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Kazakhstan: mirage or reality of a new Eldorado?

Earth Thought Notebooks
International relationships
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Its "Strategy 2050" aims to propel Kazakhstan among the 30 most developed countries in the world by 2050. If the first signs are encouraging, the country is nonetheless facing two major challenges: economic, following the difficulties linked to the slowdown of the Russian economy and the drop in the price of oil; institutional, with the question of the future succession of President Nursultan Nazarbaev, who is now 76 years old.

Captain Patrick Marnier said Between the mirage of a grandiloquent vision and the reality of assets and unwavering will, what are the Achilles' heel and the pillars of this Eldorado?

Next June, EXPO 2017 will start in Astana, the ultra-modern capital out of the steppes. Nursultan Nazarbaev (NN), "First President, Guide of the Nation", is counting heavily on this event to further enhance his country's economic and tourist potential on the world stage.

His "Strategy 2050" aims to propel Kazakhstan among the 30 most developed countries in the world. While the first signs are encouraging, the country is nonetheless facing two major challenges: economic, following the difficulties linked to the slowdown of the Russian economy and the fall in oil prices; and institutional, with the question of the future succession of President NN, now 76 years old.

So, between the mirage of a grandiloquent vision and the reality of assets and unwavering determination, what are the Achilles' heel and the pillars of this Eldorado?

Should the geographical position between two giants and the original proximity to Russia be considered as assets or burdens? Will Kazakhstan be able to play with its current predominance of its oil and gas revenues? With its rich past and long-term vision, how does the country intend to achieve its goals despite a fluctuating geostrategic context?

Admittedly, the stated ambitions regularly come up against limits imposed by geographical and historical constraints. Nevertheless, we can see that Kazakhstan can back its development projects with almost inexhaustible natural resources and, above all, its power demonstrates a desire for emancipation as well as an innovative force, in order to at best establish the "bridge between the West and the East", or at least to position itself at its heart.

Strong ambitions come up against significant geographical and historical constraints

Straddling northern Central Asia and Eastern Europe, Kazakhstan is a country of steppes and nomads. It was part of the Russian empire, then of the USSR, before gaining independence in 1991. Ambitious, Astana seems today torn between the respect of international obligations and the reinforcement of an arsenal of measures considered necessary for its socio-political stability.

  • Internally, in spite of the progress made, there are still some grey areas

- NN pursued a policy of social modernization and maintained inter-ethnic understanding between Russians and Kazakhs,[1] while gradually "Kazakhizing" the state apparatus. In a region of ethnic tensions, it puts forward its model of coexistence and social harmony, the stability of which is nevertheless linked to the socio-economic context.

- Here and there, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International still denounce the lack of respect for trade union and workers' rights, as well as the lack of religious freedom. To these accusations, the authorities oppose the principles of defence of industrial sectors of strategic interest (mining, oil, etc.), as well as the threat of extremism and global terrorism.

- Despite the progress made in recent years,[2] the economy is still marked by a strong public sector, corruption and administrative inefficiency. But the government claims to be fighting against these scourges.

  • Externally, regional alliances and a multitude of agreements


- As a member of the CIS, between Asia and Europe, Kazakhstan is developing a multi-vector policy. It is a member of the CSTO and 24% of ethnic Russians live in the north of the country.

- Analysis of the geographical structure of the trade balance highlights the strategic nature of trade relations with both the EU (as a customer) and Russia (as a supplier). While Russia accounts for more than a third of Kazakh imports, the EU provides Kazakhstan with the bulk of its trade income, so that decoupling appears difficult.

- Together with Russia and Belarus, it makes up the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), an organisation of which NN claims authorship and whose greater integration it continues to advocate. At the heart of Eurasia, Kazakhstan intends to take advantage of its central location between Europe, Russia and China to develop its foreign trade and become a regional transit platform. If, since 2011, regional integration[3] has led to a 40% jump in foreign trade, since 2014 the figures have been falling again.

