By S. Frederick Starr and Svante E. Cornell
Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program
Silk Road Paper
Central Asia is often portrayed through metaphors such as a “Grand Chessboard” or a “Great Game,” which suggest that the players in the game are the great powers, and the Central Asian states are merely pawns in this game. The problem with this analysis is that it denies agency to the Central Asian states. This might have been a plausible argument immediately upon their independence, when these states were indeed weak. But today, thirty years into independence, it is abundantly clear that the situation has changed.
Even though China, Russia, and the West are still able to influence the evolution of Central Asia in various ways, the Central Asian states are increasingly capable of defining their individual and joint interests and translating them into concrete programs. While institutionalization of their collaboration has lagged, the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan, Russia’s war in Ukraine, and other great power actions have promoted the regional governments to link arms as never before. Since 2016 this process has advanced rapidly, accompanied by more proactive strategies by the five regional governments themselves. While Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have emerged as leaders in this process, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan are all engaged with this new direction, as is their neighbor across the Caspian, Azerbaijan.
It remains to be seen whether and in what ways major powers will acknowledge this development. What is already clear, however, is that “divide and conquer” policies will no longer be effective tools for dealing with the states of Central Asia, which will increasingly use their power of agency to ameliorate and shape the approaches of major powers.
The United States and Europe can take stock of this process to expand their partnership with Central Asian states. This includes expanding Western investment in the Trans-Caspian transportation corridor, while working closely with Central Asian states to prevent sanctions evasion. Western powers should also recognize the primacy of security in Central Asian realities, and support processes of reform in the defense and security sector to help Central Asians defend themselves against the encroachments of neighboring great powers. Last but not least, the U.S. should follow the example of the EU and raise the level of its interaction with Central Asia to the highest political level.
By Svante E. Cornell
Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program
Silk Road Paper
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has drawn renewed attention to the geopolitics of Central Asia and the Caucasus. These are countries that have all faced a variety of assertive or aggressive Russian measures designed to undermine their sovereignty. Their responses have varied, however, both among states and over time. This raises the question of centripetal and centrifugal forces in Central Asia and the Caucasus.
Over the past three decades, internal and external forces seeking to strengthen the sovereignty and resilience of these states have clashed with forces seeking to undermine them. This has led to a growing divergence between stronger and weaker states, as centrifugal forces have come out on top in some countries while centripetal ones have dominated in others. To wit: several states have succeeded in building the institutions of independent statehood, have embarked on efforts to reform sclerotic institutions, have gained a meaningful ability to resist the entreaties of Russia and other regional powers, and are drivers of genuine regional cooperation. Others, by contrast, have seen their statehood compromised, and find themselves in a position where they are frequently unable to resist external pressure. Some lie somewhere in between.
The development of resilience in the region is linked to the social and economic changes taking place across Central Asia and the Caucasus. Countries that were locked into the Soviet system have now opened to the influences of the world, for better and for worse. As a result, a clear divergence has emerged between the Soviet and post-Soviet generations, with the latter considerably more independent of Russian-centric information sources and thinking, and considerably less passive with regards to social and political matters.
While this social development has been largely common across the region, economic development has been vastly divergent. The region has split into oil importers and oil exporters – with the region challenging academic notions of a “resource curse.” Indeed, oil exporters have proven much more resilient against centrifugal forces than oil importers.
This is visible not least in the varying ways through which political and economic change have taken place in the region. In the mid-2000s, “color revolutions” overtook mainly the region’s weaker semi-authoritarian states, generating much hope among well-wishers of democracy in the West. But over time, it became clear that revolutionary change did not succeed in producing sustainable democratic development – either in this region or in the Middle East and North Africa following the 2011 Arab upheavals. Indeed, no country that experienced these upheavals has progressed in a sustainable way toward democracy. Even those that seemed to do so, like Georgia and Tunisia, have visibly backtracked.
By contrast, from 2015 onward another trend has emerged, whereby the leadership in stronger regional countries – Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan – have concluded that they can no longer engage in business as usual, and must answer the popular demand for change while seeking to maintain stability. As a result, they have engaged in processes of gradual political, economic and social reforms. None of these reform programs are intended primarily to liberalize the political system or transform these countries into democracies. But they contribute to shifting the logic of the state-society relations from the Soviet model, where the state dominated society, to a modern one where the state’s task is to provide services to society. In so doing, they play a significant role in strengthening the resilience of the political and economic systems.
Meanwhile, these three states have also taken a lead in the development of mechanisms of regional cooperation. In the South Caucasus, the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict made regional cooperation impossible, and led instead to the formation of trilateral Azerbaijan-Georgia-Turkey cooperation. This began with the major oil and gas pipeline projects connecting the three states, but branched out into a formalized trilateral cooperation format with periodic meetings at the foreign minister and defense minister level, which now includes cooperation in defense industrial development and joint military exercises.
In Central Asia, efforts at regional cooperation in the late 1990s were unsuccessful, being smothered by Russian-led processes of Eurasian integration. Following the shift of power in Uzbekistan that brought Shavkat Mirziyoyev to the presidency, however, a new wind of regional cooperation has swept Central Asia. This was made possible by a greater sense of confidence in countries’ sovereignty and statehood, as well as a greater sense of political and economic urgency resulting from geopolitical competition. Simply put, regional cooperation had become a necessity to avoid great powers dividing and ruling among Central Asian states.
