For many years in Kazakhstan, the biggest question on every foreign investor’s mind has been “what will happen after Nursultan Nazarbayev leaves his post?” After Nazarbayev, the nation’s first and only president, resigned on March 19, 2019 the main question has become “who will take his place?”
The Speaker of Kazakhstan’s Senate, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, swiftly took Nazarbayev’s place as per the constitution, swearing the Oath to the People of Kazakhstan on March 20. Tokayev quickly announced a snap election to take place in two months on June 9, 2019, to avoid any “uncertainty.” Now, he faces seven other presidential candidates: one female, one oppositionist party, and five other political unknowns.
What is important to acknowledge is that even after resigning the presidency, Nazabayev’s political, economic and diplomatic priorities will endure – at least in the short to medium-term. While Nazarbayev remains the Head of the Security Council and leader of the ruling party Nur Otan, he can maintain strategic control, “supervise” any future president, and weigh in on every major domestic and foreign policy issue.
As such, PBN Hill+Knowlton Strategies’ Government and Public Affairs team has prepared a list of important factors that foreign investors should keep a close eye on during and after elections. So, here are three things you should know about the upcoming elections in Kazakhstan:
WHO IS IN THE RUNNING FOR PRESIDENT?
Having been nominated by the ruling party, Kassym-Zhomart Tokayev does not face fierce competition. There are also a number of reasons why the other remaining seven candidates are unlikely to be suitable, either: they do not have enough time to campaign for the early poll; do not possess enough political experience, such as little-known journalist Sadybek Tughel; or come from parties with very little political clout, such as Amangeldy Taspikhov (a former Nur Otan functionary), Toleutai Rakhimbekov (from the rural issues-focused Auyl party), and Zhambyl Akhmetbekov (Communist Party).
WHAT IS LIKELY TO CHANGE?
As Nazarbayev’s preferred candidate, Kassym-Zhomart Tokayev is the overwhelming favorite to win this June. His first steps as interim president have not only demonstrated that he is committed to furthering the existing policy line, but have also showcased his ability to make his own personalized touches for the sake of maintaining stability. Of course, these nuances are not expected to make large waves, since everything is likely to be carried out under the watchful eye of Nursultan Nazarbayev himself and his daughter, Dariga Nazarbayeva (now Speaker of the Senate). As a result, the political outlook is stable in the short-term, but with some significant economic, political and social risks on the horizon:
As a result of falling oil prices and reduced growth in China and Russia, Kazakhstan’s economic growth is forecast to slow in 2019 and 2020. To fill the expected void, public investment is expected to become a key driver of economic growth in the coming years.
Under Tokayev, the government would likely continue with his predecessor’s “100 Step Plan,” which aims to place Kazakhstan within the world’s top 30 developed countries by 2050. As per the plan, the government would prioritize diversifying the economy away from the extractive sector, reforming the civil service, improving transparency and reducing corruption.
Foreign Policy Implications
Tokayev himself helped draft Kazakhstan’s multi-vector foreign policy, which seeks to pursue relations with the West, China, Russia and other global and regional players. However, while he has already confirmed that Kazakhstan remains committed to multi-vector diplomacy, Tokayev has nonetheless highlighted Russia’s special role as its most important strategic ally, vowing to maintain the “golden era” of bilateral relations inherited from Nazarbayev.
On his list of wider foreign policy priorities, Tokayev has also emphasized his wish to deepen Kazakhstan’s engagement with the Eurasian Economic Union, the European Union, China’s Belt & Road Initiative, and Central Asian neighbors. This is not expected to change.
Kazakhstan is not immune to the social struggles experienced elsewhere in the world: after Nazarbayev failed to deliver on his promises for reform, there is a strong desire among the population to challenge the status quo. This public discontent is rising against a precarious social backdrop: the wealth gap is widening, inflation is growing, repeated currency devaluations have all but wiped out the middle class’ savings. As a result of a saturated job market (that is forcing many able workers to seek greater opportunities abroad), rife corruption, run-down public services, and tone-deaf government responses to recent tragic disasters, protests are on the rise. Not only are Kazakhstan’s social activists wielding signs that read “you cannot run from the truth!” but there are concerns that separatism and extremism could become a very real possibility if the current political void is not filled.
WHAT SHOULD FOREIGN INVESTORS KEEP AN EYE ON?
With Tokayev likely to become president, it is unlikely that the current strategy for attracting foreign investment would change. For international investors, this is a comforting sign that speaks of stability, rapidly improving investment conditions and economic growth.
What’s more, Tokayev’s administration clearly understands the government’s real current challenge: diversification and modernization. As a means to this end, in 2019, the government made a number of changes to formalize its approach towards enhancing Kazakhstan’s competitiveness and investment climate on an international level. As such, in May 2019, the newly established Coordination Council on Investment Attraction will adjourn to discuss all investment decisions, and will be headed by the Prime Minister – who will also act as “Investment Ombudsman” – responsible for overseeing investment projects and the protection of investors’ rights.
There are also hopes for the Astana International Financial Centre (AIFC) to become the regional hub for attracting investment. In order to further encourage foreign investment, the Centre is being designed according to two key initiatives: all activities will be regulated by English law and in line with international standards.
While the current government is not expected to undergo any significant reshuffles, nevertheless companies should pay close attention to who is nominated to head the ministries overseeing their industry. Any change personnel changes may open opportunities to strengthen ties, which corporations will be eager to seize. Establishing strong relations with the new teams will undoubtedly help both Kazakh and international companies protect their license to operate.