It is that time of the year again. People around the world start looking back at the passing year, trying to assess their achievements and successes, and looking into the coming one, planning to do what has not yet been done and nurturing hopes that the new year will be better and kinder to them, their families, their countries and the world.
In Kazakhstan, New Year’s celebrations almost coincide with a string of national holidays beginning with the Day of the First President on Dec. 1 and Independence Day on Dec. 16, giving us another reason to look back at the year flying past and weigh its results.
On Dec. 16, Kazakhstan will turn 22. As they say, Kazakhstan is a young country with a long history. Its most recent history, however, is being crafted at such a pace that just highlighting some of its progress in economic, social, political and foreign policy areas creates a snapshot of a country changing fast, deep and wide, seeking to improve its citizens’ quality of life while being a good neighbour to the world at large.
This year marked the beginning of the implementation of the new Kazakhstan 2050 Strategy unveiled by President Nursultan Nazarbayev in December 2012. Its most succinct goal is to bring Kazakhstan into the world’s 30 most developed countries by 2050. Competitiveness rankings currently peg Kazakhstan at around number 50.
Economic fundamentals and 2013’s results show that Kazakhstan can expect to be on the way to its stated goal. The country’s gross domestic product is expected to grow 6 percent year-on-year in 2013, a commendable result in a world of sluggish economic development.
The launch of commercial production at the super-giant Kashagan offshore oil field, which took place in the second half of the year but was then delayed due to technical problems, is surely expected to play a major part in the country’s growing economic fortunes.
The State Programme of Accelerated Industrial and Innovative Development (SPAIID) for 2010-2014 has already directed billions of dollars in investment into major projects outside the extracting industries and will continue to do so as its next phase for 2015-2018 is being charted.
Earlier in 2013, the Government found another way to expand budget revenues and stimulate growth as it pushed through much-debated pension system reform. Key provisions of the reform include the gradual raising of the retirement age for women to equal that for men – 63 years of age – and the consolidation of all pension savings in the Unified National Pension Fund. At the end of 2013, another important economic decision took place as the President signed into law amendments hiking taxes for luxury items such as expensive housing and cars, as well as liquor and tobacco. The tenge celebrated 20 years as the national currency in November 2013, drawing praise for both its stability in turbulent times and its design.
The National Chamber of Entrepreneurs was created over the summer and is quickly becoming one of the key forces driving the business-friendly reform agenda within the Government and the Parliament.
The People’s IPO programme, launched in November 2012, has so far seen the floating of only 10 percent of shares of KazTransOil, while further planned initial public offerings by other national companies such as the Kazakhstan Electric Grid Operating Company have been delayed.
The Government has continued to press on with the Employment 2020 programme, seeing some success and creating jobs and professional retraining opportunities for up to 100,000 people. One of the top state priorities continues to be the promotion of working class values under the theme of the Society of Universal Labour.
The Bolashak presidential scholarship celebrated its 20th anniversary in November. The programme has now provided fully paid state scholarships to 10,000 young Kazakhs to study abroad. Coming back to work in the private sector or the Government, they bring with them high quality education and a good understanding of the ways of the modern world.
The continuing maturity of Kazakhstan’s society has been clearly demonstrated during the year, as more and more public and civil initiatives, including the National Movement Kazakhstan 2050 launched by young professionals, sprouted, as did new online media outlets. In the meantime, discussions on the future steps in the human rights and democracy development areas continued between representatives of the Government, non-governmental organisations and legal experts on the basis of the Foreign Ministry moderated Dialogue Platform on Human Dimension.
In the political arena, the Nur Otan party continued to dominate the landscape. Its congress this autumn approved a new doctrine and a new shorter name, further drawing attention to the ruling party. A new political party called Birlik (Unity) based on two smaller parties, Rukhaniyat and Adilet, was set up over the year, but it remains to be seen if it will gain much traction with voters.
Earlier this year, administrative reform took place, creating the Corps A of top-level administrative civil servants and providing for indirect elections of 2,457 akims (mayors) of auls (villages), towns and districts in August, a step towards greater decentralization of power.