  • A future depending on the settlement of the "succession" issue

- Ruling resolutely over the largest and richest country in Central Asia since the fall of the USSR, NN is the doyen of the region's heads of state. The question of his succession is a major issue in public opinion, the media and international diplomacy. Despite speculation, uncertainty remains. Every new resignation or appointment in the government is under intense scrutiny. As NN has said, he "will not hand over power to his children", and remains reserved on the assumption of a sixth term.

- NN is the emblematic figure of Kazakhstan. Astana seems to remain attached to an authoritarian system, to which it owes the success of its transition. In the absence of counter-powers, the fragility of the model is questionable. In 2011, in Janaozen, attacks and riots of social origin had called this stability into question. In 2016, it was Aktobe (Western Kazakhstan) that was hit in turn. Added to the emergence of a certain political alternative, these facts weigh like a sword of Damocles on the country and could endanger the power in case of a poorly anticipated transition.

If, as we have just seen, the model of Kazakhstan remains imbued with its post-Soviet origins, it certainly supports its regional stability, but refuses isolation and exclusivity in favour of openness.

Development based on natural resources and cutting-edge industry

If its soils shelter almost all the elements of Mendeleïev's painting [4], it is still the oil rent that feeds the country. In recent years, it has attracted the covetousness of Western and Asian states. Called upon to become one of the world players in the energy market, Kazakhstan refuses to depend on a single source of income, however, and the government wants to diversify both its economy and its commercial partners.

  • Admittedly, a strong rent linked to coveted and almost


- Kazakhstan has developed through supplies from Russia, but since its independence, it has become more liberalized and more attractive to investors. Holding nearly 75% of the Caspian Sea's hydrocarbon reserves (3% of the world's reserves, including 1.7% of gas) with the Kashagan field [5], the country could become the world's 7th largest oil producer by 2020.

- If the growth of its economy is based on the oil-gas rent (60% of exports, 40% of budget revenues), it is also a ferrous mining Eldorado and the world's leading producer of uranium.

- Thanks to these considerable assets, Kazakhstan became the first ex-Soviet republic in 2000 to pay off all its debt to the IMF seven years before the due date.

  • ...but a traditional agricultural potential to be revitalized...

Ninth largest country in the world[6], rich in immense pastures and the second largest arable land in the world, Kazakhstan must nevertheless invest in its transport and research infrastructures and in food security in order to sustain its competitiveness. Already in 2013, the OECD advised a new approach.

- Central Asia's breadbasket, and despite a staggering waste, Kazakhstan is the world's leading exporter. Yet the lack of coordination and modernization, characteristic of post-communist agriculture, hinders the emergence of an effective network. The activity is managed by state agencies, which hinder the development of a competitive market and which should be urgently reformed. Finally, between 1990 and 2013, the share of wheat production in the country's activity fell from 34% to 5%, in the face of the predominance of interest in oil.

- In spite of its strong potential, livestock and milk production suffer from the same ills. There is a lack of refrigerated storage and transport facilities.

- The challenge is to move Kazakhstan from subsistence farming to sustainable, profitable and environmentally friendly agriculture. The EEU offers opportunities. In the north, Siberia, and more broadly Russia, is an outlet for wheat and livestock. The local market also needs to be developed, and the crisis in Ukraine could also open up new opportunities for the agricultural sector.

  • ...and above all the intelligence of a multi-vectorial policy

- Despite a seven-fold increase in GDP over the last 25 years, Kazakhstan is seeking to avoid "all oil" and is diversifying its industrial and technological base by targeting high-tech sectors.

- Economic diplomacy is invariably among its foreign policy priorities. The country wants to attract investment and improve the business climate, but progress remains to be made. A Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade may soon be created.

- The multiplication of "joint ventures", particularly in the defence industry, allows access to relative autonomy, independence and sovereignty in the sectors concerned, but also aims, in the long run, at export capacity.

