Academic journal article Asia Policy

Kazakhstan at a Crossroads

Academic journal article Asia Policy

Kazakhstan at a Crossroads

Article excerpt

In Central Asia, democracy is virtually nonexistent. Generally, elections are a foregone conclusion, civil society is restricted, parliaments serve as rubber stamps, and secret police forces (or former branches of the KGB with updated acronyms) neutralize the opposition. Regional states are all nondemocratic to one degree or another, and history and geography matter a great deal in terms of explaining why democracy is so lacking. The five newly independent countries of Central Asia are all former Soviet Socialist Republics. This is important because deceased long-term leaders like Islam Karimov and Saparmurat Niyazov were originally groomed to rule as Communist Party bosses, maintaining order in their respective socialist mini-states, rather than as legitimately elected politicians representing the majority will of voters. When the Soviet Union disintegrated, strongmen took over most of the Central Asian states, fashioned mechanisms to ensure their rule indefinitely, and began enriching themselves once they figured out how to assert control over economic resources.1

Central Asia is also sandwiched between Russia, China, Iran, and Afghanistan, none of which (save for Afghanistan since 2001, to some degree) have strived to make their politics more pluralistic in nature. Furthermore, Western interests in Central Asia tend to focus on national security concerns and commercial interests, while influential regional linkages with Russia and China serve to buttress the existing authoritarian regimes.2 It thus stands to reason that democracy is not well-suited to flourish within any of the Central Asian republics.

Kazakhstan, the most developed and stable country in Central Asia, has expressed interest in restructuring its economy under the banner of its Kazakhstan 2050 strategy. In adhering to a plan of action known as the 100 Concrete Steps, which is supposedly designed to propel the country into modernity, Kazakhstan seeks to part ways with its oil dependency, bloated bureaucracy, and dubious legal practices.2 In short, the country aims to make a great leap forward. But can Kazakhstan land such a big jump? This essay posits that the absence of an agenda for political liberalization (emphasizing the dispersion of elite controls over the political system and the institutionalization of power) hinders Kazakhstan's modernization prospects. Unless the government embraces political liberalization to complement its economic reforms, the country is more likely to fall short of realizing its stated objectives than to see restructuring through to the end.

This essay is organized into the following sections:

~ pp. 124-27 compare Kazakhstan with other Central Asian states and discuss its recent political and economic developments.

~ pp. 127-30 examine the government's proposed economic and political reforms under the Kazakhstan 2050 strategy.

~ pp. 130-35 argue that political liberalization is needed to complement economic reforms in order for the government's modernization agenda to be successful and then recommend options for Western countries to assist Kazakhstan with this process.

~ pp. 135-36 summarize the essay's main findings.


The Central Asian republics are not all alike. Tajikistan endured a civil war during the 1990s. In Kyrgyzstan, two presidents were forcefully overthrown within the span of just five years and ethnic violence has occasionally flared in the south. The brand of authoritarianism practiced in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan is extremely repressive, and these systems do not appear to have softened to any great extent despite undergoing transitions in 2006-7 and 2016, respectively (though Uzbek president Shavkat Mirziyoyev's governing style appears to be less autocratic than his predecessor's).4

By comparison, Kazakhstan towers above its neighbors both economically and politically. A country of approximately 18 million people, Kazakhstan is ruled by an authoritarian government that has been led by only one head of state since independence. …

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