Kazakhstan: Condemned to Europe
© mukhtarablyazov.org 15.02.2013

President Aleksander Kwasniewski's cooperation with Nursultan Nazarbayev, President of Kazakhstan, who has governed the country in an authoritarian manner, may serve the Polish raison d'etat. Poland should not passively follow the course of events in Central Asia in fear of critical voices that might direct the sympathies of the Kazakh government to Russia and China. Kazakhstan's ruling elites, in fact, do not have a choice – they are condemned to cooperation with Europe. And taking advantage of this situation is in the interest of Poland and Europe.

Rankings are not everything

Kazakhstan faces many fundamental problems – not only at the level of respect for human rights, but also on economic grounds. The ongoing changes gradually hit the base of its development and threaten its political stability. Due to its geo-strategic location and abundance of raw materials, the threats that are increasingly appearing on the horizon may give rise to implications of consequences going far beyond the regional scale. The seriousness of these challenges, however, cannot be assessed on the basis of a cursory reading of several international rankings and official statistics.


The involvement of a select group of former European politicians in counselling for the ruling elites of the country shows the great importance that Kazakhstan attaches to building its own image. The evidence of effectiveness of these measures was the granting of chairmanship of the OSCE in 2010, the right to host Expo 2017 in the capital city Astana, and accession to the UN Human Rights Council by the end of the last year. It should, however, be noted that these ‘achievements’ were not dictated by recognition of progress made towards democratisation of the young state, but the classic ‘Realpolitik’. Countries, such as France and Romania, that have the closest economic ties with Kazakhstan, supported its candidacy to the greatest extent. Due to the decreasing importance of the OSCE and the UN, and the fact that the UN Human Rights Council included countries such as Libya, we should not overestimate the value of these incentives, by means of which foreign raw-material companies hoped to obtain further exploitation rights over huge deposits of natural resources.

Economic put-on show

Revenues from oil and gas account for more than 60% of all budgetary revenues of Kazakhstan. The value of the GDP is strongly correlated with commodity prices on world markets. In addition, the economy of Kazakhstan is not diversified in terms of the number of existing business entities, operating within the country. 56% of Kazakhstan's economy is controlled by the state-owned National Welfare Fund ‘Samruk-Kazyna’, which not only governs the mining sector, but also all the biggest companies in the country – from energy industry, to telecommunications, to banks and the financial sector. The economy is suffering from a severe lack of small business – it is dominated by politicised giants, managed in a way mindful of Soviet times. A large part of their national income is distributed within a narrow group of people in power, bound not only by the ties of political loyalty, but also by kinship.

It is hard to describe the structure of the economy, cited by dr. Ireneusz Bil, Chairman of the Board of Aleksander Kwasniewski's ‘Amicus Europae’ Foundation, as consistent with the actual situation (‘Gazeta Wyborcza, Magazyn Świąteczny’, 26-27 January, 2013). The Kazakh government ‘optimises’ the source data, including, for example, the economic performance of the grey zone, arbitrarily estimated at several dozen percent. As a result, the outcome of Kazakhstan is better than one might expect.

The Kazakh authorities are very much committed to legislation and regulations affecting the operation of the business. Thus, the law often corresponds to international standards in an exemplary way. The problem lies in their application – in practice, the rules are dead, and give way to political connections and financial capacity of investors.
Increasing destabilisation

Concentration of income from exploitation of raw materials in the hands of the closest surroundings of Nazarbayev perpetuates income inequality and poverty. Only the two largest cities are living on a ‘European’ level (just like in Russia): Astana and Almaty. Pervasive corruption (133th place among the 174 listed countries, according to Corruption Perceptions Index 2012) promotes the transfer of money from regions rich in raw materials to the elites in power. This is done in front of people for whom the mining sector is often the only possible source of income. Difficult living conditions and high food prices, combined with a high birth rate and large number of children, as well as unemployment and lack of opportunities to improve the living conditions of young people, create an explosive mixture. In recent years, employees of refineries, mines and steel mills have been opposing their working conditions and remuneration – m ore and more often through strike rallies. In these circumstances, the government's strategy varies between ignorance (waiting and concealment) and confrontation.

In December 2011, several thousand oil workers initiated a strike rally in Zhanaozen, a town located in the European, western part of the country. The strike rally was pacified by force, marking the beginning of a great wave of repression against independent communities and those critical to the authorities. Radicalising public mood is being exploited by Islamists. During the last two years, in terrorist attacks and clashes between law enforcement agencies and terrorists, more than 40 people were killed. The government has been using religious extremism to justify the harsh course of internal politics. Many of the real and alleged radicals are filling detention centres and prisons. Unfortunately, in these institutions, their ideology meets a very fertile ground, pulling in their fellow inmates.

Is it bad in here? 

A common theme in the comments on the situation in Kazakhstan, also visible in the interview with Aleksander Kwasniewski (‘Polityka’, 6 February, 2013) is the indication that, in reality, the situation in Poland is not good either, and thus the Poles have no right to raise charges against the Kazakh democracy.

Such statements cause consternation among Kazakh opposition activists, independent journalists and NGO activists. They are aware that the situation in Poland and Kazakhstan cannot be compared. In Kazakhstan, the opposition is not only deprived of the right to participate in elections, but is also placed in detention centres or forced to leave the country. More and more Kazakhs are seeking asylum in Poland. They are political emigrants persecuted by the authorities of their country on charges of terrorism, extremist propaganda and inciting of social hatred. Co-author of this text, Muratbek Ketebayev, a member of the board of the outlawed party ‘Alga!’ and associate of Kozlov (who was sentenced to seven and a half years' imprisonment), is one of them. For him, as well as people like Igor Vinyavskiy (chief editor of the closed newspaper ‘Vzglyad’), Poland is a country of successful transformation, a forefront of the European Union, and a gateway to the free world of political and ideological pluralism, in which the prosecution and the courts do not operate on political orders. Poverty in Poland and Kazakhstan also does not look the same. In Kazakhstan, especially in rural areas, people suffer not only from the lack of Internet and sanitation, but also from the lack of running water and electricity. These are the fundamental differences, which are often overlooked by the Poles. And the successful transformation of Poland, its experience and influence in the EU, are the largest elements of the Polish export capital.

