It is invariably instructive, if often uncomfortable, to see how you are viewed from outside – particularly if the analysis is carried out by those with real expertise. So it is not a surprise that the authoritative report by three leading foreign academics into how Kazakhstan might look 25 years from now is both informative and, at times, challenging.
“Kazakhstan 2041: The Next Twenty-Five Years,” from the U.S.-based Central Asia-Caucasus Institute and Silk Road Studies Programme, identifies the internal and external forces and trends which will shape our country’s future. It identifies policy areas to which the government must give extra attention as well as those where Kazakhstan needs more support – and, on occasions, more understanding – from its international partners.
The report details how changes already under way will accelerate, as well as the challenges and opportunities these changes will bring. It points to a population which will grow by 20 percent but where the proportion of working age falls sharply. Rapid urbanisation will mean that only three in 10 people will be living in the countryside by 2041 in what was until recently a predominantly rural country.
This change will increase pressures on housing and services in Kazakhstan’s cities as well as spark possible tensions between those living in urban and rural areas. This threat, without careful handling, could be made worse by the strong likelihood that Kazakhstan’s prosperity compared to the rest of Central Asia will encourage migration, legal and illegal, from elsewhere in the region.
All these changes make it critical, the report says, that Kazakhstan succeeds in increasing the productivity in its economy and diversifying away from its present dependence on raw materials. Without it, the tremendous gains in living standards over the first 25 years will come under strain.
While there might seem little new in this analysis, it is the importance given to agriculture in driving this transformation that may come as a surprise. The authors say Kazakhstan’s greatest export potential is to become the breadbasket of Eurasia. But this can only be achieved if increased investment in agricultural research and innovation is coupled with continued land reform. The country must resist the temptation to see technological advance as something restricted to urban areas.
Economic diversification also requires the state to carry through its promise to step back from the economy, the report adds. Spreading public resources too thinly and stifling private sector growth are seen as pitfalls that must be avoided. It points to the welcome given by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development to planned reforms but says these must just be a start.
It is not just at home where the report suggests Kazakhstan must be decisive if it is to continue to grow its economy. The country is advised to raise its sights beyond its existing trading partners of Europe, Russia and China. India, with its fast-growing economy and youthful population, in particular is seen as a hugely important market. Government efforts to improve trade routes to South Asia – including through better transport links – must be supported by the private sector.
A major priority for the next 25 years must also be in continuing to improve governance, the authors add. Responsive and effective government agencies in all areas directly affecting the lives of Kazakh citizens are seen as critical to the country’s development. The report praises the political will to strengthen governance and root out corruption but says this must be backed, as planned, by comprehensive institutional reform. These must include the full use of new technology to reduce the need for direct contact between citizens and officials.
But the report also suggests that it is not only Kazakhstan which must re-examine its policies and priorities. The country’s partners might be more effective in helping improve governance if they worked with the government rather than lecture it, the authors warn. They also suggest that the importance of the country’s secular state to the stability of society and the wider region is being under-estimated beyond its borders.
It is, says the report, the state’s successful tolerant secularism as well as the moderate form of Islam followed in Kazakhstan which explains why less than 10 percent of the population are sympathetic to introducing some form of Sharia law in the country. This is the lowest number in any Muslim-majority state other than Azerbaijan. The authors see little reason for fearing that religious extremism will become more of a threat in Kazakhstan if respect and tolerance of religions within the framework of a secular state is continued. But getting this balance right will be easier with understanding from its partners.
Not everything, of course, is within the control of Kazakhstan or even the governments of its international partners. The report says that the battle between pro and anti-globalisation forces across the world including in countries such as the United States will have an impact on Kazakhstan. A rise of protectionism and the increasing division of the world into competing trade and military blocs will not only hurt the country’s economy but would also make its successful multi-vector foreign policy harder to pursue, the report warns.
Not everything in the report will strike a chord here in Kazakhstan. The warning that the young are still infected with a Soviet mentality of deference will, for example, come as a surprise to many Kazakh parents. But as Kazakhstan prepares to celebrate its first 25 years, it is a realistic and perceptive contribution to the debate about what the future might hold.