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State of the Nation Address of the President of the Republic of Kazakhstan – 2019: high expectations and challenges in implementation

«Tokaev’s first state of the Nation Address is not aimed at epochal transformations but intended at on concrete actions with small-step tasks,» – Zhaslan Nurbaev, an independent researcher, notes in his article for CABAR.asia.

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The 2019 State of the Nation Address is a continuation of the policy that is defined by the First President of the RK, Nursultan Nazarbayev. Photo: akorda.kz

On September 2, 2019, the President of the Republic of Kazakhstan (RK hereafter) Kassym-Zhomart Tokayev, delivered his first State of the Nation Address. Indeed, it aroused great interest in society, in particular among academicians and the expert community. The document was one of the most anticipated political documents of 2019. To what extent were the expectations of the Kazakh society and representatives of its broadest layers met? To what extent is it possible to implement all of the set tasks? Let us analyze some points in the president’s address.

Succession with Honors

First, I would like to outline the first State of the Nation Address of the second president. The 2019 State of the Nation Address is undoubtedly a continuation of the policy that is defined by the First President of the RK, Nursultan Nazarbayev. Thus, we can observe the continuity of the main political course. However, specific differences can be traced. There were some peculiarities in the structure and content. Also, this year’s address was not broadcasted live as it used to practice during Nazarbayev’s presidential terms.  The First President in his message set high expectations and emphasized economic transformation, high expectations and emphasized economic transformations, but the 2019 message is more concrete and intended at solving the most complex and acute problems of Kazakh society. The title itself – “Constructive public dialogue – the basis of stability and prosperity of Kazakhstan” – speaks about the social orientation of the document and the government’s readiness for open discussions.

So, let’s start with a series of political initiatives announced in the very first section of the message. The political section of the document turned out to be the vaguest as some statements were either incomplete or clear and contradictory in general.  The president acknowledges the neccesity of political modernization, however, he states that the political modernization  shouldn’t be rushed and liberalized in a chaotic way. Multiparty system and political competition should be promoted, but without specific measures in this direction. The President proposes to discuss issues in the Parliament rather than on the streets. The question arises: So how is it possible to have a civil dialogue in case of the existence of the only political power of the Nur-Otan party?

The section on the improvement of the legislation on rallies turned out to be contradictory as all the proposed measures were prescribed within the framework of the current norms of the Constitution and laws of the RK.

The concept of a “listening state”, effective feedback from the population, received a positive response from the society and experts. But there is a big question on the implementation mechanism of the concept. According to the expert of IMEP (Institute of World Economy and Politics under the Fund of the First President of the Republic of Kazakhstan), sociologist Kamila Kovyazina, using sociological survey as a tool to assess government bodies and officials can jeopardize the social networks which is currently the most effective way to get feedback from Kazakhstanis, in particular from rural residents. “Akimats (city halls – editor’s note) already are trying to control who is walking [conducting sociological surveys] in their villages and towns. If their career depends on them [sociological surveys], then the results of the surveys will be controlled by local authorities ”[1].

President Kassym-Zhomart Tokayev at the beginning of his State of the Nation Address, stated that it is impossible to carry out successful reforms in the socio-economic sphere without socio-political modernization. However, the above analysis confirms that political transformations will take place at a slow pace. In this regard, the Kazakhstani political scientist Dosym Satpayev made an interesting comment stating that the political block has been influenced by the recent brutal speech of the first president at the Nur Otan meeting, who clearly emphasized the conservation of different segments of the political system rather than its modernization. Judging by the message, there is a feeling that Tokaev was given a broader opportunties for manoeuvres in the socio-economic sphere, where he has many initiatives, but “red flags” [restrictions] were placed in domestic politics.[2]

Socio-economic sphere

In contrast to the political block in his message , the socio-economic part is presented in detail including various instructions to the Government, the National Bank and other authorized bodies. The President has planned many essential and specific events to develop a strong and inclusive economy. For example, the reduction of national companies and a moratorium on the creation of quasi-state companies (due to the unjustified interference of the state in the economy); changes in pricing and tariffs of monopolists (due to the high cost of airfare and shortage of train tickets); support for the agro-industrial complex, small and medium-sized businesses (allocation of funds from the National Fund, tax exemption and a ban on inspections for 3 years) and much more.

