Reforms are in season in Kazakhstan. How to redesign a country and keep the growth momentum


In an effort to bring coherency between past reforms, started under president Nursultan Nazarbayev, and the reforms and modernization needed for a post-Covid world, president Kassym-Jomart Tokayev began a comprehensive overhaul of the country’s governance structures with a set of reforms targeting the politics, society, economy, administration, and the sustainability of the country. 

Interview with RUSTEMOV Nurbakh, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Republic of Kazakhstan in Romania.

Mr. Ambassador, over the past few months, through a series of interviews and articles, you made known to the Romanian and international public a number of evolutions in your country. The image you painted was very positive, compared with the political and economic context of the world, particularly in a Covid context. What’s the plan and where do all these changes stop?

Thank you for your kind question. The change of national leadership in Kazakhstan in March 2019 marked the end of the first crucial political chapter – 28 years long – of the history of the independent Republic.  It was therefore an important opportunity for a consolidation of those achievements, reevaluation of the relationship between the state and society and a reset of the country’s political system, leading to implementation of those political, social, and economic transformations necessary to face a new generation of modern challenges. 

At the same time, the initial two years of the presidency of Kassym-Jomart Tokayev were marked by serious tests of strength for him personally, for the government, and for the country itself. The most far-reaching of these tests is the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, with enormous negative health, economic, and social consequences in almost all areas. In fact, it is all part of a vast plan of reforms our country’s leadership is pursuing with strong determination; there is not time to waste. This year Kazakhstan mark the 30th anniversary of its Independence, therefore President K.Tokayev defined the formation of a just society and an effective state as the primary goal of the fourth decade of independence. We want to grow and modernise as fast as possible, and also respect the past and our heritage. In fact, continuity, along with equality of rights and social progress, are the guiding principles of all these reforms. It is the distinct vision of president Tokayev. 

Why all these changes, why now?

During 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic made necessary certain adjustments to the content and list of proposed political and administrative reforms. At the same time, the reform process itself endured. The pandemic has shown that it is necessary to work on the further development of the system of state power and management, its interaction with society and institutions. This provided an additional incentive for defining and implementing new reforms.  We saw the crisis of leadership that became evident in some parts of the world, so we created the Presidential Youth Personnel Reserve, to ensure a pipeline of future public leaders of the country. We saw the crisis of trust in some parts of the world, so we created Kazakhstan’s National Council of Public Trust. We cannot go on with the reforms and modernisation of our country without being in touch and developing our people, so we are expanding our investments in general school education, with new training for teachers, with mobility grants for our researchers to travel around the world and work at the best institutes, with the digitalization of content and the creation of a national digital platform for education, and so on. In fact, we even established a Ministry of Digital Development and Innovation, so that our efforts, both regarding the population, but also the economic development, are fully supported. 

And why are these so important? Hearing you speak about these, I wish more countries around the world put so much emphasis on the rise of their society. 

In fact, I first want to start answering by telling you that last year, the President approved the Concept for the Development of Civil Society in Kazakhstan until 2025 last year. Its aim is to strengthen the system of partnership between the state, business, and civil society, as well as to facilitate further political transformation and modernisation in Kazakhstan. So yes, the rise of society is important to us. But not only that. Our latest economic reforms are a complete paradigm change – we are now placing private enterprise and SMEs at the forefront of our growth and development. We have taken incredibly generous measures, from tax exemptions for several years to multiplying the volume and types of loans SMEs can take, so that we see a vibrant entrepreneur class emerging. We even established an agency meant to enforce fair and free market competition. 

But what is the final goal? Is there a coherent vision for all these investments?

Yes, we now have very clear objectives and development directions. We are to present a first industrial policy of the country. This will emphasise the development of a sovereign and strong pharma capacity within our own country by 2025; it will bring in dimensions of sustainable development; it will set the premises for the completion of a national agro-industrial complex by 2026, and the general increase of the technological sophistication of our economy.

But most importantly, we are supporting these developments with two more sets of measures, comprehensive by themselves:

First, we are creating new support measures for investors and we are liberalising the regime of foreign workers coming to Kazakhstan. We are creating the Agency for the Regulation and Development of the Financial Market, to optimise these developments. 

Second, we are making things simpler: we are consolidating taxes, cutting their number down, and digitalising them. And we are also starting a de-bureaucratisation campaign, to reduce the administrative load on all economic actors.

How do you think the population will react to all these changes?

We believe things will go down well. We are on a mission to being closer and more in touch with the people. The Supreme Council for Reforms and the Agency for Strategic Planning and Reforms, for the consultations and decision making, and for the implementation aspects, respectively, are the most recent additions to our administrative capacity, which will have an important role in understanding the needs of the people, consulting them, and explaining what we are doing. 

Further to these, we now have a minimal quota reserved for youth and women in parliament, we are on an ongoing campaign to decentralised and empower the local level of administration and politics, and we even consecrated by law the Parliamentary Opposition, which now has, again, by law, allocated a share of the number of seat and committees, so that there is a better sharing of power and checks and balances. 

The recent policy article of President Tokayev, “Täuelsizdik bärinen qymbat” (Nothing is More Precious than Independence), published on 5 January 2021, reveals not only a commitment to all of his earlier decisions and plans but also a willingness to address and improve key areas of the life of Kazakh society and the state through additional packages of relevant reforms. Importantly, the President repeatedly emphasizes that the government should always feel its responsibility to the people. His intention to introduce district mayoral elections to follow the recent first elections of rural mayors is illustrative in this regard.

Finally, I would like to ask you also about how you see the post-Covid world, will there be shifts in international flows, how will they be affecting Kazakhstan, the country in the middle of Asia; and since you mentioned the sustainability element, are you projecting any significant impacts for your country?

Allow me to start with the last one: as you know, Kazakhstan has a diversity of weather patterns – that are unevenly distributed. This is one of the reasons for which we are looking to move towards more sophisticated industrial activities, as we are mindful that we need to have fewer people dependent on primary agricultural activities and make better use of the resources we have. We are looking to halve our carbon footprint by 2050, while at the same time increasing our industrial output. 

With regards to the international flow, Kazakhstan will continue to open up and will seek to be available for many formats of bilateral and multilateral cooperation. We continue being active in relation to Romania and the  EU, and with our recent reforms, so that further opening up of our markets, increased fair competition, increased transparency and bureaucratic efficiency should make Kazakhstan a very favourable place to invest. 


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