- In the space sector, Kazakhstan is also a growing player. In addition to the Baikonur launch site, it has long been working with the leaders to develop the research and production sectors in order to gain expertise and autonomy. Organizer of the annual international seminar of the "Space Days", Astana is developing its own space assembly line, as well as a specialized company [7]. [7] The creation of a Ministry of Defence and Aerospace Industry in October 2016 is also noteworthy, reflecting the interest shown in this sector.

Sitting on a mining treasury, Kazakhstan refuses to follow the Venezuelan example in favour of a diversification and anticipation more similar to that of the United Arab Emirates. The 2050 vision favours the modernisation of wasteland potential, access to advanced technologies and the path of diplomacy.

Integration into the concert of great nations

Kazakhstan wants to become a bridge between Asia and Europe and positions itself as the Eurasian state par excellence. Seeking recognition, it actively participates in the summits of international organizations and pursues a "multipolar" foreign policy. It seems, however, torn between its desire to belong to "clubs" in developed countries and the legal system deemed essential to its political and social stability.

  • Domestic guarantees of external acceptance

- It is generally accepted that before entering the circle of great nations, each candidate must first demonstrate internal stability. A state with a presidential regime considered to be authoritarian, Kazakhstan re-elected its President for the fifth time in 2015 with 95.55% of the votes. While a few NGOs recently denounced police brutality and the lack of press freedom, it has now been politically demonstrated that the pressure for better respect for human rights, however delicate it may be, is bearing fruit. Transparency is being promoted; equal rights and greater visibility of women in society are being promoted.

- The road to the rule of law and the market economy is long and fraught with difficulties, but Kazakhstan has made progress.The road to the rule of law and the market economy is long and difficult, but Kazakhstan has made a determined effort, just as it is fighting corruption, which not only undermines authority, but also the economy of the State. Despite the stigma of the past, progress is noticeable but needs to be continued.

  • Breaking out of confinement and isolation

- NN has understood that wealth is a necessary, but not sufficient, key to its influence, and also wants to be a "generator of regional stability". As a multiple strategic partner, Astana has recently been an intermediary between Russia and Turkey, as well as in the talks for a way out of the crisis in Ukraine and Syria.

- It held the chairmanship of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in 2010, and that of the Council of Ministers of the Islamic Cooperation Organization (OIC) the following year. Kazakhstan was the first CIS country to hold the chairmanship of the OSCE and to host the OSCE Summit in 2010.

- Kazakhstan has been a member of the UN and UNESO and NATO's Partnership for Peace (PfP) for more than 20 years. As a new non-permanent member of the UNSC, it wants to participate in a peacekeeping operation (PKO), if possible under the aegis of the United Nations, alongside a framework or parent nation.

- President NN is also a promoter of disarmament and nuclear non-proliferation, an area in which he is as active as he is proselytising[8], in particular through the organisation of an annual world conference, which could earn him a place on the list of candidates for the Nobel Peace Prize.

- EU-Kaz relations have been based on a Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA) since 1999. Since 2015, both sides have decided to move towards a "strengthened" agreement. Between gaining institutional experience and taking on responsibilities on the international stage, Kazakhstan is inspired by standards.

- Finally, in order to promote integration, it is necessary to fight against isolation. It is in this respect that the extension of the trans-Caspian road to China and the development of the Caspian railway to the port of Bandar-Abbas [9] are being developed.

  • The 100 Steps of the "Strategy 2050

- In power for a quarter of a century, NN has developed a long-term vision. His country is moving resolutely towards 2050, based on two vectors: firstly, Nurly Zhol[10], a plan described in a programme of 100 concrete steps, at the end of which NN wants his country to be among the top 30 in the world, and secondly, the "Silk Road".