Five years into this new period of cooperation, Central Asian leaders are meeting more frequently than ever, and coordinating policy on various issues in a novel way. They have sought to institutionalize this cooperation, based on international examples like ASEAN and the Nordic Council. Very clearly, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have led this process, even going so far as to conclude a treaty on allied relations – a clear signal to outside powers that Central Asians will not be divided by them.
Finally, particularly since the geopolitical situation deteriorated following the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and Russia’s assault on Ukraine, Trans-Caspian cooperation has bloomed. This began even earlier with Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan overcoming long-lasting disagreements on the development of Caspian oilfields. More recently, there has been a major expansion in Azerbaijan-Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan-Uzbekistan ties, complementing the intensification of Kazakhstan-Uzbekistan relations.
Thus, two groups of countries have crystalized in Central Asia and the Caucasus. In one group, centrifugal tendencies remain dominant, making countries weak and vulnerable to a combination of internal and external upheavals. In another, the emerging middle powers, centripetal tendencies have come to dominate, as states have developed an ability to secure their sovereignty and act to preserve it. Importantly the emerging middle powers have paid close attention to cooperation with their weaker neighbors, while also serving as a model for them.
Over the past decade, this disparity has grown clearer. Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have all established themselves as middle powers in part through their internal development, seeking to balance the demand for change from their societies with the imperative of maintaining stability in dangerous times. Their actions on the regional scene have indicated their growing agency: by cooperating with one another and establishing relations with an assortment of foreign powers, they are strengthening their external sovereignty while also helping some of their weaker neighbors avoiding falling into dependence on great powers.
This is not to say that the weaker states totally lack resilience or that there are no vulnerabilities in the stronger ones. As evidenced by Kazakhstan’s January 2022 crisis or the unrest in Uzbekistan’s Karakalpakstan region that summer, all regional states face challenges. Still, the difference is that the emerging middle powers have taken coherent and sustained action to address the deficiencies in the provision of public services, and their leaders have spoken honestly and forcefully about the problems plaguing their government and bureaucracy. They have announced many reforms, but the hard work lies in the implementation of these initiatives, a work that is decidedly one in progress. And going forward, the risk that anti-reform forces will succeed in slowing down implementation is considerable.
The emergence of middle powers is of crucial importance for the region’s future, and for the approaches taken by foreign forces that wish the region well. In short, it means that the notion of this region as a playground of great powers is no longer valid. As the middle powers have sought to devise strategies to prevent the domination of one or another regional power over them, they have also reached out beyond the confines of the region for partners. Seeking to engage East Asian, Middle Eastern and Western powers, the middle powers of Central Asia and the Caucasus are by default partners to the West, sharing a common interest of maintaining what amounts to geopolitical pluralism in the region.
By Dr. S. Frederick Starr
May 8, 2023
"Today both the countries of Central Asia and the U.S. itself face unprecedented challenges at the global and national levels... It is important for Washington to know how its positions and actions are perceived by the countriestowards which they are directed. Official statements by Central Asian governments and on-the-record comments by their officials touch on this question but cannot answer it, for they often gloss over the officials’ real concerns or present them in such watered-down generalities as to render them unrecognizable. In an effort to gain a better understanding of how Central Asian governments perceive American policies we have therefore turned to the Central Asians themselves, including senior officials, diplomats, business people, local policy experts, journalists, and leaders of civil society organizations. In all, we have conducted some fifty interviews. All our subjects spoke on the condition of strict anonymity and “not for attribution.
S. Frederick Starr, Ph.D., is the founding chairman of the Central Asia- Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center, and a Distinguished Fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council.
Svante E. Cornell, ed.
Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program
Silk Road Paper
How does political change happen? This question, which has occupied the minds of scholars and analysts for many decades, has been especially vexing for the broad lands that include the Middle East and Central Asia. Samuel P. Huntington identified a “third wave” of democratization between the mid-1970s and 1990, and the collapse of the Soviet Union appeared to confirm that democracy would now spread unhindered across the world. But in the Middle East and Central Asia, this did not happen. Quite to the contrary, in spite of some liberalizing efforts in the 1990s, what occurred in this region was more akin to what Huntington, who passed away in 2008, would have called a “reverse wave” – with authoritarian governments proving not only resilient but able to consolidate control over societies.
The political stagnation of the broader region led to considerable frustration among foreign well-wishers of these regions – and more importantly, among large strata of people in these regions that experienced heavy-handed government, mismanagement, and systematic corruption. Between 2003 and 2011, popular revolts overthrew a series of governments – first in the post-Soviet space, particularly Georgia and Ukraine, and subsequently in the Middle East and North Africa. These upheavals were met with great enthusiasm in western circles, who were convinced that democracy had finally come to the Middle East and North Africa.
Except it did not work out that way. The “Color Revolutions” in the former Soviet Union and the Arab upheavals largely failed, as no country that experienced these upheavals has progressed in a sustainable way toward democracy. Most are worse off than before these upheavals. Libya, Syria and Yemen have descended into civil war. Georgia and Ukraine were invaded by Russia, in part because of their political changes, and Kyrgyzstan descended into instability, with two additional upheavals as well as ethnic rioting. Egypt almost saw state capture by the Muslim Brotherhood, which was only undone through a military intervention that proved lasting. For some time, Georgia and Tunisia appeared to go against the grain, and make sustained progress – but in recent years, those two have backtracked significantly. While many of these societies underwent change that increased the level of pluralism in the political system, mostly they did not succeed in addressing underlying causes of public frustration, such as mismanagement and corruption. All in all, it seems clear that revolution did not prove a sustainable model to liberalize societies.
