Nursultan Nazarbayev is widely credited with building Kazakhstan into the regional power it is today. Thanks to its “spiritual leader” country is now well on track to achieve its aim to join the exclusive group of the 30 most developed countries in the world by 2050.It is quite an achievement for a landlocked country of which, until relatively recently, little was known – writes Colin Stevens.
But it is also easy to forget that the First President’s humble beginnings which started in rural Kazakhstan, in Ushkonyr nearby Almaty.
Nazarbayev began working early, in very dangerous and difficult industrial metallurgy work, which, as Matthew Neapole, a researcher at the respected European Institute for Asian Studies (EIAS) recalls, he then studied at the Karagandy Polytechnic Institute in 1962. It was also from this point that he joined the Communist Party, a common choice in order to advance oneself in these times.
The star of his political career continued to ascend even during the turbulent times associated with the chaotic breakdown of the USSR, as he became Kazakhstan’s first President since the declaration of sovereignty (independence) on 25 October 1990. This, says Neapole, was validated in the first elections, where he won in a landslide victory, “the first of many to come.”
Nazarbayev has also published a number of books detailing his thinking, which go over topics such as Kazakh identity, fighting against extremism, the Central Asian strategic situation, the building of Kazakhstan, the struggles and challenges they faced after independence towards growth and success. His books (among which The Heart of Eurasia, The Kazakhstan Way, The Critical Decade, Epicenter of Peace) are all devoted to a greater or lesser extent on this subject of Kazakh identity and the struggles that the state faced in the act of not just state construction, but also identity creation.
These, says Neopole, “are monumental tasks.”
He says, “After consolidating Kazakhstan’s independence and sovereignty, President Nazarbayev is also the brains behind Kazakhstan’s 2050 vision.”
This strategy goes to demonstrate the importance of having Kazakhstan advance along a planned route towards a more developed future. It identifies many challenges related to economic growth.
“It is very expansive, dealing with economic fields, infrastructure, agriculture and environment, healthcare, law enforcement improvements, equality among groups (religious, ethnic), as well as other areas,” says Neopole.
There are numerous other initiatives Nazarbayev has brought forward that, says the EIAS, have made “great impacts” on Kazakhstan and its people, and which promise to continue to exert great influence in the future.
Neopole cites several examples, including:
– He had a strong grasp of the importance of the creation of a Kazakh identity.
“This,” says Neopole, “was partly due to an understanding that without one, Kazakhstan, with her many ethnicities and religions could be a victim of unrest and instability, because of the various directions the different groups could pull in. It was also partly because he wished to create a great and unified identity for the people of Kazakhstan to rally around and to bring into the future.”
– Nazarbayev also understood that multilateralism and dialogue is an important ingredient in ensuring stable relations not simply globally, but also particularly regionally. “They are also all afflicted with a problematic dispersal of water supplies which requires a regionalized response to manage properly,” says Neopole.
– Similar to these, Nazarbayev also shepherded Kazakhstan through the admission process to various influential and notable organizations. For example, in no particular order, Kazakhstan has joined the: Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO, as a founding member), the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU, as a founding member), Council of Turkic Speaking States (CCTS), World Trade Organization (WTO), the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), as well as many others.
“Sandwiched between two major powers, Russia and China, Kazakhstan has built a multi-vector foreign policy, establishing good relations with major world and regional powers,” says Neopole.
– the First President also understood that the Central Asian states have inherited many difficult issues due to their emergence from the USSR, such as stunted economies focused on only a small number of commodities for transport to industrialized areas in Russia or abroad.
“Another issue,” notes Neopole, “was the fact that many of the borders between themselves, but also between themselves and neighbouring countries were extremely contentious. Under Nazarbayev, Kazakhstan’s borders were finalized and officially accepted.”
In the space of only roughly 20 years, the country, one of the first former Soviet republics to gain a positive investment ranking, paid off most of its debts, and other important economic benchmarks.
“For example, Kazakhstan has attractive over USD 350 billion in investment since independence. Furthermore, the World Bank has already changed Kazakhstan’s designation from a lower-middle, to an upper-middle income in less than 20 years, a remarkable achievement,” recalls Neopole, a junior researcher at the Brussels-based Institute.
He also recounts that, in a move that is less widely known but equally relevant, Kazakhstan renounced nuclear weapons. “This is important as it was perfectly within the realm of possibility that Kazakhstan could have pursued these, as they were where many of the Soviet weapons were tested and held. This began with the official decree to close the Semipalatinsk Nuclear Test Site, on August 29th 1991. Nazarbayev may have understood that the acquisition and retaining of nuclear weapons would have had a paradoxically destabilizing effect on the already shaky relationships in the region.”
He believes that being the site of so many tests “probably reinforced” the understanding in Nazarbayev’s mind of the destructive potential of these terrible weapons, and these initial moves were actually first discussed and undertaken in 1989, while Kazakhstan was still under the USSR’s umbrella.
“Kazakhstan furthermore signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) in 1996. Another important milestone was in 2009, when the UN adopted a resolution put forth by Nazarbayev himself to designate August 29 as “International Day against Nuclear Tests.” (Which is the date for the anniversary for the closure of the Semipalatinsk Test Facility).”
Neopole says, “Kazakhstan demonstrated an unmistakable concern for the welfare of its own people, and the people of the world, in joining the chorus of voices against nuclear weapons, through these initiatives.
“Finally,” he adds, “in a surprise move, he voluntarily stepped down from the presidency and relinquished many of his roles and responsibilities, and “officially” withdrew to a more ceremonial title of ‘Elbasy’ or “Leader of the Nation” while retaining significant powers behind the scenes (including in the appointment of ministers).
The former president’s policies have attracted talent and foreign investment and helped permeate a spirit of optimism for the future.The World Bank says Kazakhstan has already transitioned from lower-middle-income status to upper-middle-income in less than two decades. The combination of abundant resources, domestic peace, rising economic living, educational, and scientific-technological standards are already attracting new investment.
Latvian MEP Andris Ameriks says much of this success story should be attributed to the First President who, “without doubt” made “incredibly great progress in Kazakhstan in all fields of state, not only internally but also internationally.
Under his guidance, Kazakhstan became “an example for other countries in the region.”
On July 6 the country marks what will be a special occasion for Kazakhstan: the 80th birthday of Nursultan Nazarbayev. The Kazak people hope that the high standards he set during a long period in office will now be met by the next generation.