Kazakhstan marks 30 years of independence by cementing partnership with Europe
As Central Asia’s largest economy prepares to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of its independence next week, Kazakhstan has reflected on the challenges and successes of its first thirty years, from nuclear disarmament and the closure of the Semipalatinsk test site to the transition from a centrally planned economy to a market economy drawing 70% of Central Asia’s total inbound investment. Nur-Sultan has also made it clear that an ever-deeper partnership with European allies will be essential to achieving the ambitious goals which Kazakhstan has fixed for the upcoming decades, including its goals of breaking into the ranks of the world’s top 30 developed economies by 2050 and achieving carbon neutrality by 2060.
“Partnership with the European Union”, Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev argued during his recent visit to Brussels to meet with high-level European politicians, “will anchor Kazakhstan’s future progress”. Indeed, this sense of westward-looking collaboration was particularly evident during the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) President Rik Daems’ three-day official visit to Kazakhstan in mid-November.
Taking the pulse of ongoing political reforms in Kazakhstan
During Daems’ visit to Kazakhstan, the PACE President met with members of civil society at organisations such as the Civil Initiatives Support Center, as well as any number of Kazakh politicians including President Tokayev. While a wide range of themes were addressed over the three days of meetings, Kazakhstan’s ongoing political reforms and its efforts to bolster human rights and the rule of law in the country formed a central pillar of the discussions.
Tokayev updated Daems on the latest democratic reforms implemented in Kazakhstan, and the PACE President particularly commended Nur-Sultan for its definitive abolition of the death penalty, which took place in January to concretize a moratorium in place since 2003, as well as Kazakhstan’s full ratification of the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Daems also underscored Kazakhstan’s efforts to increase the participation of women and young people in political life, noting that, composed 30% of women, the Kazakh parliament is more representative than that of many PACE member states.
Future avenues of cooperation
The next stages of Kazakhstan’s democratic reforms were also a major topic of conversation during Daems’ three-day visit, with particular attention paid to how Nur-Sultan and the parliamentary assembly can collaborate on strengthening human rights and the rule of law. Kazakhstan has had a co-operation agreement with PACE since 2004, but both sides have advocated for closer coordination in recent years. A 2017 PACE report, compiled after the parliamentary assembly undertook a year and a half of analysis of Kazakhstan’s political situation, underscored that “Kazakhstan is a country with great interest in, and important potential for, developing further cooperation with the Council of Europe, especially bearing in mind the ambitious projects of political reform and the possible contribution to this process which [PACE] can make”.
The potential avenues for enhanced cooperation have been significantly multiplied by Kazakhstan’s official abolition of capital punishment, which analysts have warned was a red line blocking Kazakhstan’s way to eventual full membership in the Council of Europe. “The relationship between Kazakhstan and the Council of Europe”, a 2017 analysis argued, “has a lot of under-utilized potential”. With the death penalty definitively abolished in Kazakhstan, the path to unlocking this potential through increased cooperation between PACE and Nur-Sultan is clear—during his recent visit to the country, Rik Daems urged Kazakhstan to work towards establishing a common legal space between Europe and Kazakhstan and to bring Kazakh legislation in line with European standards.
This would, in particular, see Kazakhstan joining a number of the Council of Europe conventions which are open to non-member states. Several clear areas for closer coordination have already taken shape, including the protection of women, children and human trafficking victims. Kazakh President Tokayev had already identified these as key priorities in a June human rights decree, and Daems urged Nur-Sultan to take the next step by joining key CoE treaties such as the Lanzarote Convention on the Protection of Children Against Sexual Exploitation or the Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings. The PACE President also encouraged Kazakhstan to accelerate its plans to accede to the Istanbul Convention on preventing violence against women.
Ramifications for the broader Central Asian region
Closer cooperation between Kazakhstan and the Council of Europe would not only help accelerate the reforms which Tokayev’s government has sketched out, but could pave the way for Central Asia’s deeper integration into the European institutional framework. As PACE has previously noted, Kazakhstan is “one of the pillars of stability in the Euro-Asian region”; Central Asia’s largest economy, Kazakhstan has moved faster than most of its peers in terms of modernising its economy and society.
As such, Kazakhstan’s increasing incorporation into key European institutions could provide a blueprint on how to forge closer ties with the broader Central Asian bloc. This is particularly vital given that, as Central Asia becomes an increasingly important region amidst instability in Afghanistan, complex relations with Beijing and Moscow, and the need to accelerate decarbonization, relations between Europe and Central Asia will come under an international spotlight.