In the past several years, however, an alternative model of political change has been on display in the region – an evolutionary model of political development. Following the political and economic upheavals of the past decade, the leadership in some countries appear to have concluded that “business as usual” is no longer feasible; they must answer to popular demands for change, while seeking to manage the political process to maintain stability and avoid upheavals. As a result, they have implemented reforms from the top down, seeking to improve the efficiency of government and in a controlled and gradual manner expand political rights. This is happening in countries as diverse as Azerbaijan and Jordan, Kazakhstan and Morocco. But Uzbekistan plays a particular role because of the sheer rate of change in the country.
Nowhere is the contrast between the “before” and the “after” as dramatic as in Uzbekistan following the accession to power of President Shavkat Mirziyoyev. While paying respects to his predecessor Islam Karimov, Mirziyoyev departed dramatically from Karimov’s approach to both foreign and domestic policy, unleashing a torrent of reform initiatives that have changed Uzbek society for the better.
Of course, it should be understood that the evolutionary process of reform will not turn Uzbekistan, or any other country engaging in it, into a model democracy in the short term. That is not the purpose of these reforms. That does not mean these reforms are “cosmetic,” as they are frequently called: they are highly ambitious in scope, because they aim to fundamentally change the relationship between state and society. It should be recalled that in the Soviet system, the individual was subordinated to the all-powerful state. This in turn bred impunity and corruption, as documented already in 1982 by Soviet exile Konstantin Simis in his book USSR: the Corrupt Society. This Soviet legacy is one that in some ways continues to this day – but is one that reformist leaders like President Mirziyoyev are now trying to reckon with. In the place of the old logic, they are seeking to turn the tables, and turn state institutions into bodies that exist to serve the citizens of the country rather than to control them or extract rents from them.
This is the background to the constitutional reform process in Uzbekistan, launched in the summer of 2022. As such, it is not an isolated event, but very much a step in the process of reforms that have been introduced since President Mirziyoyev acceded to the presidency in 2016.
This process is one that the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program documented in several entries in the Silk Road Papers series, and in the 2018 book, Uzbekistan’s New Face. This time, the Joint Center was pleased to have the opportunity to cooperate with the Center for Development Strategy in Tashkent to organize a Symposium on the constitutional reform process. This event, held in July 2022, provided an opportunity for Western and Uzbek researchers to exchange views on the reforms process. This publication is a collection of their presentations.
We are grateful to the authors of these papers and to the Center for Development Strategy, and particular its Director Eldor Tulyakov, for the opportunity to bring these papers to print.
By Albert Barro and Svante E. Cornell
Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program
Silk Road Paper
Since President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev came to power, a series of reform packages focusing mainly on the political and economic sectors have been launched in Kazakhstan. But as has been seen in instances of public dissatisfaction over recent years, social issues are at the heart of the concerns of the population of Kazakhstan – a population that saw great improvements in living standards from 1992-2008, but somewhat of a stagnation since then. Having achieved middle-income status, many people in Kazakhstan now focus increasingly on the quality and accessibility of education, healthcare, and social protection. In his September 1, 2022, address to the nation, President Tokayev acknowledged this priority by focusing considerable attention to reforms in the social sector that would improve education, healthcare and social protection and in particular provide a more equitable delivery of services in these areas to the population.
In the education sector, Kazakhstan has a history of large and comparatively successful reforms. The Bolashak (future) program, launched almost immediately following independence, provided opportunities for high-achieving students to study abroad, and over ten thousand have done so. But Kazakhstan’s reforms have not focused solely on higher education. One of the most successful programs has seen the rollout of nearly universally available preschool education, and efforts to improve the status, pay, and training of teachers in primary and secondary education. Kazakhstan joined the Bologna process, and the implementation of nternational standards has done a lot to improve the education system.
Kazakhstan also invested in elite institutions – the Nazarbayev Intellectual Schools and Nazarbayev University, which have catered to high-achieving students. These institutions have obtained ample resources and have been highly successful – NIS scores in PISA tests, for example, are high above the average in OECD countries. Kazakhstan’s difficulty has been to replicate this success across the width of the education system. Access to education in rural and remote areas remains difficult. And whereas NIS and NU have benefited from academic and financial autonomy, the same is not the case for regular schools, whose principals have much less freedom to run their institutions the way they see fit. In other words, the rest of the public school systems suffers from state bureaucracy. And regular schools – particularly in rural and remote areas – lag far behind the NIS in standardized testing. This should come as no surprise given the disproportional part of the education budget that is allocated to the NIS and NU.
The question going forward is to what degree the NIS and NU model can be replicated in the rest of the education system – which does not benefit from having selected the best students and given them the most resources.
Human resources are a particular challenge: finding qualified teachers for the needs of Kazakhstan has proven difficult, and is made even harder by the government ambition to develop trilingualism: that not only should
Kazakh, Russian and English be taught, but that certain subject matters should be taught in these languages. While the initiative is laudable, in practice the country so far lacks teachers with language skills to be able to
teach in all three languages. This suggests that some initiatives in the education sector may have been overly ambitious; but it should be recalled that Kazakhstan has aimed high; and even if it has not quite met its own
ambitions, the initiative has nevertheless produced results as can be seen from the rapid spread of English proficiency in the country.
