- - Thursday, December 17, 2020

Kazakhstan will conduct parliamentary elections on Jan. 10. Most in Washington, D.C., will note this factoid, shrug and move on. But there is real reason to pay attention to Kazakhstan.

Although it’s relatively sparsely populated, just shy of 19 million citizens, Kazakhstan is geographically huge — about a million square miles. It’s the ninth-largest country in the world. Kazakhstan is rich in natural resources, especially oil, natural gas and uranium. But it’s in a tough, strategically important neighborhood, bordered by Russia and China and not far from Afghanistan and Iran. 

Kazakhstan is also one of the few former Soviet Socialist Republics that successfully went in a new direction after independence. Much of this is due to its first president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, a former Soviet apparatchik. When Kazakhstan became independent, just short of three decades ago, President Nazarbayev made three decisions that put Kazakhstan on a new path.

First, Kazakhstan committed almost from the beginning to macroeconomic reforms that took it away from the Soviet command-economy model. Today, its banking and other financial systems are on a par with Central Europe’s. Thanks to the new Astana International Financial Center, Kazakhstan is seeking to be a Eurasian economic hub.

Second, and of special importance, Kazakhstan is an exemplary nuclear non-proliferation partner of the United States. When the Soviet Union collapsed, Kazakhstan had the fourth-largest nuclear arsenal in the world. But Mr. Nazarbayev committed to total denuclearization in part because of the devastation that Soviet nuclear testing had inflicted on the people of Semipalatinsk and the surrounding region in northeastern Kazakhstan.

The decade-long, U.S.-Kazakhstan effort under the Nunn-Lugar Program to clean up the BN-350 nuclear fast-breeder reactor site at Aktau on the shore of the Caspian Sea reached a significant milestone in November 2010, when Kazakhstan secured and locked down 3,000 kilograms of weapons-grade plutonium and 10,000 kilograms of highly enriched uranium — enough material to have constructed 750 nuclear weapons.

Third, and most significantly, Mr. Nazarbayev decided that if Kazakhstan were to be a respected, independent country, it would need a new generation of leaders who think differently. 

He created the Bolashak Program (bolashak means future in Kazakh) that sent young Kazakhstani citizens abroad for university educations and, for some, graduate degrees. He established this far-sighted policy even before Kazakhstan began to rake in the wealth from its Caspian Sea oil deposits. Kazakhstan now has a cohort of well over 10,000 alumni of the Bolashak Program — globalized young people, often speaking English and other world languages, who are rising to positions of power and influence in both the public and private sectors. This has made a major difference in how Kazakhstan perceives – and is perceived by – the world.

Mr. Nazarbayev was determined that Kazakhstan become a recognized name on the world stage. In 2010, Kazakhstan assumed the rotating chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the first former Soviet republic to achieve that honor. 

Then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton represented the United States at an OSCE Summit in Astana in December 2010. In 2017, Kazakhstan was elected to a two-year rotating membership on the U.N. Security Council — again, the first former Soviet republic to achieve that position. And that same year, Kazakhstan hosted Expo-2017, one of the occasional international world fairs, that drew millions of visitors to its remote capital on the southern Siberian steppe.

In another first for a Central Asian government, Mr. Nazarbayev voluntarily stepped down from the presidency in March 2019 after 29 years in office, and, in accordance with the constitution, the chairman of the Senate, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, succeeded him. Mr. Tokayev then was elected president in a snap election in June. This smooth transition of power pleased those who value stability but displeased those who wanted more significant democratic reform and a redistribution of power.

Since then, Kazakhstan has continued to make significant progress in terms of political reforms but there is still more to be done. Kazakhstan is neither a liberal democracy nor is it a totalitarian police state. It never experienced the intellectual foundations of Western democracy such as the Renaissance, the Reformation or the Great Enlightenment. Like all nations, it’s a mixture of its own history, which includes 70 years of Soviet domination, several hundred years under the Czarist Empire, and the traditions of the medieval Central Asian khanates and nomadic communities.

Western human-rights organizations are right to call out abuses in Kazakhstan when they occur. But that does not mean that the West should assume that parliamentary elections in Kazakhstan are a charade, even if the opposition parties are carefully controlled behind the scenes. And it should not prevent the West from engaging Kazakhstan at a strategic level in order to strengthen global security, integrate Central Asia into the global economy, and continue to help Kazakhstan and other Central Asian states advance politically and economically.

The ideals of democracy need time to take root and grow strong. As Kazakhstan continues to mature as an independent nation, policy makers in Washington need to understand that it is a reliable partner of the United States in a strategically vital part of the world.

• Richard E. Hoagland is former U.S. principal deputy assistant secretary of State for South and Central Asian affairs.

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