David Cameron Visit Underscores Need for Reform in Kazakhstan

For the first time, Kazakhstan is hosting a sitting British prime minister.  However, David Cameron’s trip has generated more than its share of criticism, creating a cloud over what should be a diplomatic triumph for Astana.  The controversy underscores the need for Kazakhstan to adopt fundamental economic and democratic reforms to firmly lodge the country in the West.

Prime Minister Cameron ventured to Central Asia in search of commercial relief for the recession-wracked United Kingdom.  He brought along more than 30 businessmen with the objective of signing some $1 billion worth of deals.  Said Cameron:  “We are in a global race for jobs and investment.  This is one of the most rapidly emerging countries in the world.”

While it’s true that energy-rich Astana has money to spend, it could attract more investment if it liberalized its economy.  Kazakhstan comes in at 64 and 65, respectively, in the Economic Freedom of the World and Index of Economic Freedom.  The country actually has fallen slightly in recent years.

If Astana improved its rating, future foreign delegations would be more likely to include investors as well as buyers.  Analysts generally point to the need for market-oriented opening of the economy, more efficient and honest regulation, and improvement in the rule of law.

However, the controversy over the Cameron visit demonstrates the importance of political reform as well.  Human Rights Watch chided the British premier as he embarked on his trip:  “We are very concerned about the serious and deteriorating human rights situation there in recent years” and called on him to address the issue.

Prime Minister Cameron responded defensively:  “Other European leaders have been and I think it’s high time a British prime minister went.”  He undoubtedly focused on jobs when he planned his trip, but he was attacked for giving cover to what some describe as a repressive government.  He then promised to raise the issue:  “Nothing is off the agenda including human rights and Britain always stands up for human rights wherever we are in the world.”

Adding to the furor was the role of former Prime Minister Tony Blair, whose firm is consulting for Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev.  The contract is said to be worth $13 million and former Blair associates with their own companies also have been involved.  Astana apparently believes that it has received good value for its money.  The country’s foreign minister, Erian Idrissov, said:  “We are very honored and privileged to have such attention on the part of two prime ministers.”

The Kazakh government sees its future in the West.  That is good for Astana, as well as America and Europe.  However, in today’s globalized world it is increasingly embarrassing for Western enterprises to do business in nations with poor human rights records.  Political reform in Kazakhstan is necessary not only for its own sake, but also for Astana to take full advantage of expanding economic opportunities.

Kazakhstan will be facing its own political transition in the coming years as the aging Nazarbayev eventually concludes more than two decades in power.  Even more important than preparing for a new leadership is inaugurating a freer society and more democratic political system.

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