Healthcare reforms in Kazakhstan are in many ways similar to the education sector. Certain reforms have aimed very high and proven remarkably successful. Capabilities at the high end have been developed, including a medical school at Nazarbayev University, advanced cancer treatment and research, and the development of an indigenous pharmaceutical industry. In addition, Kazakhstan has rolled out a compulsory health insurance system that is sustainable in the long run. Just as in the education sector, however, the difficulty has been in scaling these advances up to meet the needs of society as a whole. One challenge has been to provide adequate primary healthcare services that run independently of major hospital systems. Another has been to train enough medical staff to provide adequate coverage of the population. Indeed, Kazakhstan needs to double the ratio of doctors per capita to meet the OECD average. In particular, providing adequate access to medical services in rural and remote areas has proven difficult to implement.
Still, the advances are visible. Before the pandemic, Kazakhstan saw rapidly improving life expectancy numbers, reaching 73 years, a strong improvement over numbers in the 1990s. While the pandemic was a temporary setback, the country has also learnt valuable lessons on the weaknesses of its healthcare system.
In the field of social protection, Kazakhstan has succeeded in putting in place an adequate system to protect the unemployed, the disabled, as well as mothers and children. In addition, a strong and sustainable pension system has been introduced. Still, the country faces challenges: an aging population that will complicate matters, and the continued persistence of high-level corruption and mismanagement of assets and investments.
Social reforms are intimately linked with the broader reform agenda that President Tokayev has made into a centerpiece of his presidency. The success of social reforms will depend in no small part on the development of the broader management system in the country and on the nature of Kazakhstan’s state institutions. The potential of social reforms can only be fulfilled if the political reforms aiming to change the nature and culture of state institutions, to develop a new reality where the state exists not for its own sake, but to provide services to the population of the country. Given President Tokayev’s stated commitment to seeing all of these reforms through, it remains to be seen how successful Kazakhstan will be along this path.
Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program
Silk Road Paper
In 2010, Kyrgyzstan took a decisive step towards establishing a parliamentary form of government. A decade later, the parliamentary experiment had, at least for the time being, come to an end; in January 2021, the Kyrgyz electorate approved the return to a presidential form of government, and in May 2021, a new presidentialist constitution was adopted. To understand, the role and powers of Kyrgyzstan’s parliament, unparalleled in the Central Asian region as well as in most other post-Soviet countries, this study details the evolution of this particular political institution over the past 30 years. It details continuities and changes, the interplay between formal rules and actual parliamentary practices, and analyses how the constitution of this political body has shaped its performance over the years. The conclusions reached in the study should help to inform the understanding of why Kyrgyzstan’s national legislature proved unable to deliver on the promises of a parliamentary-style system of government.
Independence in 1991 meant that Kyrgyzstan’s Soviet-elected 350-member strong Supreme Soviet overnight became the national parliament of a sovereign state. It became clear that the legislature did not take this newfound status lightly. It quickly emerged as a focal point of debates over the future course of the new state, often positioning itself in opposition to the country’s first President Askar Akaev. Its willingness to provide some checks and balances on executive authority as well as its adoption of several landmark laws, would lead the parliament to go down in Kyrgyzstan’s history as the “legendary” parliament. However, it was also a peculiar institution, created for the altogether different Soviet system. It met only in sessions, and the lack of continuous legislative work was hardly compatible to the systemic transformation that Kyrgyzstan had set out to accomplish. Many of its members simultaneously held positions in various executive bodies. Because of that, the separation of powers was unclear and the fact that a large portion of the members of parliament (MPs) was dependent on other state jobs for their livelihoods, enabled President Akaev to disband its services a year before its term had expired.
In 1995, Kyrgyzstan held its first competitive elections to fill a thoroughly revamped parliament that now had adopted its Kyrgyz name, Jogorku Kenesh (Supreme Council). It was a much smaller legislature, consisting of two chambers with a total number of 105 MPs elected in single mandate districts. This formative election turned out to be highly competitive and resulted in a legislature dominated by public officials and an emerging group of businessmen, who had benefited from the early privatization process. In this new competitive environment, many members of the “legendary” parliament failed to be re-elected. While the new parliament had to find its feet amidst organizational shortcomings and Soviet inertia, it nevertheless managed to promulgate an impressive number of new laws, although many pieces of legislation were hastily adopted and poorly implemented. Overall, the parliament retained a rather independent position and did not turn out to be as obedient to the executive as President Akaev had hoped for it to be.
The successor parliament with curtailed formal powers, following constitutional referendums in 1996 and 1998, respectively, was elected in 2000; again, the elections were competitive, but circumscribed by several fraudulent practices and an aggressive use of administrative resources in order to secure the outcome preferred by the authorities. A limited party quota had been introduced for some of the seats, but overall businessmen and bureaucrats from the central and regional levels continued to define the parliament’s composition. The parliament appeared pliant to begin with, but several controversial decisions taken by President Akaev forced an increasingly radical parliamentary opposition to emerge. Conventional parliamentary opposition did not characterize their oppositional activities as much as the practice of organizing mass protests.
