By Radu G. Magdin*
There is nothing like an unmanaged transition of the leadership of a large or populous country to remind us how important it is both internally and internationally that change is good, but quakes are not so good.
Recent history abounds: Iraq, Sudan, Libya, South Africa, and others. And even without a crisis at the top, unmanaged transitions can lead to migration, loss of territorial control, etc. Syria and the formation of the Islamic State is an example of loss of territorial control and encroaching radical ideology and tribalism.
And while Kazakhstan is stable and prosperous and it looks nothing like Libya, Sudan or Central American countries, it does bare some socio-cultural similarities with its West-Asian neighbours – it transitions from one long-time leader to another, the country has enough of a diversified economy to continue growing and being successful in the not-so-far future, and at the same time it maintains culturally and socially features that do not help cohesion.
Most notably, the perceived opposing interests of ethnicities, of geopolitical centres of gravity, and fast liberalisation vs. modernisation of the country.
These are, of course, the observations of a non-Kazakh, so I do not presume to feel the same as a Kazakh, nor to argument the same way as one. But here are some considerations and things we see from abroad.
First, the economy and the security situation of Kazakhstan did not take a nose-dive when former president Nursultan Nazarbayev announced his departure as president, nor when Mr. Tokayev took over at the helm, nor when he announced early elections. Comparing with the number of crises we currently have around the world, this is an achievement.
It is difficult to know anymore what to expect when countries undergo changes – the West is no better example either, with the unexpected and unmanaged rise of populism and Euroscepticism, which only now we are addressing and it is a tough process. So when such significant changes happen in Kazakhstan and the international economic community credits you with continued support, that is significant.
Second, we see a current president running to be confirmed in office, that has relevant personal and professional ties not only with two of the great powers of the world - but also the two bigger and more powerful neighbours - both of whom vie for the attention, economic and demographic opportunity, and territorial access of Kazakhstan.
This means there is a true competition and pressure from both neighbours for Kazakhstan to open up to them, and also to create a preferential relationship with one of them. On this backdrop, Mr. Tokayev’s relationship and experience with both neighbours and their respective leadership is a significant asset in ensuring that Kazakhstan is not pushed into situations it does not welcome.
It is also a reassurance, at least for the duration of the transition, Kazakhstan will succeed keeping the situation balanced with the neighbours and will probably succeed attracting welcomed contracts, partnerships, investments, and cooperation from both. After all, Kazakhstan is in fact an important piece in the geopolitics of Asia and the most important in Central Asia.
Third, while there is enough to say about how continued modernisation of the country should be accelerated, there is much to say as well about the continuation of the plans already made under the previous leadership. We have seen criticism in opposing directions regarding the continuation of the development plans of Kazakhstan: one side asking why are we continuing with the same plans, while the other asking why are we reconsidering some.
So I’m asking: is it better that we don’t draw a line and look at what is more important continue now, to do a lessons-learned evaluation, to re-assess the situation? Or is it better to completely change all the planning and financial commitments? In fact, dropping, delaying, or reshaping some underperforming or non-urgent projects in order to favour those that can reach completion faster or that are truly urgent for the country seems a better idea. After all, Kazakhstan development principle should not be to work harder, but to reach its goals smarter.
Finally, reflecting upon the June 9 elections and the electoral processes prior, it is not (only) about transparency, gender equality, or international observers that we should be talking about.
As I look at the processes the Kazakh society as a whole is going through, I am filled with a sense of confidence, as all the conversations, effervescence, contradictions, and all the stirring and questioning that are happening are in fact contributing to making the Kazakh society more resilient. Experience from Europe and the world has shown that the more societies are connected to the important questions facing them and their respective countries, the more cohesion can happen, and the more people learn that some priorities are more urgent than others.
It is very important for the people of Kazakhstan to realise (or not to forget) that, while they should be questioning why and how they do certain things, to look for improved ways of doing them, they also need to be a united people when it comes to confronting pressures from abroad, when it comes to deciding upon resources and contracts, when it comes to deciding on what should be a priority in their own country.
For example, too often in history, we have seen opinion leaders come and say “we should have more social investment”, and the people cheered, because who doesn’t want to have more governmental support? But what we have seen more recently is that after years of patience and investment, the countries that came out better in the end were those that invested in people through education, personal economic opportunities, and who encouraged not so much a government-to-people relationship, but one in which people supported each other and developed communities, and the government was there to help when things needed just one extra bit of help.
This process of getting things done through community building created the strongest bonds and the most resilient societies.
It is very easy to fall into blame games and simplistic for or against divisions during particularly politically active periods. I hope that by what I wrote in this article I have pointed to a series of strategic considerations that the Kazakh people will consider as the fundamentals that need to anchor their country, before any other considerations and details, as the freedom to have a country to argue over comes first – as the security of the country is a collective and whole of society responsibility.
*A strategic communications analyst and consultant, former Prime Ministerial advisor in Romania and Moldova.