Institutional Reforms to Help Ensure Kazakhstan’s Sustainable Development

The decision by President Nursultan Nazarbayev to seek re-election next month was neither unexpected nor unwelcome to many citizens. His leadership has been an ever-present factor in Kazakhstan’s development as an economy and society since independence. The multiple challenges to our country’s continued growth and stability were the reason the presidential election was brought forward. In difficult times, his record in guiding Kazakhstan may yet again prove attractive to voters.

But in announcing his candidature at the Nur Otan Party Congress in Astana earlier this month, the President made clear that his appeal to the electorate was not relying on his past record or anxiety about the challenges that the country faces. Instead, he set out a series of five major institutional reforms needed to continue to drive Kazakhstan forward.

They were also reforms which will chime with the demands of many citizens. The creation of a modern, professional public service with the expertise, commitment and values to serve the needs of the country is essential. New initiatives to strengthen meritocracy and end nepotism in the recruitment and promotion of public servants will be welcomed. Casting the net wider including through the recruiting of successful business leaders for public office and government makes a great deal of sense.So, too, will renewed efforts to root out corruption at every level. Kazakhstan is judged as a less corrupt society than many of its neighbours but there is no room for complacency.

This is also true about strengthening the rule of law and property rights. Continued reform in this area is needed to give both foreign and domestic investors additional confidence to do business in Kazakhstan. Our country’s impressive economic progress has been helped by the strong legal protections for investors and a lack of government interference in contracts. But Kazakhstan is in a global competition for outside investment which grows fiercer every year.

It is not, however, only foreign investors who depend on the rule of law. Effective and independent law enforcement agencies and judges are important for everyone in the country. Requiring all new judges to have five years’ experience of courtrooms and the introduction of a one-year probationary period for newly appointed judges will help meet these criteria.

The wider use of modern communications technology including mini video cameras worn by individual police officers will boost public trust in the police and reduce the potential for petty corruption. But this must go alongside, as President Nazarbayev said, a more rigorous recruitment, training and development process for police officers. All seeking to join Kazakhstan’s law enforcement agencies along with serving officers must have the right character, values and motivation and training.

Nursultan Nazarbayev’s Congress speech also outlined new measures to accelerate the diversification of the economy and ensure all parts of the country share in its growth. He stressed that the country’s industrialisation programme – given a new impetus though the Nurly Zhol economic stimulus programme – was necessary to provide stable employment and to continue the expansion of the country’s fast-growing middle class. And this is a welcome emphasis as it is the middle class that will provide modern Kazakhstan with a strong backbone given that their direct stake in the country’s prosperity and future will ensure our country stays on the right track.

It is for this reason, too, that a priority must be placed on developing the country’s service sector and the number of small and medium-sized entreprises (SMEs). It is the countries which provide the best conditions and support for entrepreneurs to set up and grow their own businesses which will be most successful in the decades ahead. If Kazakhstan wants to be in this select group of countries – and achieve its ambition of joining the ranks of the top 30 economies by 2050 – a dynamic and thriving SME sector is essential.

Among the specific areas of the economy identified for attention were agriculture and tourism. Improved government support for the farming industry will help promote rural development. This will be aided by the hoped-for involvement of major international businesses in setting up new plants to process agricultural commodities within the country’s borders.

Rural employment and incomes will also receive a much-needed boost through the expansion of the country’s fledgling tourism industry. Astana Times readers who have travelled widely will know that Kazakhstan’s spectacular and varied natural beauty, its history and culture means its potential as a tourist destination is rich. But it remains largely untapped. By investing to improve the tourist infrastructure in all parts of the country, a successful industry can be built. EXPO 2017 in Astana and, of course, the 2022 Winter Olympics, if Almaty’s bid is successful, will be important levers to achieve this ambition.

Turning from the economy, the President stressed the importance of the cohesiveness of Kazakhstan’s society and the rights of its citizens. Our country’s shared sense of purpose has been at the heart of its growth since independence. President Nazarbayev said the concept of Mangilik El – the Eternal Nation – provided the framework for common values such as equality, industriousness, honesty, education, secularism and tolerance to be promoted.

As we see increasing divisions around the world on religious and ethnic lines, Kazakhstan’s harmonious and stable society is something which we must both take pride in and protect. What this means is that all citizens, whatever the race, gender and social origin, deserve to be valued and supported to make their full contribution to Kazakhstan’s future. Religious diversity, one of the strengths of the country, must be protected.

Finally, President Nazarbayev set out his determination to ensure the state worked better for the benefit of its citizens. He called for improved accountability of public bodies, increased transparency and greater public participation in decision-making including in how budgets are spent locally. A new law on access to public information will help this process.

Citizens are also to be encouraged by new complaint systems to raise poor or unfair treatment from civil servants and public bodies so standards are continuously improved. There is more to be done to break out of the old Soviet mentality that people should be grateful for whatever the state provides. It is why handing the delivery of public services to civil society institutions, wherever possible, is an important step in the right direction.

What was also interesting was the President’s suggestion that all these institutional reforms would pave the way for additional political reform including the election of local executives and the transfer of responsibilities from the President’s office to the Government and Parliament. But he also stressed the importance of well-thought through reforms based on the “strong state and economy first, politics second” principle to ensure Kazakhstan’s continued stability. At a time of increased turmoil and regional and global threats, few can doubt this prize has never been more important to Kazakhstan’s future.

In ending his speech, President Nazarbayev remarked that experience from other countries demonstrated that it could take four to five decades to create a strong, developed and liberal society. He could have added that it is perhaps a mark of Kazakhstan’s development since independence, that critics, both domestic and international, have a tendency to forget that our country is only half-way through this period.

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