Ahead of the 2005 parliamentary elections, constitutional changes pushed through a referendum ended Kyrgyzstan’s decade with a bicameral parliament. A new unicameral legislature, with a significantly reduced number of seats for grabs exclusively in single mandate districts, raised the stakes further for electoral competition. At a time when President Akaev’s popularity had long been in decline, the authorities nevertheless applied their best efforts to secure the desired electoral outcome. Losing candidates challenged the election results by organizing protests throughout the country, eventually building up to nationwide opposition movement against the incumbent leadership. When the protests reached the capital Bishkek, President Akaev fled the country. Following this first color revolution in Central Asia, new president Kurmanbek Bakiev confronted a couple of years of strong parliamentary opposition, which thwarted his attempts to establish authoritarian rule in the country. Eventually, in 2007, after two years of recurring mass protests on the streets of Bishkek led by the parliamentary opposition, Bakiev managed to co-opt the sufficient amount of MPs necessary to push through a new presidentialist constitution. He then dissolved the parliament and announced a snap election to bring the legislature in line with the new constitution.
The snap parliamentary vote brought about a legislature that was entirely new in its form. It was exclusively elected on the basis of proportional representation from nationwide party lists. Bakiev and his entourage ensured their control of the new legislature by quickly and effectively organizing a pro-presidential party, Ak Jol, which duly emerged victorious with 71 of 90 available seats. With this parliament in their pocket, the president and his family members fully displayed their repressiveness. However, when growing frustrations among the elites and people canalized into sudden protests, the Bakiev regime quickly collapsed, despite its efforts to suppress the revolt. The new interim leadership quickly dissolved the parliament and cancelled the constitution.
Ahead of the election of a new parliament, the interim government introduced a new constitution, which stood out in the post-Soviet context; for the first time since Moldova in 2000, a post-Soviet country declared its ambition to establish a parliamentary-style system of government. The electoral system retained the proportional system based on national party lists introduced by Bakiev, but to prevent the emergence of a dominant party, the maximum number of seats a party could hold was fixed at 65 out of 120 seats. The assumption being that this would prevent Kyrgyzstan from slipping back towards authoritarianism. From a competitive point of view, the election was a success: it brought five evenly matched parties into the parliament, demonstrating the realness of political competition. For the first years, the parliament well and truly emerged as the focal point of political decision-making and debate in the country. Nonetheless, the parties were typically only formal shells with little real party content, and therefore most of them disintegrated from within. The coalition governments formed around parliamentary majorities fell apart in quick succession, leaving the role of the prime minister in this divided executive system increasingly subordinated to the president. In this environment, President Almazbek Atambaev did not have to resort to particularly repressive means in order to re-establish the presidency as the focal point of the political system.
This tendency strengthened further after the election of a new legislature according to the same basic rules in 2015. It has served during the tenure of three different presidents, with the main distinguishing feature being its unconditional support for the various heads of states’ taking the country in an ever more authoritarian direction. Thus, the last parliament represents a litany of failures: it has failed to serve as a safeguard against presidential authoritarianism, it has failed to contribute any significant reform legislation and it has failed to strengthen the development of political parties.
Over the course of the past three decades, Jogorku Kenesh’s development has been a process of trial-and-error; progressive elements interact with regressive elements in defining the entire spectrum of parliamentary practices – from campaigning to composition and performance. The search for the parliament’s rightful place in Kyrgyzstan’s political system has been at the heart of much political debate and numerous constitutional and electoral changes. The recurrent changes in the formal rules of the game have forced political elites to adapt their behavioral strategies to a fluctuating environment. Despite the introduction of special quotas and the efforts to foster the rise of political party representatives based on ideological interests, the typical MP consists of a 50-year-old Kyrgyz man with a strong provincial attachment and a primary background in various business activities for whom party affiliation is an exchangeable political commodity.
This leads us to the peculiar role of political parties in Kyrgyzstan’s political system. The party market in Kyrgyzstan is richly supplied, and a defining feature has been the inability of presidents to create viable ruling parties, unlike in other Eurasian countries. However, Kyrgyzstan’s party system is extremely fragmented and weakly institutionalized; parties primarily, serve as temporary vehicles for particular political interests, not as channels for political representation. Their ideological platforms are underdeveloped with little in terms of concrete policy programs. Instead, they increasingly tend to position themselves by emphasizing lofty values related to cultural and nationalistic specifics of the Kyrgyz nation. In practice, the party system placed at the center of the parliamentary-style system boiled down to little more than a political label required in order to compete in election, but had little meaning otherwise.
The parliament in general and political parties in particular have been subjugated to a powerful market logic. Financial muscles have been key to securing access to parliament. Under proportional representation based on party lists, parties put a price on their slots, turning parliamentary mandates into subjects of an internal market. As candidates entered the parliament against the backdrop of large financial contributions, reportedly often amounting to several hundreds of thousands of dollars, they have had strong incentives to return their investments. Consequently, the parliament has emerged as a marketplace for transacting corrupt deals.
Overall, Kyrgyzstan’s parliament has played a dynamic role in the country’s political development. In some periods, it has been at the heart of the political struggle and provided some checks and balances, if erratic, on presidential authority. In other periods, it has served as a more pliant rubberstamp body. Over time, the technical, procedural and organizational framework for parliamentary work has steadily improved. At the same time, the corps of parliamentarians have become ever more primitive in its composition. While the “legendary” parliament represented the political, economic and intellectual elite of Kyrgyzstan, the last parliamentary convocations, defined by financial resources, have dissolved any remaining boundaries for the qualities needed for being entrusted with a parliamentary mandate. As a result, a group of “entrepreneurs,” including oligarchs, racketeers, bazaar owners, construction magnates and civil servants with concealed business interests, has established a strong grip over parliament, to the detriment of the supply of nationwide legislation and the establishment of mechanisms of accountability to the electorate.
