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Political scientist: COVID-19 will not become a brake for Kazakhstan election

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Kazakhstan is holding parliamentary elections on 10 January, expected to further bolster the soft democratic reform process in the Central Asian country. In a wide-ranging interview, political scientist Mukhit-Ardager Sydyknazarov explained the political landscape and the stakes ahead of the ballot, writes Georgi Gotev.

Mukhit-Ardager Sydyknazarov (pictured) is a doctor of political science, director of the Institute of Contemporary Studies, Eurasian National University. L.N. Gumilyov, Nur-Sultan.

The President of Kazakhstan, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, signed a decree on holding the parliamentary elections for the Mazhilis (lower house of parliament) on 10 January. Could you describe the political context ahead of the elections? Who are the main political candidates?

At the end of May 2020, the president signed the Law of the Republic of Kazakhstan “On Amendments and Additions to the Law of the Republic of Kazakhstan” and some other pieces of legislation which provided for the rights of the opposition in the Kazakh Parliament. Members of the parties representing the parliamentary opposition were given the right to speak at parliamentary hearings and at joint sessions of the Chambers. The legislation provides, which is especially important, the appointment of members of the parliamentary opposition as heads of parliamentary committees.

The initiatives on gender and youth quota, supported by the president and the Parliament, also meet the socio-political needs of the maturing Kazakhstani society.

Last October as you said the President said the decree on holding the parliamentary elections. The next 2 months pass for voters in a rather difficult political electoral campaign, plus, on the whole, because of the pandemic, the year itself is one of the most difficult in the history of Kazakhstan.

All except the ruling Nur-Otan party, according to the logic of the pre-election struggle and competition for the minds of voters, are opposition. I will answer your question about the main political contenders in (Cyrillic) alphabetical order (the interview was conducted in Russian).

Party “Adal” (“Justice”). This newly formed party is based on the rebranding of the renaming of the Birlik party. The party intends to replenish its membership base primarily by business representatives. Interestingly, the choice of the name was carried out on a scientific basis, professional opinion polls were conducted. According to the leaders of the party, the choice of the new name of the party is explained by the demand of the population for renewal and justice. At the same time, people put a lot in the word of justice: from the fight against corruption to the transparency of decision-making.

The party’s program consists of five key areas: A dignified life for all citizens; Entrepreneurship is the basis of a successful state; Agro-industrial complex development and food security; Strong regions are a strong country; A State for the people.

The program as a whole is focused on the general population, with elements such as free medical care, a twofold increase in the subsistence minimum, an increase in salaries for doctors and teachers, improvement of rural infrastructure, etc.

The party wants to reduce the burden on business and free it from administrative restrictions. Adal proposes to introduce a moratorium on tax increases until 2025, and conduct a “new wave of privatization.” The Adal party also announced the popular initiative in Kazakhstan to return to completely free medical care. This combination of liberal and socialist measures means only one thing: the Adal party intends to quickly mobilize its new electorate from a wide range of the population. However, will it be able to do this when there are only 2 months left before the elections – we will see.

Party “Ak Zhol” (“Lighted Path”). The party calls itself “the” parliamentary opposition. The party’s pre-election program was recently announced. It should be noted that its leader Azat Peruashev had earlier initiated a law on parliamentary opposition. The party’s frontmen, in addition to the chairman, are Daniya Espaeva, ex-presidential candidate of the Republic of Kazakhstan, Kazybek Isa, Berik Dyusembinov.

After the President signed the laws providing for the rights of the opposition in the Kazakh Parliament, the leader of AkZhol Azat Peruashev literally said: “The main novelty of this draft law is that we are introducing the word “opposition” into the legal field. You know that we did not have this concept. We considered it correct that there should be a parliamentary opposition in the Parliament, which will express the opinion of the people and raise issues of concern to the entire population. That is, the parliamentary opposition is not just an opposition, it will have the right to express its opinion, it will also express the opinion of the people. ”

At the party congress Peruashev noted that “this state faces many challenges and problems, the solution of which is no longer possible without wide participation and control from society”. He highlighted the need for a gradual transition from a super-presidential system to a parliamentary republic and from a monopoly of power to a system of checks and balances.

The AkZhol party has defined the main threats to Kazakhstan in the following terms: bureaucracy and corruption, social injustice and the growing gap between rich and poor; monopolization of the economy and power in Kazakhstan.

