- - Monday, May 13, 2019

Successful world leaders stay ahead of the curve. Failed leaders become overtaken by events. Examples of the latter include Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, Zein bin Abedine Ali of Tunisia, Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen and Moammar Gadhafi of Libya. These nationalist strongmen waited too long before addressing the aspirations of their citizens, and the world continues to pay the price for their hubris.

By contrast, King Salman of Saudi Arabia and the former emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, showed great foresight by accelerating the transfer of power to a younger generation in an attempt to rejuvenate the legitimacy of their dynasties’ rule. King Salman altered the line of succession by skipping a generation and designating his 34-year-old son, Mohammad, as crown prince and heir apparent. Sheikh Hamad took a similar step in 2013: He abdicated the throne in favor of his 30-something son, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad, who has since brought fresh ideas and youthful energy to the gas-rich emirate.

While Kazakhstan is not a monarchy, veteran President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s resignation and smooth transition in the Central Asian country of Kazakhstan is important for U.S. interests and priorities in the heart of Eurasia. Kazakhstan, a major oil producer, is landlocked between Russia and China, and presents an enviable model for mostly authoritarian and Muslim countries of the region.

Mr. Nazarbayev’s political shuffling of the deck is an attempt to stay one step ahead of the actuarial tables, market forces and social pressures that have disrupted so many of the world’s developing economies. Kazakhstan’s partners, including the United States, have a major stake in its success. It is, territorially, the largest and most important country of Central Eurasia, which is itself a strategically vital region that borders Iran, Pakistan, Russia and China.

Kazakhstan’s landmass and economy are larger than the rest of the Central Asian states combined. With a higher percentage of its territory in Europe than Turkey, Kazakhstan has forged strong political and trade relations with the United States, China, the EU, Russia and the post-Soviet states of Central Asia. These are policies that we have an interest in seeing continued.

On March 19, 2019, President Nazarbayev took a calculated gamble in announcing that he would step down in favor of a leader to be elected in national voting, now scheduled for June of this year. Mr. Nazarbayev, 78, has been in power since before the country’s independence in 1991, coming to the helm when Kazakhstan was a Soviet republic. Fifty-two percent of Kazakhstan’s population was born during his rule.

And it is this constituency that has started to become restless. Despite historically healthy rates of economic growth and generally strong social development indicators, there is the yearning for change in Central Asia’s most spacious and most consequential nation.

Labor unrest in 2011, protests over land reform in 2016 and rallies across the country in February of this year in response to poor living conditions among the urban poor represent warning signs that Kazakhstan’s leadership appears to be heeding.

The hallmark of Mr. Nazarbayev’s 30 years in power has been “state-directed modernization,” or centralized political control combined with market-oriented economic policies. The slogan was “economy first,” implying political liberalization later. The results have been impressive.

Over the past 30 years since independence, Kazakhstan’s economy has grown five-fold. From 2000 to 2010, it had the second-fastest growing economy in the world. Over the next five years, its economy is projected to grow at a rate of 4 percent. External debt is less than 10 percent of gross domestic product, the country’s gold and foreign currency reserves amount to almost $100 billion, and the country’s sovereign wealth fund is close to $78 billion. Rates of foreign direct investment, education, employment and per capita gross national income are consistently strong. Kazakhstan ranks in the top 40 percent of international indexes for economic freedom, global competitiveness, ease of doing business, global entrepreneurship and human development.

Kazakhstan’s oil, gas and mining sectors account for 40 percent of gross domestic product. The oil and gas sector makes up 75 percent of its exports. Privatization and foreign investment are critical to diversifying the economy, and investors are looking for stability and predictability before making the kind of bets that will be required to generate sustainable rates of economic growth.

Critical to the success of Kazakhstan’s transition will be the pace and depth of change. As “First President” and “Leader of the Nation,” Mr. Nazarbayev will remain head of the National Assembly, Security Council and ruling party. In a bid to reassure allies, the weeks following Mr. Nazarbayev’s March 19 announcement saw his successor, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev visit Russia, and Uzbekistan and the Special Envoy Karim Massimov’s travel to Washington for a meeting with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

The next chapter in Kazakhstan’s history may not be without hiccups. The elected president and a retired one who still holds important reins of power will work out power-sharing arrangements. Although Mr. Nazarbayev’s daughter, Dariga Nazarbayeva, will not be a candidate in the June elections, the presidential family will continue to play a prominent role in national affairs. Tackling corruption and pushing through much-needed institutional reforms are pressing priorities.

And yet, despite all the outstanding questions, Kazakhstan’s leaders have taken a far-sighted step forward, and their initiative to manage change should be welcomed. The alternative — becoming a casualty rather than a driver of history — is much less appealing.

• J. Adam Ereli was deputy State Department spokesman, principal deputy assistant secretary of State, and U.S. ambassador to the Kingdom of Bahrain.

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