Finally, in a comparative perspective, Kyrgyzstan’s disappointing “parliamentary decade” from 2010 to 2020, mirrors the governance crises that have beset the other post-Soviet states attempting to establish a parliamentary system of government – Armenia, Georgia and Moldova. These challenging experiences underlines the complexity of democratization in states suffering from immature state institutions and low levels of economic development. It also reveals that, in such contexts, increased political competition is by no means likely to lead to improved governance, in terms of delivering state services and the adoption of sustainable economic development. This suggests the somewhat disheartening conclusion that the state must first get its core functions in place, such as the provision of elementary law and order and basic economic and social security, before a truly viable form of government characterized by meaningful political competition is likely to take hold. In short, a separation should be made between the normative aspects of democratization, i.e. the inherent virtues of pluralism, freedom and competitiveness, and the empirical relationship between on the one hand democratization and the quality of government, corruption and economic development, on the other.
By Svante E. Cornell, S. Frederick Starr and Albert Barro
Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program
Silk Road Paper
Kazakhstan’s leaders have long harbored ambitious visions for their country’s future. The country’s first President, Nursultan Nazarbayev, launched several far-reaching goals for the country’s development, most notably in 2012 the “Kazakhstan 2050” strategy, which aimed for Kazakhstan to take a place among the world’s 30 most developed states by mid-century.
For a young country in the third decade of its independence, such lofty goals clearly required far-reaching reforms. Still, Kazakhstan’s leadership focused primarily on reforming the country’s economy. While acknowledging the need for political reforms, the leadership explicitly followed a strategy that prioritized the economy. President Nazarbayev on numerous occasions stated that “we say: the economy first, then politics.”
But major shifts in the global political economy in the past decade forced a revision to this strategy. By 2015, it had become clear that a focus on economics alone would not be sufficient for Kazakhstan to reach its stated goals. In fact, the diversification of the economy required measures that went deep into the political realm. Furthermore, very much as a result of the country’s successful economic development, the population of Kazakhstan increasingly voiced demands for political reform as well.
Reform initiatives in the political sphere began to be launched prior to President Nazarbayev’s unexpected resignation in March 2019. Among other, constitutional amendments were introduced to strengthen the role of parliament. Following the election of President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, the reform agenda explicitly focused on political and economic fields in simultaneous, parallel tracks. In the three yearly State of the Nation addresses that President Tokayev has held, he has issued at times scathing criticism of the state of affairs in various sectors of the country’s governance, and emphasized the priority accorded to systemic reform.
President Tokayev introduced new institutions to oversee reforms, most notably the National Council of Public Trust, which brings together government officials and respected members of civil society. This institution, and its working groups, has been a vehicle for the generation of and deliberation on ideas for reforms.
Reforms in the economic field have been ambitious. Kazakhstan’s economy has been primarily driven by the exportation of oil and natural gas. However, the 2008 and 2014 price shocks revealed just how vulnerable the Kazakhstani economy was to the oil price, and it catalyzed a mobilization toward reform to reduce the country’s dependence on fossil fuels. Toward this end, the country seeks to energize its manufacturing and agricultural sectors. In manufacturing, the country is focused on developing an ‘economy of simple things’ in which the nation becomes a primary producer of all the low-tech products that Kazakhstanis use every day. For agriculture, the country is mobilizing government resources to support seven separate ‘ecosystems’ of food and agricultural production.
To drive technological advancement, Kazakhstan is undergoing a number of reforms that will develop an entrepreneurial culture, attract investments in the tech industry, and lay the foundation for Kazakhstan to serve as a technological hub in Central Asia. The country has already progressed significantly on an initiative known as “Digital Kazakhstan,” which seeks to transform the way that citizens, businesses, and government bureaus all interact with each other. The strategy employs modern technologies like AI, 5G, and Smart City technology to boost R&D, e-commerce, venture financing, and fintech development. As part of this strategy, Kazakhstan opened a financial and technological innovation hub in 2018, known as the Astana International Financial Centre, to attract investments, support innovation, and arbitrate disputes in private business.
President Tokayev’s reforms in the human rights area can be divided into two categories: a first where the government clearly seeks to achieve change, but has struggled to find ways to succeed; and a second in which steps taken are more cautious. In the former category, President Tokayev has embarked on a mission to effectuate a wholesale redefinition of the role of law enforcement in society, abandoning the Soviet-era model whereby the police is a tool of the state in favor of a modern police force that provides service to citizens. This includes change in the judiciary system, to make the court system more adversarial, separate prosecutors from judges, and put defense and prosecution on an equal standing. Similarly, the issue of women’s rights gained importance during the pandemic, amidst an increase in reported violence against women. President Tokayev has made this issue a priority, ordering the strengthening of special units in the Ministry of Internal Affairs focused on domestic abuse, and the start of a nationwide campaign to end violence against women. Still, at lower levels of the state apparatus the resistance to change appears to remain, in contrast to the visible interest of top echelons to put an end to this problem.