Perushaev has stated that further dragging out of reform may lead to a crisis of statehood, as it happened in Belarus and Kyrgyzstan, and earlier in Ukraine.

People’s Democratic Patriotic Party “Auyl”. It’s one of the youngest parties in Kazakhstan, created in 2015 through the merger of the Kazakh Social Democratic Party “Auyl” and the Party of Patriots of Kazakhstan. It has participated in parliamentary and local elections in 2016. The frontmen of “Auyl” are its chairman, Senator Ali Bektayev and his first deputy, ex-presidential candidate Toleutai Rakhimbekov. The electoral list is headed by Rakhimbekov, an active politician who is very successful in social networks. The party successfully conducted a nationwide poll with the aim of monitoring the most pressing socio-economic problems, which, logically, should form the basis of the party’s electoral program.

In particular, “Auyl” proposes to introduce “children’s capital”, which provides for the payment of a certain amount of budget funds to each minor Kazakhstani from the moment of birth. This builds on the experience of the rich Arab monarchies of the Gulf countries. “Auyl” is focused on supporting large families, which are traditional in Kazakhstan.

People’s Party of Kazakhstan (formerly the Communist People’s Party of Kazakhstan). On the basis of rebranding and renaming, it became a “people’s party”. The frontmen of the People’s Party are well-known and active deputies of the Mazhilis of the Parliament Aikyn Konurov, Zhambyl Akhmetbekov and Irina Smirnova. The first two also hold the positions of secretaries of the CPPK Central Committee. Zhambyl Akhmetbekov twice ran for president of the Republic of Kazakhstan in the elections of 2011 and 2019.

The People’s Party aims at “uniting the left forces of the constructive opposition”. This is reasonable, since the communist legacy is not particularly popular among the mostly young Kazakh electorate. This is why instead on nostalgia, the party banks on the values ​​of equality and brotherhood: egalitarianism, a socially oriented state.

National Social Democratic Party (NSDP). It’s the oldest political party in Kazakhstan. The faces of the party are its chairman Askhat Rakhimzhanov and his deputy, Aydar Alibayev. The party counts on a protest electorate, and there are quite a few such sentiments amid the economic recession. In fact, it has traditionally been an opposition party since its inception. The party has gone through serious perturbations during its difficult history. The two-time change of the party’s leadership in 2019, the withdrawal of a number of active members from the party were at one time newsworthy in the Kazakh media. The NSDP recently postponed its extraordinary congress to 27 November. Given the difficult situation inside and around the party, it is difficult to predict the readiness of their party lists. In the media, the NSDP has already announced its ambition to participate in the parliamentary elections and is not going to boycott them.

Before I ask you to describe the ruling party Nur-Otan, let me ask you the following: isn’t its strategy based on the assumption that after years of rising living standards since the independence from the Soviet Union, the vast majority of the electorate would prefer stability rather than experiments to the far-left or of a liberal kind? And the opposition will always remain marginal?

Let me say a few words about the Nur-Otan Party. This is the ruling party. The history of the formation and development of the Nur-Otan party is closely connected with the name of the First President of the Republic of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev. Under his leadership, the party became the country’s leading political force. Nazarbayev is the ideological inspirer of the Nur-Otan party, he was at the origins of the birth and formation of the party.

Without any doubt, Nur-Otan has the most organized and ramified infrastructure in the country, it has various internal committees, a youth wing, its own media resources, etc.

Regarding pre-election matters, until mid-November of this year, there was a complete and unconditional dominance of the Nur-Otan party in the Kazakh media. The party, its organizers, represented by the first deputy chairman Bauyrzhan Baybek, have done a huge organizational, ideological, media and content work both in the center and, more importantly, in the regions. Particularly noticeable and unprecedented in scale and content were the party primaries of the Nur-Otan party, over 600 thousand citizens took part in them, there were 11,000 candidates, of which 5,000 passed the primaries. But it is also necessary to take into account the organizational scale, the number of members and the capabilities of the Nur-Otan party: the party has 80-90 deputies, and AkZhol has no more than 10.

The elections will be held according to party lists. Parties need to overcome the 7% threshold, and this is a high figure – the votes of hundreds of thousands of Kazakhstanis. A multi-party parliament can exist only in the form of factions of political parties demonstrating different political platforms, reaching solutions through compromises in the name of the prosperity of citizens and the state. For this – the parliamentary opposition and a corresponding law has been adopted in Kazakhstan guaranteeing their powers.

