Kazakhstan’s presidential election in June is an important milestone in the country’s democratic development. This was highlighted by Kazakhstan’s ambassador to Belgium, Aigul Kuspan, at a press conference in Brussels on Tuesday, May 14th. “Kazakhstan is going through very important changes now, which are meant to continue the construction of our nation in a democratic way,” she said.
The election has been called by current President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev after the surprise resignation of the First President, Nursultan Nazarbayev, on March 19th. Tokayev, chairman of the Senate at the time, replaced Nazarbayev as stipulated by the Constitution. President Tokayev could have remained in his position until the end of Nazarbayev’s term, in April 2020, but after consulting with the Constitutional Council, he chose to hold a snap presidential election on June 9th, 2019. “In order to ensure social and political stability, provide confidence, and address socio-economic development issues, it is necessary to remove any uncertainty,” Tokayev stated.
Kazakhstan has invited international observers to attend the election: 350 observers from the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE/ODIHR) and 350 observers from other international organizations, including the Central European Initiative (CEI), Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA) and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). In total, 700 international observers have confirmed their attendance.
The nomination of presidential candidates ended on April 28th, and the list of 7 candidates is as follows:
Kassym-Jomart Tokayev was nominated by the ruling Nur Otan Party, a centrist party that supports a multi-vectorial foreign policy and focuses on support to disadvantaged social classes, protection of private property and the development of the middle class when it comes to internal policy. Tokayev is an experienced diplomat, who served as Minister of Foreign Affairs, Vice-Prime Minister, Prime Minister and Vice-Secretary General of the UN.
Sadi-Bek Tugel was nominated by the Uly Dala Kyrandary republican movement.
Amangeldy Taspikhov was nominated by the Federation of Trade Unions of Kazakhstan, a republican trade union association.
Daniya Yespayeva was nominated by the Ak Zhol Kazakhstan Democratic Party, which represents the business community and is the successor of the Alash movement, dating back to the Russian revolution of 1917.
Toleutai Rakhimbekov was nominated by the Auyl (Eagle) Social Democratic Party. It is a public association that advocates for traditional Kazakh values, such as the spirit of the Steppes.
Zhambyl Akhmetbekov was nominated by the Communist People’s Party of Kazakhstan.
Amirzhan Kossanov was nominated by the Ult Tagdyry national patriotic movement.
President Tokayey has reassured the international community and the markets reiterating that the international obligations of the country will be respected. He affirmed that the foreign affairs policy of the country remains intact, multi-vectorial and peaceful, with a continued focus on the development of international partners.
Ambassador Kuspan told the media that the cooperation between Kazakhstan and the European Union has been “very fruitful,” and noted that the EU is a strategic partner for the Central Asian country. The EU is the number one foreign investor in Kazakhstan, in addition to being an important trading partner. These links have been further strengthened after an Enhanced Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (EPCA) was signed in 2015, which was meant to deepen the relations between Kazakhstan and the EU. The agreement is scheduled to be “ratified very soon.”
An ever-growing focus has been given to inter-regional cooperation, namely between the EU and Central Asian nations, such as Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. In the years following the fall of the Soviet Union, each country tried to forge its own independence path but now the moment is ripe for increased regional cooperation in Central Asia. “This is a time of a renaissance in the region,” said Ms. Kuspan. “We believe cooperation in the region is key, and the partnership with the EU can help us further develop the links among nations.” An example of such inter-regional cooperation is a tripartite joint project where young Afghan women are receiving education in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.
The cooperation between Kazakhstan and the EU occurs at different levels. There is an annual dialogue at the level of the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, which has taken place 11 times so far. An additional dialogue, focused on security, has been conducted on five occasions, the 6th scheduled to take place in Brussels on May 28th. In 2007, the EU adopted a strategy for Central Asia, a new one being scheduled to be discussed in May, with the aim of it being ratified by the Council of Ministers of Foreign Affairs in June.
Ambassador Kuspan noted that despite the stagnating oil prices, the devaluation of the Kazakh currency, the tenge, in addition to the side effects of the sanctions against Russia, Kazakhstan achieved economic growth of about 4%. Kazakhstan ranks 28th in the World Bank’s Doing Business Index in 2018, and it ranks first in the area of protection of minority investments.
“We are trying to move away from a model of exporting raw materials, to one where we export added-value products. And for that we need modernization and investment in infrastructure,” she said.
First President Nazarbayev attended the One Belt One Road Forum in Beijing in April and pointed out that in the past 10 years, Kazakhstan invested 10 billion USD in transport infrastructure across the country. This included 3,000 km of railways as well as 12,000 km of highways, either new or modernized. Two important ports in the Caspian Sea (Aktau, Kourig) have been modernized and large amounts of goods are shipped to Baku, Azerbaijan, Iran and further on.
“We cooperate a lot with the European Investment Bank,” said Ms. Kuspan. “They are interested in investments linked to renewable energy and sustainability, which are priorities for Kazakhstan not only in transport but in every domain.” Kazakhstan is one of the top 10 grain exporters in the world and hopes to export its beef to the EU following the ratification of the EPCA.
When asked about specifics regarding the number of voters, Ms. Kuspan reported that the approximate number of people in voting age (18 or older) is 12 million. Voting is not mandatory in Kazakhstan. “About 200 Kazakh nationals are expected to vote in Brussels,” she said. “Some will come from Luxembourg, others from the Netherlands.”
During the election campaign, which officially started on 11 May, the state is expected to give an equal amount of subsidies to each candidate. The Election Law also foresees an equal speaking time on national television and radio. A televised presidential debate is also expected to be held for the first time ever.
The Ambassador to Belgium ended the press conference by addressing a question about climate change, stating that all candidates will “include this critical issue in their political platforms.”
This is important given the disastrous Soviet environmental heritage left in Kazakhstan, including the Semipalatinsk nuclear test site, the Polygon (a highly radioactive site used by the Soviet military, which was closed by Nazarbayev upon independence in 1989), and the drought of the Aral Lake.