The government is proceeding more cautiously in areas like freedom of speech and assembly. Affirming the importance of “overcoming the fear of alternative opinion,” President Tokayev launched reforms to Freedom of Assembly under which peaceful rallies now require only notification of, rather than permission from authorities. The law promulgated in May 2020 nevertheless did not go quite as far the President indicated, as local executive bodies maintain the power to reject the holding of rallies. Concerning freedom of speech, limited reforms have been introduced, such as the decriminalization of defamation, a tool frequently used to stop efforts to expose wrongdoing by government officials. Similarly, laws against the vaguely defined “fomenting” of hatred were changed to “incitement.” These changes will have an effect if the culture of officialdom changes – if, that is, the mentality of the judicial system shifts from one that instinctively protects officials from citizens to one protecting citizens from officials.
Reforms in the field of political participation have been cautious. Domestically, the leadership is torn between growing public demands for a greater voice and the elite’s inherent caution, coupled with the need to manage entrenched interests skeptical of liberalization. Externally, the government is similarly torn between Western pressure to liberalize and Russian and Chinese urges to maintain control over the political system.
President Tokayev launched reforms focusing on the strengthening of parliament and the expansion of democratic procedures at the local level. Regarding the parliament, efforts focus on filling the parliament with substance and ensuring it is more representative of society. The President urged Members of Parliament to be more active, and to make use of their prerogative to exercise oversight over the government’s actions.
Tokayev’s first package of political reforms included measures that reduced the number of signatures needed for forming a political party. Further, political parties now need to have a quota of at least 30 percent for women and youth on their lists. In addition, the package included reforms to build “a tradition of parliamentary opposition.” These changes for the first time recognized the official role of opposition parties in the country’s political system, by guaranteeing the opposition the chairmanship of one standing committee and the position of secretary of two standing committees in the lower chamber; opposition parties can now also initiate parliamentary hearings at least once per session of parliament. It should ne noted that these reforms focus only on “systemic” or loyal opposition parties, and did nothing for the political forces that remain outside the political system. As such, these reforms focus on the long-term building of parliamentary culture that involves a role for the loyal opposition. A third package of reforms in January 2021 reduced the threshold for parliamentary representation from seven to five percent. It remains to be seen if this will lead to the emergence of new political forces.
In a separate initiative, reforms were introduced to expand the role of elections at the local level, in order to build a culture of democracy from the grassroots up. Such elections have now been introduced in rural areas as a pilot project. The elections that followed did not lead much substantive change, as the ruling party dominated these local elections. It remains to be seen if the leadership will gradually expand this model to ensure the election of akims of larger settlements or cities as well.
Both Nazarbayev and Tokayev have noted that Kazakhstan cannot move into the world’s top 30 most developed nations without making serious reforms to improve its judicial system and to address corruption. Reforms in this realm are primarily guided by the work of the OECD’s Anti-Corruption Network (ACN), which established in 2003 the Istanbul Anti-Corruption Action Plan (ACAP). In response to recommendations that have been given in the ACAP, Kazakhstan wrote an Anti-Corruption Strategy for the years 2015-2025. The strategy has six primary focuses: corruption in public service, corruption in private business, corruption in the judiciary and law enforcement, instituting public control, developing an anti-corruption culture, and developing international partnerships. Since the strategy was launched, Kazakhstan has made headway on all fronts, and this is evident in the progress reports provided by the OECD.
To combat corruption, Kazakhstan’s government reorganized the country’s law enforcement to include an Anti-Corruption Service that reports directly to the president. Additionally, a number of regulations were instituted that increase accountability on government officials and restrict their ability to engage in corrupt behavior. Recruitment and selection processes have been overhauled for public servants and judges alike, and a higher degree of emphasis has been placed on their character. “Digital Kazakhstan” has also reduced the opportunities for illicit interactions between citizens and government officials by removing direct human-to-human contact in most public services. The country has piloted a new policing program in Karaganda that will employ a “police-service model” to transform the way that police and citizens interact with one another. Finally, Kazakhstan has made efforts to include civil society in the fight against corruption by passing laws like “On Access to Information” that will allow NGOs to monitor the behavior of business and government entities and to participate in the dialogue on anti-corruption policy reform. All these efforts are taking place in the context of increased partnership with international organizations that have provided guidance on how to incorporate international standards in Kazakhstan’s reforms. This includes not only OECD, but also UNDP, OSCE, and more recently GRECO. The results of this work have already been measured in progress that Kazakhstan has made on different corruption indexes, including Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, and the World Banks’ World Governance Indicators.
Strong and Unique: Three Decades of U.S.-Kazakhstan Partnership
By S. Frederick Starr and Svante E. Cornell
Prefaces by Amb. Erzhan Kazykhan and Richard Hoagland
Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program
Silk Road Paper
In the past decade, Kazakhstan has emerged as an important player in the world of mediation of international disputes. Its role in convening the Astana talks on Syria are the most well-known example, but Kazakhstan’s activity goes far beyond this. In fact, involvement in international mediation has emerged as yet another facet of Kazakhstan’s foreign policy, alongside its high profile in multilateral organizations.
