Kazakhstan 2041: the Next Twenty-Five Years

Silk Road Paper November, 2016, pp. 66

Kazakhstan has come a long way in the twenty five years since it gained sovereignty. The leadership can point to impressive economic development,  stability, strengthened sovereignty, and respect for “brand Kazakhstan” on the international arena. Looking to the next twenty-five years and beyond, Kazakh authorities have set forth an ambitious vision for turning the country into one of the most developed in the world. On the road ahead, old challenges will remain and new ones will doubtless emerge. As it embarks on its further development Kazakhstan will be confronted by several crucial social, economic, political, and international realities:

  • Kazakhstan’s population will grow by 20% in the coming twenty-five years, but the ratio of dependents to working population is likely to double. As a result, further economic development will require improving the productivity of the economy, which in turn requires the application of new technologies, development of new fields, improved administration, and further improvements to the business climate.
  • Sustained economic growth will further accelerate urbanization, and by 2041 70% of the population could be living in urban areas. Meanwhile, Kazakhstan will continue to be a target for migrants from countries to its south. Government policies will need to prevent the emergence of unplanned, random settlements with potentially negative impact on environment, labor markets, urban governance, and social stability.
  • For a religiously diverse society like Kazakhstan, aspiring to be among the top 30 developed countries, there is no alternative to protecting the principle of a secular state, secular system of laws, secular courts, and secular education. The challenge is to combine the secularism of the state with tolerance and respect for all religions, while ensuring continued popular support for secular governance.
  • Western powers have failed adequately to recognize the importance of the commitment to secular government by Kazakhstan and other regional states such as Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan. While western powers and organizations have criticized government intervention in the sphere of religion, they have not acknowledged the challenges faced by these governments, and have erroneously predicted that many such actions would result in radicalization. Against the backdrop of events in the Middle East, Western powers should be much more cognizant of the value of this secular model and be more prepared to work collaboratively with Kazakhstan and other regional states to correct flaws in its application, most of which were inherited from Soviet times.
  • Kazakhstan’s information sphere, unlike its foreign relations, remains relatively isolated, with Russia the predominant external source of information for the average citizen. For Kazakhstan’s citizens to have the span of information commensurate with the country’s emerging global role, the multi-vector approach must be applied also to the sphere of information. This is an area that western powers have largely ignored, but where much could be done to link Kazakhstan and its region to the broader world in all its complexity.
  • Long-term economic development will require a transformation of Kazakhstan’s economic structure and management. Kazakhstan has exhibited vulnerabilities to negative developments in the world economy, and the near future is likely to be challenging. While Kazakhstan has chosen an economic model of state-led capitalism in strategic sectors complemented by market-driven practices in non-strategic sectors, a key challenge going forward will be for the state to avoid stifling private sector growth, especially in sectors that are key to the diversification of the economy. The role of the government should be to provide guidance, support and a stable economic framework, not to interfere or engage in activities best handled by market forces.
  • Rather than scatter its resources across too many areas, the government needs to prioritize carefully. All desirable ends are not compatible.
  • The ability to react proactively to a shift in world demand away from oil could determine the country’s economic future. Agriculture is a key area in this regard. Indeed,  Kazakhstan has the potential to become a bread basket of Eurasia. Yet in spite of recent improvements, the agricultural sector needs a radical overhaul. First, the incomplete reforms in land tenure must be brought to fruition. Then, in order to formulate the further reforms that are needed, the government should designate a single agricultural research and training center as the nation’s lead institution and charge it with facilitating the transformation of Kazakhstan’s agriculture. Such a body should maintain agricultural extension services in every district of the country to serve the public. Western governments and firms can play a key supportive role in this process.
  • New opportunities for the development of a modern production and  service economy will arise from Kazakhstan’s location at the hub of an enormous continental economic space. In the short term, this will mean continuing to supplement existing ties with former Soviet economies  and building stronger links to East Asia, Europe and the Middle East. In the longer term, however, the Indian subcontinent – with a population much larger and younger than China’s by 2041 – is likely to be just as important a trade partner to Kazakhstan. Plans for this eventuality should be formulated today.