- Kazakhstan is betting on EXPO - 2017 as a kind of showcase for its success. The theme is Energy of the Future - Action for Global Sustainability, and it is the first state of the former USSR to host it. In the field of renewable energies, the country has called on French specialists to develop its wind and photovoltaic production. If the field is still suffering from interest and orders, this is partly due to Chinese competition as well as the dizzying drop in the price of a barrel of oil.

- Seeking to be a bridge between the West and the East, Kazakhstan is constantly developing its infrastructures and networks in order to establish itself as the most obvious alternative logistics platform. Its rail network, the longest in the world[11], divides by three the transport time by sea.

- To finally dust off a burdensome image often associated with post-Sovietism, the wild steppe and countries in "-stan", NN has, since 1994, sought to distinguish itself from a region marked by an archaic label. Although it did not finally resolve to change the name of the country, since 1996 it has, on the other hand, developed a new elite thanks to the training abroad of its best students[12]. 12] Driven by strong patriotism and an enterprising spirit, the youth, the future of the nation, often return to their country after completing their studies.

Credibilized by a quarter of a century of longevity at the top of the young state, NN has demonstrated a capacity for anticipation that is reflected in its "Vision 2050". To achieve its domestic policy, it uses a certain firmness, inherent to the nations of the former USSR, contrasting with its offensive and seductive foreign policy.

However ambitious his plans for the future may be, President Nazarbaev seems determined to give himself all the means to carry out his policy. If today the economic miracle is running out of steam, the development of the country and its economy continues. Economically favoured by a gigantic oil and gas windfall, the country has understood that it must nevertheless act on diversification, both by developing cutting-edge sectors and by modernising and rationalising neglected potential. It also wants to make the most of its interesting geostrategic position to strengthen regional stability, as well as to establish its status as a nation that matters.

NN is confident about the future of his country: his nation is peaceful, does not encroach on any country and is the enemy of no one. As regional specialist Catherine Poujol writes, to illustrate how the role of Kazakh youth could be decisive, the nation is the product of nomadic tribes, who settle wherever they go and move if necessary. They live in extreme conditions, are resilient and adapt to crises. It is therefore not absurd to believe in the young nation's ability to play with economic difficulties, to hold firm on the essentials despite the winds and tides.

At the end of the École militaire interarmes (40th promotion), Captain Patrick MARNIER chose the armoured cavalry. Winner of the technical diploma competition (DT - LRI) in 2014 and after two years of studies in the Russian department of the National Institute of Oriental Languages and Civilizations (INALCO), he is currently serving in the PoInternational Military Relations (PRIM) of the EMA, after a six-month reinforcement with the Defence Attaché at the French Embassy in Astana / Kazakhstan.

1] Here, Russians and Kazakhs understand each other as the two majority ethnic groups constituting the so-called Kazakh population.

2] From 74th to 50th place in the World Bank ranking, application to the WTO and the OECD.

3] EEU, Sino-Kazakhstanian cooperation, the creation of a Europe-China road corridor, ...

4] Periodic Table of the Elements which presents all chemical elements ordered by their increasing atomic number and organized according to their electronic configuration, which underlies their chemical properties. Created by Mendeleev in 1869, it has undergone numerous adjustments since then.

5] Considered to be the largest oil field in the last 30 years and the world's largest contemporary industrial project, with a budget of $150 billion, its reserves are estimated at 20 billion barrels. It should eventually produce 1.5 million barrels/day.

6] Almost five times the surface area of France.

7 ] GALAM, in close partnership with Airbus Defence & Space.

8] As early as 1991, it ordered the Semipalatinsk national nuclear test centre to cease its activities.

9 ] Port of southern Iran on the Persian Gulf - strategic position on the Strait of Hormuz.

10] "The Illuminated Road" - a plan ($9 billion) for 100 points of development of the country, its infrastructure and institutions.

11] For this, see the question of opening up the country in the previous paragraph.

12 ] "Bolachak" presidential scholarship.

Title : Kazakhstan: mirage or reality of a new Eldorado?
Author (s) : le Capitaine Patrick MARNIER