BY MICHELLE WITTE
President of Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbayev, who was announced the winner of the country’s presidential election early morning on April 27, expressed his “grand satisfaction” at the country’s record-breaking voter turnout and said it was important to him to get a fresh mandate from the people in order to embark on the major infrastructure programmes and “colossal” reforms he campaigned on.
The election atmosphere was one of celebration, he commented during a press conference at the Akorda presidential residence on April 27, adding that his victory is “proof of the policy I have conducted.” He said he had no new policy directions to announce. “The most dangerous thing to do is to begin some sort of sudden new turn,” he said in response to questions. “In my opinion, yesterday’s election proved that people support the priorities in domestic and foreign policies. Therefore, we do not need to change them.”
The President continued his post-election remarks by reiterating one of the themes of his campaign: that Kazakhstan needs to enact five key institutional reforms to enter a new stage of national development. Among these reforms are the creation of a professional state apparatus, and Nazarbayev explicitly condemned kinship, as well as any qualities other than professional merit, as a means of rising through state ranks. He did, however, warn that some of these reforms, which include measures to strengthen the rule of law, establish a modern and transparent government, support the middle class and diversify the economy, would be “painful and colossal” and that it was necessary to get a new mandate for them.
He announced that one of the first acts that he plans to sign in his new term would be the one establishing the national modernisation commission whose remit will include concretising the five institutional reform areas he outlined in March.
The President also reiterated that there would be no devaluation of the tenge following the election, saying the prerequisites for that weren’t present and that the government was working on a targeted exchange rate with the International Monetary Fund and looking at a five-year timeframe. “The people of Kazakhstan know me. If something is up, I will be the first to say it,” he said.
Questions from the 100 or so assembled media representatives addressed economic and cultural development, the viability of the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), foreign or domestic policy changes and more specific concerns.
Regarding the viability of the EAEU, the grand economic union of Russia, Kazakhstan, Belarus, Armenia and, in a few days, Kyrgyzstan, that launched just as falling oil prices and economic sanctions on the union’s biggest economy, Russia, brought economic uncertainty to the region, Nazarbayev said, “The economic crisis is a global crisis, not a Kazakh crisis.”
“We knew we would face challenges,” he commented. Falling commodity trade turnover, as Kazakhstan and Russia have seen recently, is to be expected under these conditions and does not speak to the viability of the union, he said. A more accurate indicator of the value of the union, he said, is the interest of more than 40 countries, including Vietnam, Turkey and countries of Eastern Europe, in establishing free-trade zones with the EAEU. Neither this crisis, nor sanctions, nor the war in Ukraine are perpetual conditions, he added. One day, there will be peace again there, he said, and with it, prosperity.
The President also said that he would be in Moscow to watch the May 9 Victory Day parades and expected to meet jointly and bilaterally with EAEU leaders to discuss trade the day before.
Nazarbayev also explicitly linked his Nurly Zhol economic stimulus package, which rests heavily on infrastructure development, with China’s New Silk Road Economic Belt initiative. The two are “connected in a very interesting way,” he said, noting that the Western Europe-Western China highway would be completed this year and would add to Kazakhstan’s growing transit sector, which includes a railway that can transport goods from China to Germany and the newly opened railway through Turkmenistan to Iran, which Nazarbayev also called important. “Shipping from China to Europe grows week to week,” he said.
The President announced that he expected a visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping early next month, during which they would consult on Chinese investment projects here, particularly projects relating to Kazakhstan’s massive infrastructure development programme, Nurly Zhol.
On foreign policy, Nazarbayev said, “The priority is our neighbours, “and China and Russia, as the biggest neighbours, will be Kazakhstan’s focus. However, the country’s multi-vector foreign policy will not change, and relations with the European Union, Kazakhstan’s largest trading partner with $56 billion in annual trade, the U.S. and South Korea, the other country he mentioned by name, are good and expected to remain so.
The P resident once again confirmed that, despite going into “economy mode” in the country, there would be no economy in social spending. He pointed out last year’s streamlining of the government, in which the number of ministries and agencies were slashed, quipping that “that’s what bureaucrats are good at – reproducing themselves,” and said there would be no such streamlining of social payments or programmes.
The country will also continue to invest in its agricultural sector, he said, noting Kazakhstan subsidises its agriculture far less than the U.S. and EU do and that the country has great agricultural potential. According to Nazarbayev, agricultural subsidies were the last sticking point in Kazakhstan’s negotiations on the World Trade Organisation (WTO) accession, which he was hopeful the country would achieve this year. He also said he was in personal control of the country’s spectrum of development programmes and would ensure only beneficial ones survive.
Asked about the long-delayed Kashagan oil project, Nazarbayev admitted it was, in a sense, “a pain for us.” But he said he hoped the project’s problematic pipes would be replaced soon and that oil would be flowing by the end of this year or next year. A recent Royal Dutch Shell report estimated production restarting in 2017. The Kashagan oil project is about 10 years behind its initial timeline. Nazarbayev also added that he believed the delay in the start of oil production wasn’t all bad as this basically meant more oil remained in the ground for future generations to use.
Kazakhstan must develop in all directions, not only economically, Nazarbayev pointed out in response to questions, and in the country’s quest to join the 30 most developed countries of the world, must equal them in culture as well. “[We] need new, modern works of art that show Kazakh values and traditions.” He also said that the country’s values of “tolerance and respect for each other,” should be retained as Kazakhstan works to develop new values.
“Yesterday, I saw the results of all of the paths that we have walked,” the President said when asked about his achievements. He repeated that he was “elated” at the result and at the voter turnout. “People can get tired of you,” he said, but clearly this has not yet happened in Kazakhstan in relation to him.
During his tenure as leader of the country, Nazarbayev said, he helped “drag Kazakhstan out of the abyss of the early 1990s,” when the country “was like a broken plate, cut off from everything.” But from a starting point of $400 per capita gross domestic product in the early 1990s, the country has reached $13,000 today, and in the process built Astana, built universities, schools and infrastructure. It was not easy, he said. “Complicated times require complicated missions,” he noted, but the country’s social development and unity are achievements he is especially proud of.
Returning to the election itself, the President said he was sure there would be criticism of the election. “It would have been undemocratic if I were to intervene and try to influence the results of 97 percent [that voted for me] and the 95 percent [turnout] that are surreal to Western eyes. I could not,” he said.