Regarding the second part of your question: no, I do not believe that in the long term, as you said, opposition forces “will always remain marginal”. There is a party struggle, there are voters, therefore, everything depends on the actvism and initiative of each party.

Recently I wrote that the elections are part of the process of “controlled democratisation”, which are underway under the new president, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev. Is this a fair assessment? 

The choice of political science terminology is a non-stop process. And it is possible that your term will catch on: life will show.

I will say that the second president of Kazakhstan set new trends in all areas. My personal opinion is that we were very lucky with the second president Kassym-Jomart Tokayev: he is a politician, a diplomat with vast Kazakhstani and international management experience, an expert and insider on international political processes, who speaks several key UN languages. He has a fresh outlook on many things, while the continuity declared by President Tokayev remains: this is very important, given our neighbourhood with two major powers: Russia and China, and the growing geopolitical threats and risks, the permanent instability, which has become new normalcy in international relations.

Due to the pandemic, there probably won’t be many international observers or journalists before and during the elections. Is this a setback?

Electoral campaigns in the world, including in European countries, and also in the US, took place during the pandemic, and the events showed that Covid-19 will not become a brake on political changes, on the contrary, it became their catalyst. I think that Kazakhstan will cope with this challenge, given the high degree of organization and well-established and efficiently functioning state institutions.

Also, the pandemic and social distancing, quarantine restrictions, less social contacts of part of the population have become a part of our everyday life, so going to the vote, on the contrary, will become an event in which they want to take an active part.

Holding elections in January, when temperatures in Kazakhstan are sometimes very low, can also be a problem?

Winter electoral cycles are not so rare for our country. In Kazakhstan, winter does not freeze citizens and country political processes. On the contrary, traditionally December, January, in general winter in Kazakhstan is a season of fateful political decisions: protests of student youth in 1986, which became the first harbingers of the collapse of the USSR, took place in December, the independence of Kazakhstan was also declared in December, the actual transfer of the capital from Almaty to Akmola (later – Astana, since March 2019 – the city of Nur-Sultan) was also a harsh northern winter. So Kazakhs are no stranger to being hyperactive in winter conditions.

In my subjective opinion as a political scientist, if there is a turnout of 60-70% of voters in these elections, it will be a great achievement.

Economy

EU approves €2.9 billion in state aid for battery project attracting €9 billion

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The Commission has approved, state aid of up to €2.9 billion in funding for an ‘Important Project of Common European Interest’ (IPCEI) to support research and innovation in the battery value chain. The twelve EU countries involved will provide public funding expected to unlock an additional €9 billion in private investments.

The project, called “European Battery Innovation” was jointly prepared and notified by Austria, Belgium, Croatia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Poland, Slovakia, Spain and Sweden.

Executive Vice-President Margrethe Vestager, in charge of competition policy, said: “For those massive innovation challenges for the European economy, the risks can be too big for just one member state or one company to take alone. Today's project is an example of how competition policy works hand in hand with innovation and competitiveness. With significant support also comes responsibility: the public has to benefit from its investment, which is why companies receiving aid have to generate positive spillover effects across the EU.”

When Vestager was asked if companies from outside the EU, such as Tesla, could benefit from this funding she said that this was possible and showed that the EU was committed to open strategic autonomy and welcomes non-EU firms when they have the right projects.

The Vice-President for Foresight, Maroš Šefčovič, said: “The Commission has given its green light to a second important project of the common European interest in the field of batteries. Technology is vital for our transition to climate neutrality. The figures show what an enormous undertaking this is. It involves twelve member states from North, South, East and West, injecting up to €2.9 billion euros in state aid in support of 46 projects designed by 42 companies, which in turn will generate three times as much private investment. "

The project will cover the entire battery value chain: extraction of raw materials, design and manufacturing of battery cells, recycling and disposal. It is expected to contribute to the development of a whole set of new technological breakthroughs, including different cell chemistries and novel production processes, and other innovations in the battery value chain, in addition to what will be achieved thanks to the first battery IPCEI.

 

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EU urges AstraZeneca to speed up vaccine deliveries amid 'supply shock'

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The European Union has urged AstraZeneca to find ways to swiftly deliver vaccines after the company announced a large cut in supplies of its COVID-19 shot to the bloc, as news emerged the drugmaker also faced supply problems elsewhere, write and

In a sign of the EU’s frustration - after Pfizer also announced supply delays earlier in January - a senior EU official told Reuters the bloc would in the coming days require pharmaceutical companies to register COVID-19 vaccine exports.

