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  • Kazakhstan at a Crossroads
  • Charles J. Sullivan (bio)

Kazakhstan, economic modernization, political liberalization, 100 concrete steps

[End Page 121]

executive summary

This essay examines Kazakhstan's latest economic modernization campaign, highlights its shortcomings, and proposes how the West could assist the country's ruling elite in carrying out reforms to complement the modernization process.

main argument

Kazakhstan seeks to undergo economic modernization, but its proposed reforms face a number of obstacles. Although Kazakhstan is the most developed and stable country in Central Asia, it remains to be seen whether the ruling elite will usher in an era of sustained economic development complemented by political reforms. The country stands to lose much if this effort fails. Over the course of the past generation, Kazakhstan has never made political liberalization a priority. Yet political reforms are seemingly necessary to realize its stated goals of establishing the rule of law, a service-oriented economy, and a professionalized bureaucracy. Kazakhstan stands at a crossroads due to a worsening of great-power relations and a seeming reluctance among the local ruling elite to embrace reformist measures.

policy implications

  • • Kazakhstan aspires to transform its economy into a powerhouse by adhering to a detailed strategy over the course of the next generation. However, the success of the country's economic modernization campaign will in large part depend on the extent to which political liberalization, especially the dispersion of elite controls over the political system and the institutionalization of power, is embraced by the government.

  • • Given that Kazakhstan lacks a democratic history, has yet to experience a peaceful transfer of power, and cannot afford to upset relations with Russia and China, Astana will need to tread carefully should it decide to pursue an agenda of political liberalization.

  • • Western states, acting in an advisory capacity, could assist Kazakhstan with carrying out reforms designed to disperse and institutionalize political power by arguing on behalf of blending certain political development models.

  • • Despite Western actions, however, the fate of Kazakhstan's reformist drive is largely predicated on whether local powerbrokers believe in the need for meaningful political reform. [End Page 122]

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.3 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...


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