Kazakhstan and Polish interests

The activity of Polish non-governmental organisations, and, most of all, MPs and Polish MEPs, influenced the European Parliament to adopt a resolution affecting the new contract on economic cooperation, which is being negotiated with Astana. With their help, several imprisoned journalists and human rights defenders regained freedom. Some of them, including religious and economic refugees, found their new homes in Poland.
Kazakhstan is a desired direction for Polish business expansion, as evidenced by the years of ongoing oil exploration by Petrolinvest, market activity of Selena and Ciech, investments of Polpharma, and, more recently, the billion dollar plans of exploitation of copper deposits by KGHM. Ultimately, this investment, however, will not be made. We do not know, how this decision was influenced by the deteriorating investment climate in Kazakhstan. Western oil companies: Total, Eni and ConocoPhillips, have recently announced their resignation from oil production. Anonymous statements of their representatives suggest that Kazakhstan introduces legislative changes, which in the future may lead to nationalisation.

Succession scenario

This year, President Nazarbayev will be 73 years old. Serious health problems are forcing him to transfer the power. Since Nazarbayev has ruled the country since Soviet times, and such changes at the top level of authoritarian states are usually associated with major shocks, he is preparing to this task very carefully. If you watch (from the outside) the activities of Kazakhstan on the international stage, aimed at creating an image of an exemplary democratic state, which, despite the difficult environment, complex ethnic and religious mosaic and lack of traditions, is characterised by internal stability and impressive growth, you may ask the question: why in the last two years there has been a wave of repressions on an unprecedented scale? 

The scenario of transfer of the power consists of three phases. The first were the changes in the political system, which gave Nazarbayev the prestigious title of the ‘Leader and Father of the Nation’ and the lifetime personal and property immunity (also extending to his family members). Electoral rules were also changed for the event of resignation of the President before the expiration of his term of office. In such case, the acting head of the state, the President of the Senate, would be able to rule without the need for an early election until the end of the term (that is three years). The second phase is the pacification of all independent environments, which would in turn ensure the ‘inner peace’ of the country – that is lack of criticism from the media and the opposition. The third phase are the personnel reshuffles, including the highest levels of authority. In autumn, the Prime Minister and the head of the Presidential Administration were dismissed. In January, the Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces and the Chief of the Internal Forces were replaced. Nazarbayev is replacing loyal, yet capable of creating own fractions, and therefore potentially dangerous subordinates, by new people, mostly connected with himself as his family and clan members. According to speculations, the successor to Nazarbayev (after taking the position of the Head of the Senate) is to be his nephew – Akhmetzhan Yessimov, the current governor of Almaty. 

By their fruits ye shall know them

The Kazakh elites are in fact condemned to cooperation with Europe – regardless of the argument of rapprochement with Russia and China, which is being skilfully used when dealing with European politicians. These elites have their private bank accounts in Swiss banks, and their children are studying at British and French universities. Falling into disfavour in the homeland might cause a need for emigration and seeking political asylum in EU, which, in this case, is the safest haven for them and their assets. In Kazakhstan, the property rights do not protect their owners – large fortunes accumulated by local oligarchs can be nationalised at any moment. This lack of confidence will force them to reform the country on a European model, where they would be protected by an independent justice system – not by the autonomously reigning President. And this is also a part of the interests of European businesses. Another factor, which determines Kazakhstan's interest in Europe, is the need for cooperation in the fields of education, science and transfer of know-how. Kazakh economy, struggling with serious competency and technological problems, needs it dramatically.

In addition, further deepening of business with Russia and China will lead to closer political relations with them, which could mean a gradual loss of independence of the state. In Putin's ambition, the Customs Union with Russia and Belarus is designed to serve as a platform for the institutionalisation of the former Soviet sphere of influence. This is visible in the project to establish the Eurasian Union under the aegis of Moscow. Recently, this project has been publicly rejected by Nazarbayev, which led to a sharp deterioration in relations with the big neighbour. The Russian ‘Baikonur’ Cosmodrome, currently leased from Kazakhstan, has become a hostage of this conflict. The expansive Russia and China are the best guarantee of the Kazakh interest in Europe. And we need to skilfully exploit this interest, bearing in mind the long-term economic interests, but also the geopolitical orientation of the authorities of Kazakhstan. None of the current elites of Kazakhstan would want to share the fate of Vladimir Kozlov, and it can happen, if it comes to internal power struggles. The fate of Kozlov, just like in case of Tymoshenko in Ukraine and Khodorkovsky in Russia, has become a criterion of influences of pro-European forces in Astana, and the effectiveness of European diplomacy in relations with Kazakhstan. And due to good relations and trust of local elites, the influence of leaders of states and governments, such as Tony Blair and Aleksander Kwasniewski, will be vital for their success.

Muratbek Ketebayev, Bartosz Kramek
Muratbek Ketebayev – former Deputy Minister of Finance of Kazakhstan (1997), an economist and opposition politician (member of the board of the party ‘Alga!’, together with Kozlov), currently seeking political asylum in Poland.

Bartosz Kramek – Chairman of the Foundation Board of the Open Dialog Foundation, the activities of which focus on the promotion of European democratic values in Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan.


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