  • To realize the emergence of Kazakhstan and the rest of Central Asia as a land bridge connecting both China and India with Europe, Kazakhstan should strengthen intra-regional contacts and interaction at all levels. Building on the Strategic Partnership Agreement signed by the presidents of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan in 2013, Astana should upgrade contacts and interaction in the economic, social, and security spheres. By bringing closer the two most powerful states in the region, such partnership would discourage foreign powers from deciding matters over the heads of Central Asian states or by promoting their interests by exploiting differences among them. Western powers, and particularly the United States, should actively support such understanding between Central Asian states, as they would do more than anything to foster sovereignty, cooperation, and security on a regional basis.
  • Too much of Kazakhstan’s thinking and planning about the new trade routes is confined to the government. Governmental policy in Astana must encourage private initiatives in all the areas of “soft” infrastructure that makes trade possible, including logistics, warehousing, equipment maintenance, and insurance along the corridor that crosses its territory.
  • Western critics have wrongly assumed that open and effective governance and transparent electoral processes can be achieved easily and quickly. Rather than focus on the one-dimensional juxtaposition of authoritarianism and democracy, we recommend a shift of attention to “good governance.” This should be seen as a goal in itself and also as a key prerequisite to the development of governmental openness and election-based democracy. In light of the benchmark goals set in the Kazakhstan-2050 strategy, Kazakhstan should redouble its efforts to overcome its “governance deficit” and focus on establishing responsive and effective governmental agencies in all areas directly affecting the lives of citizens – particularly the improved delivery of services to the public and more transparent and accountable political processes.
  • Kazakhstan’s leaders have embraced the need for institutional reform. Along with improving the quality of governance, the reduction of corruption must stand at the top of the agenda. In order to reach its goals by 2041, Kazakhstan must transform fundamentally what it means to be a civil servant and the way services and goods are exchanged between public officials and citizens. This means continuing more rigorously the process of applying e-government technologies to cut back the number of useless face-to-face interactions between officials and citizens, encounters that invite the giving and receiving of bribes.
  • Western governments and organizations can cooperate fruitfully with Kazakhstan to improve governance and fight corruption, provided that they work with Kazakhstan’s government rather than on it, as has too often been the case in the past. Indeed, this is the only way that the cause of democratic development can be effectively advanced between now and 2041.
  • In the years between now and 2041 it is inevitable that Kazakhstan and its region will be deeply affected by globalization, and also by countercurrents to it. Two important variables will be the fate of radical trends in the Muslim world and the global posture of the United States. Adverse trends are possible in each area, but sound planning must also include the prospect that both will evolve in a positive direction before 2041 and in ways that will reinforce rather than further undermine Kazakhstan’s balanced, or “multi-vectored,” foreign policy.
  • On the regional level, Kazakhstan must expect important, even momentous, changes in both China and Russia, countries whose evolution in the past has been characterized by abrupt and dramatic tectonic shifts. Whether or not such change takes place in the next quarter century, Russia is a country in demographic and economic decline, whose population will be much less Russian and much more Turkic and Muslim by 2041. This is bound to have a significant impact on Russia’s foreign policy, and suggests that if Kazakhstan can manage its relations with Russia so as to preserve its sovereignty and independence in the short term, the likelihood of finding a positive modus vivendi in the longer term is strong.
  • Long before 2041, China will have become a post-boom middle/upper middle income state focused on maintaining central control over a vast and diverse territory and serving the needs of a rapidly aging population. While Kazakhstan is correct in prioritizing relations with China in the short term and medium term, it must also over time focus increasingly on the Indian subcontinent, which is bound to play a critical a role in its balanced foreign policy long before 2041. Western powers could play a positive role by helping to open transport and trade through Afghanistan to Central and South Asia.
  • Europe is unlikely to become a leading security actor in Central Asia between now and 2041. Yet because of its economic role, Europe will continue to play an important role in Kazakhstan’s balanced foreign policy. Indeed, if Kazakhstan chooses to further deepen its integration with European institutions, it might pursue a relationship similar to those offered to former Soviet states in Eastern Europe under the EU’s Eastern Partnership.