However, we can find some manipulation of information in the President’s Address. The President of the RK claims that despite the growth of GDP and incomes of the population, social stratification within Kazakhstani society remains and even intensified. Social stratification in Kazakhstan, indeed, is increasing rapidly. Regarding GDP growth, if we take the data for the last five years, the indicators of 2013 are much higher than current indicators (236,633.3 million US dollars in 2013 against 172,938.7 million in 2018). Besides, inflation and devaluation of the national currency in recent years should be taken into consideration. [3]

The manipulation of information is also traced in the analysis of the social block. Social support issues remain acute. The protest of mothers with multiple children could be explosive if it is ignored. In his Address, Tokayev primarily speaks about the growth of paternalistic attitude that can lead to an increase in dependency.

Over the past five years, the number of targeted social assistance recipients increased from 77 thousand to 1.4 million people. It should be noted that from January 1, 2018, targeted social assistance benefits were distributed in a new format combining three types of payments. Therefore, the growth of recipients of social assistance is evident, but to a greater extent due to changes in the counting system.[4]

If we analyze the pension system of Kazakhstan, it can be described as a time bomb. The unified national pension fund did not live up to the expectations of Kazakhstanis due to the irresponsible investment policies and investment of funds in dubious international projects. In this regard, the president’s initiative to use one’s own pension savings to purchase property or pay tuition fees will probably have a mitigating effect on the gaps in the state’s pension policy.

Education Reforms

Another problem is improving the quality of education. The education system of Kazakhstan was not able to preserve the best features of the Soviet school yet is facing challenges implementing new educational reforms. Moreover, these reforms are endless and multi-layered as with the appointment of the new Minister of Education and Science, which happens every 3-4 years, new ideas are generated and plans are made for speedy improvement of the education i.e., there is no continuity. Most often, reform is lapped with previous ones, or past reforms are forgotten.

Read also: Kazakhstan: Unequal Struggle for Equality in School

Currently, the disparity between rural and urban schools is increasing in the secondary education system. According to international assessment studies PISA-2015 (International Program for the Assessment of Educational Achievements of Pupils), rural students lagged behind their urban peers by more than six months in science and a year in reading and mathematics.[5]

The results of the international rating are validated by the national education quality assessment systems UNT (Unified National Testing) and VOUD (External Assessment of Educational Achievements). For example, if in 2012, according to the results of the VOUD, rural schoolchildren lagged behind urban students by only 1.82 points, then in 2018 by 7.08 points.[6]

The share of teachers in rural schools with the highest category is almost half that in urban schools.
One of the important solutions to this problem, voiced in the President’s Address, is the continued support of the “With a Diploma in the Village” program. This program will help to eliminate the shortage of teachers and staff rural schools with the younger teachers. Although there is a reverse trend that young specialists after completing their service commitment leave for the city. One of the challenges that rural school teachers are experiencing is lack of professional development. Teachers of understaffed rural schools cannot attend the pedagogical training courses for a long time due to the lack of substitute teachers. Moreover, the lack of broadband Internet limits their opportunity to take online courses.

The quality of education also suffers in the higher educational system. The quality of universities can be assessed through the employability of their graduates. Universities, where 60% of graduates are not employed, will be liquidated. Currently, there are about 60-70 such universities in Kazakhstan, i.e. almost half of all universities in the country. Every minister starts with this issue, i.e. liquidation of those universities, but the number of universities has not significantly decreased.

To date, violations have been identified, and state licenses have been suspended at several universities (Astana University, Academy of Civil Aviation, etc.). Two branches of Russian universities, the St. Petersburg Humanitarian University of Trade Unions and the Kostanai branch of Chelyabinsk State University, are in the administrative court for the provision of educational services without a license.[7]

The time will show to what extent these unpopular practices will improve the situation. They are unpopular because the liquidation of the universities happens when the academic year has already begun, and a large number of students and faculty are studying and working at the universities.

In his message, the President of Kazakhstan draws attention to the role of science in ensuring national progress. Scanty financing of science, which is only 0.13% of GDP (63rd in the world in terms of funding for science) has led to its stagnation.