AstraZeneca, which developed its shot with Oxford University, told the EU on Friday it could not meet agreed supply targets up to the end of March, with an EU official involved in the talks telling Reuters that meant a 60% cut to 31 million doses.

“We expect the company to find solutions and to exploit all possible flexibilities to deliver swiftly,” an EU Commission spokesman said, adding the head of the EU executive Ursula von der Leyen had a call earlier on Monday with AstraZeneca’s chief Pascal Soriot to remind him of the firm’s commitments.

A spokesman for AstraZeneca said Soriot told von der Leyen the company was doing everything it could to bring its vaccine to millions of Europeans as soon as possible.

News emerged on Monday that the company faces wider supply problems.

Australia’s Health Minister Greg Hunt told reporters AstraZeneca had advised the country it had experienced “a significant supply shock”, which would cut supplies in March below what was agreed. He did not provide figures.

Thailand’s Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul said AstraZeneca would be supplying 150,000 doses instead of the 200,000 planned, and far less than the 1 million shots the country had initially requested.

AstraZeneca declined to comment on global supply issues.

The senior EU official said the bloc had a contractual right to check the company’s books to assess production and deliveries, a move that could imply the EU fears doses being diverted from Europe to other buyers outside the bloc.

AstraZeneca has received an upfront payment of 336 million euros ($409 million) from the EU, another official told Reuters when the 27-nation bloc sealed a supply deal with the company in August for at least 300 million doses - the first signed by the EU to secure COVID-19 shots..

Under advance purchase deals sealed during the pandemic, the EU makes down-payments to companies to secure doses, with the money expected to be mostly used to expand production capacity.

“Initial volumes will be lower than originally anticipated due to reduced yields at a manufacturing site within our European supply chain,” AstraZeneca said on Friday.

The site is a viral vectors factory in Belgium run by the drugmaker’s partner Novasep.

Viral vectors are produced in genetically modified living cells that have to be nurtured in bioreactors. The complex procedure requires fine-tuning of various inputs and variables to arrive at consistently high yields.

“The flimsy justification that there are difficulties in the EU supply chain but not elsewhere does not hold water, as it is of course no problem to get the vaccine from the UK to the continent,” said EU lawmaker Peter Liese, who is from the same party as German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

The EU called a meeting with AstraZeneca after Friday’s (22 January) announcement to seek further clarification. The meeting started at 1230 CET on Monday.

The EU official involved in the talks with AstraZeneca said expectations were not high for the meeting, in which the company will be asked to better explain the delays.

Earlier in January, Pfizer, which is currently the largest supplier of COVID-19 vaccines to the EU, announced delays of nearly a month to its shipments, but hours later revised this to say the delays would last only a week.

EU contracts with vaccine makers are confidential, but the EU official involved in the talks did not rule out penalties for AstraZeneca, given the large revision to its commitments. However, the source did not elaborate on what could trigger the penalties. “We are not there yet,” the official added.

“AstraZeneca has been contractually obligated to produce since as early as October and they are apparently delivering to other parts of the world, including the UK without delay,” Liese said.

AstraZeneca’s vaccine is expected to be approved for use in the EU on Jan. 29, with first deliveries expected from 15 February.

($1 = €0.8214)

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EU

Chemicals: EU protects wildlife from negative effects of lead in the environment

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On 25 January, the Commission took firm steps to ensure that wildlife is protected from the negative effects of lead in the environment, by restricting its use in gunshot in or around wetlands. Adopted under the framework of the EU's chemicals regulation, the measure will help to protect the environment by significantly reducing lead pollution while preventing the avoidable death by lead poisoning of around 1 million waterbirds every year. Lead is a highly toxic substance, which released to the environment contaminates both the soil and water.

Every year, 4,000 to 5,000 tonnes of lead are released into wetlands from lead gunshot.  There are affordable alternatives, for example steel gunshots, which currently cost about the same as lead gunshots. The measure adopted today will harmonise and enhance the effectiveness of national legislation limiting the use of lead gunshot in wetlands already in place in 24 member states.

It will start applying in two years' time. The restriction supports the goals of the Chemical Strategy for Sustainability and the Green Deal. It also supports the objectives of the Birds Directive, and is a first concrete deliverable under the new EU 2030 Biodiversity Strategy. More info here.

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