An intriguing commentary on the nature of Kazakhstan’s development model

16 июля 2015, 15:45

Every time I get a chance, I read pieces that purport to analyze Kazakhstan’s place in the world.

I do so to try to learn something I don’t know about the country I’ve spent so much time in.

Most of the pieces make my eyes glaze over. They either offer nothing new, they state the obvious or they’re off the mark – so much so, in some cases, that the analysis that the so-called expert is serving up is downright silly.

I’m not going to give you examples of some of the mush I’ve gagged on because I try to heed Thumper’s advice in “Bambi” that If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all. But if you read analytical pieces about Kazakhstan at all, you’ll know the soggy morsels I’m talking about.

Once in a while, the monotony of the analytical gruel is broken by a real steak dinner – something you can actually sink your teeth into. Like a recent analysis in the Russian business newspaper Vedomosti that offers insight into Kazakhstan’s evolving place in the region and the world.

The piece was written by Vedomosti’s opinion page editor, Maxim Trudolyubov.

Let me note here that Vedomosti is a joint venture of Dow Jones, the publisher of America’s Wall Street Journal; the Financial Times of Britain; and the expat-oriented, English-language Moscow Times.

It’s important to bring this up because Vedomosti’s Western ownership suggests that it would always have a decidedly pro-Western editorial stance. That’s sometimes the case, but not always. In some instances – such as the piece I’m going to describe by Trudolyubov -- it’s independent.

The main premise of Trudolyubov’s piece is that Kazakhstan has begun adopting an Asian development model – something like Singapore’s or China’s.

The 100 Steps plan that President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s says Kazakhstan needs to follow to become a developed nation are “non-Western and decidedly not post-Soviet,” Trudolyubov said. “It signals Kazakhstan’s political and cultural break with the post-Soviet Russian sphere.”

The 100 Steps are the road map for achieving five key national goals that President Nazarbayev outlined a couple of months back. The goals are building a professional government, introducing the rule of law, supporting industrialization and economic growth, ensuring Kazakhstan’s special identity and unity, and achieving government accountability.

If Trudolyubov is right about Kazakhstan beginning to pursue an Asian model of development, why is it doing now rather than earlier?

The catalyst was the regional geopolitical situation, Trudolyubov suggests. Russia’s annexation of Crimea “caused deep anxiety in Kazakhstan.”

That’s because about a quarter of Kazakhstan’s population – mostly in the north – is ethnic Russian, and Russian nationalists have contended since the break-up of the Soviet Union that what is today northern Kazakhstan is actually traditional Russian territory.

Alexey Malashenko, chair of the Carnegie Moscow Center’s Religion, Society and Security program, seemed to support Trydolybov’s assessment when he said recently: “The Eurasian connection is not the only political direction for the Kazakhstani elites. It’s possible that it soon won’t be the main one. While the Russian project for Eurasia (the Eurasian Economic Union) is rooted in the past, the Chinese Silk Road economic-belt project promises a path to the future.”

Trudolyubov pointed out that Chinese President Xi Jinping chose Astana as the place to announce his Silk Road initiative in 2013.

Since then, Kazakhstan and China have signed more than $37 billion in trade deals, he said.

The 100 Steps plan includes two new trade corridors between China and Western Europe, and “one of them will bypass Russia,” Trudolybov said.

He didn’t mention this, but Kazakhstan has also built oil and gas pipelines to China, rather than routing its energy through Russia, as in the past.

In addition to discussing what Trudolybov calls Kazakhstan’s drift eastward, his piece praises President Nazarbayev’s vision.

A lot of the praise comes from the mouth of a Russian mover and shaker who, while a confidante of President Vladimir Putin, has long wanted to see meaningful economic and political reform in Russia.

That man is German Gref, who was Russia’s economics minister between 2000 and 2007 and is now CEO of Sberbank.

He said at the Astana Economic Forum in May of this year that the 100 Points plan was one of the best strategic documents he’d seen. “It’s comprehensive and logical,” he said. “Kazakhstan will be a different country if they manage only 50 of the 100 steps laid out in the plan.”

President Nazarbayev’s latest road map for Kazakhstan’s development is the kind of plan that Kremlin insiders who are Putin loyalists but who also want to see reform “have been talking about for years,” Trudolybov said. “The difference is that Kazakhstan is actually implementing it.”

Lending credibility to Kazakhstan’s reform efforts are the fact that it has achieved results.

In judicial reform, for example, the country recently introduced a European-style bailiff system to insure that when someone wins a judgment in a civil case, he or she actually is able to get the money the court awarded.

Until this reform, a civil-suit winner often couldn’t collect: The party owing the judgement simply ignored the court’s order, refusing to pay. The new system includes a series of measures to force the scofflaws to cough up.

By contrast, Dmitry Medvedev’s attempt to reform the Russian police and court system when he was the president between 2008 and 2012 was a bust. He finally threw up his hands in resignation, admitting publicly that the effort had failed.

Kazakhstan officials will be the first to tell you that a lot of work needs to be done before there’s a complete refurbishment of the police and courts. Underscoring the administration’s determination to achieve additional reform is the fact that a number of the 100 Points deal with improving the judicial system. The difference between what’s happening in Russia and Kazakhstan on police and court reform is that Kazakhstan is actually making progress on it.

While arguing that Kazakhstan has decided on an Asian development model to find its place in the world, Trudolybov contends that Russia is still searching for a model.

Russian leaders “are disappointed in democracy and look down upon what they see as the decay of Western civilization,” he said.

“Russia now finds itself caught being two modernities (the Western and Eastern models),” he continued. “The Kremlin has abandoned Western approaches to modernization, but has not yet found a viable alternative.”

He concludes that “it’s hard to imagine that Putin will subscribe to any of the principles that his reform-minded viziers are trying to sell him. Service-oriented, transparent states modeled on Singapore are as foreign to him as the human-rights-worshipping societies of the West.”

The Singapore model is certainly not foreign to President Nazarbayev.

He has long admired what independent Singapore’s founding father, the late Lee Kwan Yew, has achieved: A society that arguably works for everyone.

In fact, President Nazarbayev and Lee were friends, and Kazakhstan’s leader has borrowed visionary ideas from Singapore, including the heralded Bolshak scholarship program that sends bright young Kazakhs to universities overseas.

The circumstantial evidence indicates that Trudolybov is on to something when he says that Kazakhstan, in the face of the current regional geopolitical situation, has begun moving toward an Asian development model.

I, for one, certainly wouldn’t argue with that premise.





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