This year, for the first time since the independence of Kazakhstan, a scholarship competition on scientific and scientific-technical projects among young scientists has been announced.

The next, closely related to the education system and social security, is the problem of urbanization. With the adoption in 2018 of the Strategic Plan for the Development of the Republic of Kazakhstan til 2025, and the intersectoral project “Auyl – El Besigi”, only promising villages will be funded in the hope that in the future they will turn into centers of economic growth. Thus, only 1500 villages will remain out of existing 7500 villages.

It is natural to carry out such large-scale projects in a pilot mode, in a specific area or region. It is fearful that the supposedly controlled urbanization will turn into uncontrolled.

We are already witnessing slum migration on the outskirts of Nur-Sultan and Almaty. Today, most of the rural residents do not have the opportunity to own property in the city.

Many categories of citizens, including budget workers, cannot afford the housing program “7-20-25” designed for families with an average income level (320 thousand KZT per month). The new “Bakytty Otbasy” program is available only to those individuals whose average monthly income is no more than 77 thousand KZT. It turns out that most of the population with earnings from 80 to 300 thousand KZT should get a mortgage at predatory interest rates in commercial banks.

With the optimization of villages, rural schools, primarily low-grade schools, will undergo reduction. As a result, we may encounter a larger-scale problem – many people will not receive secondary education guaranteed by the laws of the Republic of Kazakhstan. People with a low level of education are more likely to have employment problems and not have stable earnings which can lead to an increase in government spending on social support, health care and the prison system.

“Every time you stop a school, you will have to build a jail”. 
In this regard, I wanted to quote Otto von Bismarck: “Every time you stop a school, you will have to build a jail.” Schools are indeed being built. Over the years of independence, over 1,500 schools have been built in Kazakhstan. However, every parent knows that in the capital and other major cities in the country there is a shortage of schools as there are 30-40 children in many classrooms. At the same time, unstaffed schools are massively closed. There is an increase in a number of crimes of a socio-economic nature such as drug trafficking, human trafficking, poaching and corruption. Also, the president indicated the enthusiasm for the humanization of legislation.


Summing up, I would like to emphasize that the President’s State of Nation Address is just a national plan i.e., somewhat a projection on the future resolution of problems. But the real challenges and threats arise in the implementation of the tasks described in the program documents. Nevertheless, Tokaev’s First Address is not aimed at epoch-making transformations but is based on concrete measures with “small steps” tasks. The statesmen’s awareness of the real socio-economic problems of Kazakh society and the government’s openness for public dialogue give hopes for a better change in the socio-political situation in Kazakhstan.

This article was prepared as part of the Giving Voice, Driving Change – from the Borderland to the Steppes Project implemented with the financial support of the Foreign Ministry of Norway. The opinions expressed in the article do not reflect the position of the editorial or donor.

[1] Interview with IMEP expert K. Kovyazina. “Time to speak” show on the Atameken.TV channel. Retrieved from: https://is.gd/DRnosx

[2] D. Satpayev’s official Facebook page.

[3] Truth and manipulation in the message of President Tokayev on September 2, 2019. Retrieved from: https://factcheck.kz/glavnoe-en/pravda-i-manipulyacii-v-poslanii-prezidenta-tokaeva-2-sentyabrya-2019-g/?fbclid=IwAR2jYO1Svw8Bz1P9JMonhkJl3uQ21KnKF6VWbDu6_2Kh5N3L74MzUMRpq6s

[4] Ibid

[5] Irsaliev, S., Kultumanova, A., Sabyrұly, E. & Amankazy, M. The main results of the international study PISA-2015. National Report. Astana: Information and Analytical Center JSC.

[6] Nurbaev, J. Kazakhstan: An Unequal Struggle for Equality in School. Retrieved from: https://cabar.asia/en/kazakhstan-unequal-struggle-for-equality-in-school/

[7] The trial on the legality of the work of Russian universities branches in Almaty and Kostanay. Retrieved from: https://informburo.kz/novosti/sud-rassmatrivaet-zakonnost-raboty-filialov-rossiyskih-vuzov-v-almaty-i-kostanae.html?fbclid=IwAR3K3o6-UoYxCX838PmVUSz6RojMPbha444PWHidIhlKa2DNMt_ddMYzTvY

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