With big changes, Kaza­khstan eyes new path in Cen­tral Asia

The Washington Times Daily - - WORLD - L. Todd Wood is a for­mer spe­cial op­er­a­tions he­li­copter pilot and Wall Street debt trader, and has con­trib­uted to Fox Busi­ness, The Moscow Times, Na­tional Re­view, the New York Post and many other pub­li­ca­tions. He can be reached through his web­site, LTod­dWo

Is­tarted writ­ing this col­umn to help ed­u­cate Amer­i­cans on the for­mer Soviet Union and its suc­ces­sor states. There is a dearth of un­der­stand­ing of these parts of the world in the West, a lack of knowl­edge about emerg­ing trends that at times may cause the U.S. to miss im­por­tant op­por­tu­ni­ties.

Cen­tral Asia is rapidly chang­ing and is mov­ing de­ci­sively away from its tragic past. Kaza­khstan is lead­ing that change.

As the As­tana EXPO 2017 opened in the heart of Cen­tral Asia, ded­i­cated to en­ergy in­no­va­tion with its fu­tur­is­tic ar­chi­tec­ture, any­one who con­sid­ers them­selves ed­u­cated about the world should pay at­ten­tion to what is hap­pen­ing in this en­ergy-rich state.

Kaza­khstan has had one leader since the fall of the Soviet Union. Pres­i­dent Nur­sul­tan Nazarbayev, the 76-year-old one­time head of the Kazakh Com­mu­nist Party, seems to be think­ing of suc­ces­sion and how the coun­try will fare in fu­ture decades, in­ter­nally and on the world stage. This may be the im­pe­tus be­hind a ma­jor over­haul of the con­sti­tu­tion that he over­saw ear­lier this year.

The changes signed into law on March 10 at­tempt to shift the bal­ance of power from the pres­i­dency to the leg­is­la­ture. While crit­ics say it falls short on pro­mot­ing po­lit­i­cal plu­ral­ism, the law is an at­tempt “at se­ri­ously re­dis­tribut­ing pow­ers and de­moc­ra­tiz­ing the po­lit­i­cal sys­tem as a whole,” Mr. Nazarbayev has said.

Hav­ing held com­mand­ing pow­ers since the fall of the USSR, Mr. Nazarbayev sub­scribed to the “spe­cial way” the­ory to na­tion-build­ing: De­velop the coun­try eco­nom­i­cally and then talk about de­moc­ra­ti­za­tion. Con­sti­tu­tionNet.org writes that the law is in­tended to en­shrine a more pre­cise sep­a­ra­tion of pow­ers among branches of gov­ern­ment, strengthen the su­per­vi­sory pow­ers of the Par­lia­ment, im­prove the sys­tem of checks and bal­ances, and sta­bi­lize the over­all po­lit­i­cal sys­tem.

The law also strength­ens the Kazakh ju­di­cial sys­tem, which is still a work in progress 25 years af­ter be­ing re­moved from the Soviet rule-by-writ.

Op­ti­mists are hop­ing this re­bal­anc­ing of power among the ex­ec­u­tive, the par­lia­ment and the ju­di­ciary will lay the ground­work for an even­tual tran­si­tion to a more durable demo­cratic sys­tem in Kaza­khstan.

Kaza­khstan is tak­ing other steps to carve out a unique na­tional iden­tity, mov­ing past its Soviet legacy and curb­ing the Rus­sian in­flu­ence — an in­flu­ence man­dated un­der Stalin’s dream of a uni­fied “Soviet Peo­ple” — all speak­ing one language (Rus­sian) and thriv­ing in one culture.

Mr. Nazarbayev in April or­dered the au­thor­i­ties to come up with a Lat­in­based al­pha­bet for the Kazakh language by the end of the year and shift over to the Latin al­pha­bet en­tirely by 2025, af­ter nearly 80 years with a Cyril­lic-based al­pha­bet. The gov­ern­ment would put into place plans to ex­pand the Kazakh language, which is a mem­ber of the Tur­kic language group, among the peo­ple, in­creas­ing from 60 per­cent to 95 per­cent use among the pop­u­la­tion.

Kaza­khstan would keep its Rus­sian language use at ap­prox­i­mately 90 per­cent, fos­ter­ing, in short, a bilin­gual so­ci­ety, with Kazakh as the of­fi­cial tongue, while also teach­ing English from an early age.

Of course, this is gen­er­at­ing an un­hap­pi­ness in some quar­ters in Moscow. Mr. Nazarbayev ar­gues that the move would help Kaza­khstan more eas­ily in­te­grate into the world econ­omy. But with a quar­ter of its cit­i­zens of eth­nic Rus­sian ori­gin, again be­cause of Stalin’s policy of Rus­si­fi­ca­tion of the eth­nic Soviet re­publics, Kaza­khstan must walk a fine line in this mat­ter.

The na­tive Kazakh language was in­fil­trated with Rus­sian syn­tax and struc­ture as it slowly faded from use over the decades. How­ever, Cyril­lic was a new­comer in­stalled un­der Soviet lead­ers. Kazakh was orig­i­nally writ­ten in runic, then Ara­bic, and fi­nally Latin from 1929-1940. So go­ing back to Latin will not be new, as Nazarbayev wants the na­tive language mod­ern­ized.

How­ever, none of the po­lit­i­cal and cul­tural changes can move for­ward un­less the econ­omy is hum­ming. The 2017 Expo ex­hi­bi­tion has at­tracted more than 110 na­tions and 22 in­ter­na­tional or­ga­ni­za­tions, and Kazakh of­fi­cials are hop­ing it will prove a pow­er­ful “Open for busi­ness” sign, es­pe­cially for global en­ergy gi­ants.

It’s part of a larger push by the gov­ern­ment to make Kaza­khstan a leader in Cen­tral Asian af­fairs, a push that in­cludes pri­va­ti­za­tion of ma­jor sec­tors of the econ­omy and bank­ing, in­vest­ment and le­gal re­forms de­signed to make As­tana a fi­nan­cial hub for the re­gion.

Kaza­khstan has also stepped up its role as a re­gional diplo­matic player, host­ing the Shang­hai Co­op­er­a­tion Or­ga­ni­za­tion sum­mit ear­lier this month. Chi­nese Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping and In­dian Prime Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi at­tended the gath­er­ing, dur­ing which India and Pak­istan were for­mally in­ducted into the China- and Russia-led bloc. As­tana’s host­ing of peace talks aimed at end­ing the bloody Syr­ian civil war, with another round set for early July, ce­ment this per­cep­tion.

As the U.S. seeks to forge a new strat­egy for Afghanistan and Cen­tral Asia, it’s about time Wash­ing­ton pays a lit­tle more at­ten­tion to what’s hap­pen­ing in Kaza­khstan.

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