Aitolkyn Kourmanova, CSIS Research Fellow.
This is a special contribution from the Editor-in-Chief of the Central Asian Analytical Network (CAAN) of the George Washington University.
Hailing April 26 presidential elections in Kazakhstan, where incumbent President Nursultan Nazarbayev has won a record high of 97.7 percent of the vote, Kazakhstan’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Erlan Idrissov called this “a victory for stability and progress.”The voter turnout was surprisingly high as well – 95.22, according to official observers – and gave the current Kazakh administration a vote of confidence for the next five years. Even if these figures may seem unreasonably high, there is little doubt that Nazarbayev remains the most popular leader in the country and that more people decided to participate in these elections comparing to previous years. The question is, however, if this vote was for stability, according to Idrissov, or for progress, which are in case of Kazakhstan, two opposite trends?
Kazakhstan’s stability has acquired a dubious meaning: although undoubtedly, domestic stability remains the biggest achievement of President Nazarbayev, it had been frequently counterposed to the need of political reforms. If you want reforms, you risk losing stability – that was a message. At the same time, the challenges which recently aroused in Kazakhstan’s geopolitical environment prove that instability can be caused not only by far-reaching reforms but by external factors, and Kazakhstan is not immune to them.
In fact, some of the observers link the high turnout exactly to the sense of instability and uncertainty that the Kazakh voters may feel in the context of Russia-West conflict, whereas Nazarbayev is perceived as a guarantor of the peace. Economic well-being is also challenged with the dramatic fall of the global oil prices and increased competition within the Eurasian Economic Union. President Nazarbayev himself acknowledged the “troubledtimes for the entire region” when he argued in the Financial Times that “it is against this difficult background that the decision was taken to bring forward next year’s planned presidential election”.
Clearly, the troubled times of low oil prices dictate a need for another wave of reforms. Kazakhstan can boast with highly successful reform of early 2000s but since then the government policies went into what some called as “zastoi”. Nazarbayev’s election campaign, in fact, was based on a promise of reforms. President confirmed a new course in a briefing in Astana after the elections: “there will be very serious changes in the five institutional reforms”. Kazakh reforms will focus on meritocracy and professionalism in civil service, the rule of law, structural economic reforms and diversification, national identity and decentralizing political reforms. In addition, the government is supporting sectors that had been significantly affected by the current crisis to avoid a negative impact on economic growth and social sentiment. The need for funds is acute and reportedly Kazakhstan will spend up to 10% of GDP (around 22 billion dollars) of own and borrowed resources to keep the demand up.
At the same time, one should not expect radical changes in Kazakhstan. Main pillars of domestic and foreign policy will remain unchanged, President said, because “elections confirmed that the people support the policies that we had.”This gives a sense of the mixture of “stability” and “progress” which Idrissov coined. The result of the elections is that the people in Kazakhstan gave the newly elected president a clear mandate to follow through on reforms. This means that people’s expectations are high, they do want change and they do hope for progress. The Kazakh administration should read this message clearly.