign markets and support the activities of the Astana International Finance Centre.
He has also pledged to continue to support micro, small and medium sized businesses.
Shavkat Sabirov, director of the Institute for security and cooperation in Central Asia, says there has been a damaging lack of public confidence in political leadership around the world in recent time and this has many causes.
“But,” he notes,” perhaps none is more important than the widespread belief – fairly or unfairly – of citizens that their wishes, concerns and hopes are being ignored or taken for granted by those they have put in power.
It is a charge that Kazakhstan Tokayev has shown in his first months in office that he is determined to avoid.
Since his election last year, he has made his main priority reforming state and government services so they are more responsive to the needs and ambitions of its citizens.
He has wasted no time, either, in extending as he promised opportunity to all and increasing support to those who need it most.
It is a packed agenda – and President Tokayev is promising there will be no slow-up in reforms.
Fraser Cameron, director of the Brussels-based EU/Asia Centre, is a vastly experienced and respected expert on Asian affairs and gives a decidedly upbeat assessment of the country’s new head of state.
“President Tokayev’s ambitious reforms,” says Cameron, a former senior European Commission official,”should provide a solid basis to deepen cooperation between the EU and Kazhakstan.”
According to Willy Fautre, director of Human Rights Without Frontiers, there is still room for improvement. He says, “In the field of human rights, the legacy of President Tokayev’s predecessor is very heavy and a lot of progress needs to be quickly achieved. Freedom of religion is one of those areas where some controversial laws should be revised and aligned to international standards as quite a number of peaceful Sunni Muslims have been unduly sentenced to very long prison terms. The US is putting in place a constructive policy in this regard with the establishment of the US-Kazakhstan Religious Freedom Working Group.
“Washington is also developing an Enhanced Strategic Partnership Dialogue (ESPD) and has engaged Kazakhstan on a range of issues, such as human rights, labor and religious freedom. President Tokayev should not miss this opportunity to restore the image of his country.”
Looking to the future, there is still much more to do if the shared ambition of First President Nazarbayev and his successor of Kazakhstan joining the ranks of the world’s most developed 30 countries is to be achieved.
- The EU is Kazakhstan’s biggest trade partner, with almost 40% share in its total external trade.
- Kazakhstan’s exports to the EU are heavily dominated by oil and gas which account for more than 80% of the country’s total exports.
- Exports from the EU are dominated by machinery and transport equipment, as well as products within the manufacturing and chemicals sectors.
- Imports from Kazakhstan greatly exceed EU exports to Kazakhstan.
- Kazakhstan has a growing importance as an oil and gas supplier to the EU. Kazakhstan has benefited from strong foreign direct investment in recent years, largely to its oil and gas sector. Almost half of the foreign direct investment inflow comes from the EU.