In fact, Kazakhstani mediation builds on two aspects of Kazakhstan’s foreign policy: the country’s multi-vector foreign policy and its activism in international institutions. Landlocked, surrounded by large powers and closely tied to Russia by economics and demographics, Kazakhstan’s efforts to assert its independence have always been a balancing act. Kazakhstan’s First President, Nursultan Nazarbayev, established the country on the international scene in the 1990s primarily by his historic decision to renounce Kazakhstan’s nuclear weapons, and his careful efforts to build independent statehood in the political realm while simultaneously working to restore economic integration among former Soviet states. Kazakhstan’s model has been to maintain close relations with Russia, but simultaneously to strive to strengthen its ties with other partners – first China, then the United States, subsequently Europe and Asian powers – to obtain a positive balance in its foreign relations. This “multi-vector” foreign policy has since become a model that has been adopted by the Central Asian region as a whole.
An active role in multilateral diplomacy was key to Kazakhstan’s foreign policy from the beginning: immediately upon independence, Nazarbayev initiated the idea of a Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building in Asia, which materialized in the decade that followed. Kazakhstan also took on an active role in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, becoming the first post-Soviet state to chair the organization in 2010. Not stopping there, Kazakhstan successfully campaigned for a non-permanent seat at the United Nations Security Council, and served on the Council from 2017 to 2019.
Kazakhstan’s first initiative in the field of international mediation took place already in late 1991, when President Nazarbayev partnered with Boris Yeltsin to seek to mediate the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. But it is in the past decade that these efforts have been rekindled, against the background of a gradual intensification of geopolitical competition in Eurasia writ large. Kazakhstan’s first effort took place during its OSCE Presidency, when it intervened to attenuate the crisis in neighboring Kyrgyzstan. By assisting in removing ousted President Kurmanbek Bakiyev from the country, Kazakhstan contributed to easing tensions in the country.
Kazakhstan next focused on nuclear diplomacy, an issue with which the country had considerable familiarity. After offering to host an international Low Enriched Uranium Bank, President Nazarbayev succeeded in hosting two successive summits in Almaty on the Iranian nuclear program in 2013. These efforts aimed at seeking a negotiated solution that would halt the escalation of tensions that risked a greater military conflagration. While talks in Almaty did not resolve the matter, they directly paved a way for the Geneva talks that eventually led to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) on the Iranian nuclear program.
Over the following several years, Kazakhstan focused on alleviating tensions among its close partners – Russia, Turkey and the West. In 2014, Nazarbayev sought to bridge the divide between Russia and the West on Ukraine. Kazakhstan played an active role in facilitating dialogue among Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany that manifested in the Normandy Format. Two years later, Kazakhstan took a hands-on approach in resolving – at least for a time – the dispute between Russia and Turkey that resulted from the Turkish downing of a Russian jet over the Turkish-Syrian border in 2015. The next year, building on this initiative, Turkey and Russia agreed to President Nazarbayev’s offer to host talks on the Syrian conflict. Several rounds of “Astana Talks” have taken place since, involving the Syrian government, opposition groups, and the key external powers in the conflict – Russia, Turkey, and Iran.
What, then, has been the function and rationale of Kazakhstani mediation efforts?
Kazakhstan’s mediation has not been focused on faraway lands: it has been focused very much on those areas that affect the geopolitical stability of Eurasia, which in turn is the determinant for Kazakhstan’s own stability. Thus, it has concentrated on crises right on Kazakhstan’s doorstep, like in Nagorno-Karabakh and Kyrgyzstan, as well as on disputes that involve the regional and great powers of Eurasia. Both types of crises involved confrontations that threatened to destabilize the geopolitics of Eurasia, and thus posed a threat to Kazakhstan’s own security. Kazakhstan’s economic development and strategic stability is directly correlated to the relative harmony of the broader Eurasian geopolitical environment, and it has been in its interest to work to mitigate such threats to stability.
Kazakhstan’s efforts strengthen its sovereignty in at least two ways. First, it adds another layer of goodwill and recognition to Kazakhstan’s international profile. Secondly and more importantly, it provides regional powers with a strong rationale to accept Kazakhstan’s neutrality in their mutual disputes. Kazakhstan has been able to demonstrate that it is more useful for everyone as a neutral power that does not take sides – in other words, more useful as a mediator than as a supporter. For example, while Russia would have liked Kazakhstan’s endorsement of its policy in Ukraine, Kazakhstan showed that it could, uniquely, serve as a go-between that allowed Russia a way to manage its relations with Western powers, something that would be impossible in the absence of Kazakhstan’s sovereignty and international credibility.
This strategy has pitfalls. Its success requires that the level of conflict between Eurasian regional powers remains manageable; and that these powers are, at all, interested in maintaining a dialogue. If regional powers are in mortal competition against each other, Kazakhstan’s efforts would be undermined.
Against this background, the impact of Kazakhstan’s efforts become clearer. Kazakh leaders were realistic about the limited prospects of success in resolving the thorny issues they addressed. Instead, they were focused primarily on managing the fallout of these conflicts on a geopolitical level, seeking to prevent their escalation in a way that would jeopardize the broader stability of the Eurasian continent.
Kazakhstan’s efforts in international mediation have been closely tied to the personality of its First President, Nursultan Nazarbayev. Will Kazakhstan continue to play a role in mediating the great power politics of Eurasia in the longer term? There is reason to believe it can, for two key reasons. First, Kazakhstan’s meritocratic approach to personnel policy in foreign affairs has enabled the country to develop a considerable pool of officials with experience of high-level international politics, beginning with its current president, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, who has among other served as Head of UN offices in Geneva. Second, demand for this type of efforts is not likely to abate, as strategic competition in Eurasia continues to intensify and efforts to mitigate the fallout of great power competition in Eurasia appear to be more necessary for every passing year.