Of particular note is the reshuffle at the top of the legislative and legal branches, with Kassym-Jomart Tokayev returning in October from his two-year stint as Director General of the UN Office at Geneva to again chair the Senate of the Parliament of Kazakhstan, and Kairat Mami returning to chair the Supreme Court. In October, Kairat Kelimbetov replaced the long-serving Grigory Marchenko as chairman of the National Bank. In August, Aslan Sarinzhipov, a 39-year-old economist and educator, was appointed Minister of Education and Science, while in November, in a major development for women’s issues, Gulshara Abdykalikova became a Deputy Prime Minister and was given responsibility for the entire block of social issues, from social protection to health care to education.
In the foreign policy arena, of particular note are the expanding ties between Kazakhstan and the United Kingdom, as evidenced by the visit to Astana by Prime Minister David Cameron, the first by a current head of British government, and to London by President Nazarbayev over the summer. Similarly, EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso paid the first-ever visit to Astana by the EU leader, promoting economic and political ties. Kazakhstan and the EU have continued and will continue next year to negotiate over the new Enhanced Partnership and Cooperation Agreement, which will reflect the new quality of the relationship and set the framework for its further expansion.
Relations with Russia have also seen progress, as a new Treaty on Good-Neighbourliness and Alliance in the 21st Century was signed by Presidents Nazarbayev and Vladimir Putin in October. The issue of the Baikonur Cosmodrome was also near the top of the agenda for the two countries as they first discussed its future within a high-level intergovernmental commission and then, after a Proton rocket crash in July, dealt with the environmental cleanup and the compensation for it. In the meantime, Kazakhstan, Russia and Belarus, the three current members of the Customs Union, continued to press ahead with drafting a treaty on the establishment of the Eurasian Economic Union by 2015, while Kyrgyzstan and Ukraine have shown great interest in finding a way to engage in this process too.
Kazakhstan’s relations with China saw a major step forward with the September visit to Astana by the new Chinese president, Xi Jinping, which witnessed the signing of dozens of new agreements expanding burgeoning bilateral trade ties. As a step in increasing mutual understanding, Xi Jinping also announced China would provide 30,000 government scholarships to SCO member states and invite 10,000 teachers and students from Confucius institutions to study in China. He also invited 200 faculty members and students from Nazarbayev University to attend summer camp activities in China next year.
Equally in focus were relations with the United States and regional neighbours such as Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Countries in Latin America and Africa, traditionally outside the perimeter of Astana’s focus, including Argentina, Brazil, Chile, South Africa and Ethiopia, are increasingly coming into this focus as Minister of Foreign Affairs Erlan Idrissov and his deputies visited those in the passing year. Afghanistan’s post-2014 future continued to draw the attention of policymakers in Kazakhstan, which hosted a special meeting of the Istanbul Process in the spring in Almaty. Almaty also hosted two rounds of EU3+3 talks with Iran over that country’s nuclear programme, which, by various accounts, were helpful in laying the groundwork for the breakthrough in negotiations achieved in Geneva in November.
Kazakhstan also continued to negotiate with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) over the so called host country agreement on the establishment in Ust-Kamenogorsk of an IAEA-controlled bank of low enriched uranium fuel, which is seen as an important element in assuring nuclear fuel supply for the international markets.
Preparations for EXPO 2017 continue to be a focus of Astana’s agenda. Now that the design of the new EXPO City by American company Adrian Smith+Gordon Gill Architecture has been approved, the task is to have the registration dossier approved by the Paris-based Bureau International des Expositions (BIE) by the summer of 2014. In fact, next year will be critical for the launch of the construction of the EXPO’s main facilities and for starting to secure commitments by foreign countries to participate in the three-month-long event in 2017.
The year of 2013 also saw such notable steps as Kazakhstan’s launching of its bid for a UN Security Council seat in 2017-18 and continuing to press its proposal to set up a UN regional diplomacy hub in Almaty. Astana also continued to promote President Nazarbayev’s global nuclear disarmament initiative, The ATOM Project, which has already drawn the attention and support from people in more than 100 countries. And Almaty was put forward as a candidate city to host Winter Olympics in 2022.
When President Nazarbayev takes centre stage to deliver his major Independence Day address on Dec. 14, attention will be focused on what specific goals he will set for the country for the coming year and beyond. Given past history, it is likely that the goals will be ambitious and far reaching.