Expert Session in Brussels Focuses on Kazakhstan’s Internal Political Changes Amid Challenging External Circumstances

ASTANA – Kazakh and European political experts gathered on Nov. 28 in Brussels to share their views on the ongoing political changes in Kazakhstan and the country’s efforts to navigate the challenging circumstances that the world finds itself in today.  

From L to R: Moderator Charles Szumski, Dietmar Krissler, Iskander Akylbayev, Alberto Turkstra, Alternativa Current Research Center Director Andrei Chebotarev and Director of the Institute of Modern Political Studies at Gumilyov Eurasian National University Mukhit Ardager Sydyknazarov.

A panel session, titled Kazakhstan in 2022 – a Seismic Year of Change and Unprecedented Regional Geopolitics, comes just a few days after President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev’s re-election and months of packed diplomatic meetings in Astana, including visits of President of the European Council Charles Michel and the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and Vice–President of the European Commission Josep Borrell.

“Just recently, we all went to Samarkand for the EU Central Asia Connectivity Conference and all this underlines, I think, an increased focus of EU foreign policy for that region”, said Dietmar Krissler, head of division for Central Asia at the European External Action Service. “But it is not a one-way relationship. The EU has a lot to offer to Central Asia and vice versa.”

Iskander Akylbayev, director for Central Asia at Oxford Policy Advisory Group, emphasized that 2022 has not been an easy year for Kazakhstan and many countries worldwide.

“2022 has been an unprecedented year of changes and geopolitical turmoil. Supply chains, food security, and energy security have been dramatically under transformation. For Kazakhstan, 2022 was the year of transformation within domestic politics and foreign policy. We see demands from the society are increasing day by day, the values and the vision of the people for the future of Kazakhstan changed,” said Akylbayev, who is also a chief research officer at the Kazakhstan Institute for Strategic Studies.

He noted the efforts of the Kazakh government to “apply new changes on the terms, on the expectations of the Kazakh society.” But for these efforts to be successful, Akylbayev stressed the need to make state institutions sustainable and to keep an eye on the implementation process.

If we plan to improve our political institutions, we need to make them effective, not just declaring reforms. With strong political institutions, the system should be sustainable. If we see external shocks, it is in the interest of Kazakhstan to have sustainable effective institutions and have a strategic immune system to vow those shocks,” he added.

Alberto Turkstra, an expert on Central Asia and project manager at the Brussels-based Diplomatic World Institute, went on to describe 2022 as the “most eventful and turbulent year” in the country’s history.

“While the outcome may have been somewhat predictable, most notable is that the election took place peacefully. The decision to call for an early presidential election reflected the tremendous challenges Kazakhstan is facing both internally and externally,” he said.

Contrary to the lack of pluralism mentioned in the preliminary report on election by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Turkstra said, “there is a debate on certain issues within the society.”

“Even if there is no active opposition to the incumbent, we see an active dialogue, which was unthinkable even five or six years ago in Kazakhstan,” he added.

Krissler said that the recommendations from international observers should be “addressed in a constructive way.”

“The upcoming parliamentary election is a very important opportunity for Kazakhstan to demonstrate its clear will to embark on a new model of governance. This is an ambition of President Tokayev, and with a very credible election process, according to international standards, the reform process that the President is driving will become much more of a reality,” he said.

Speaking about the new presidential mandate, Turkstra expects the new government to be made up of “younger reform-minded technocrats,” which he said is part of the President’s “broader push to rejuvenate the country’s public service.”

“The main goal of President Tokayev and political reforms will be not so much to facilitate political alternatives, but rather improve performance and efficiency of public administration, make it more responsive to demands and needs of the population, especially social and economic grievances that led to peaceful protests in January in the first place,” said Turkstra.

Akylbayev, in turn, spoke about the economic reforms, saying that the focus would be on restructuring the economic sectors, reducing the share of the state in the economy and demonopolizing the economy.

“That is why diversification of the energy sector is very much important. Given the war in Ukraine, changes in supply chains, and that 80 percent of oil pipelines go through Russia, we are certainly interested in improving the economic context, not only at the domestic level but internationally too. Because it is about our economic sustainability,” he said. “We are looking to improve our connections and routes and that is why the EU is important.”

Concerning connectivity, Krissler mentioned an ongoing study funded by the European Commission and conducted by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development on the alternative trade corridors between EU and Central Asia. The results are expected to be published in six months.

“On that basis, we will be more able to discuss more concretely what alternative corridors and routes should be developed and how they can be developed,” he added.

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