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Voters go to rural polls for first time in Kazakhstan

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Voters in Kazakhstan's rural districts went to the polls at the weekend in keenly-awaited local elections that are seen as a further step in the country’s road to a fully functioning democracy, writes Colin Stevens.

For the first time ever, people in villages, settlements and small towns got the chance to elect  local leaders, or akims (mayors).

A total of 2,297 candidates competed for 730 mayoral seats. The final list was reduced from an initial 2,582 candidates. The formal results are expected to be announced later this week.

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Under a new system introduced by President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, any citizen aged 25 years and over could run for the post of local mayor.A total of 878 of candidates, or 38.2 per cent, represented one of the country’s mainstream political parties but, crucially, more than 60% of the candidates, a total of 1,419, ran as independents rather than with the backing of a political party.

According to experts, the most active residents were from the East Kazakhstan and Zhambyl regions, where the voter turnout exceeded 90 percent. Whereas, the lowest number of voters was in Almaty region. The voting was monitored by more than 2,000 observers. However, they did not report any serious violations.

Observers say that the elections have created additional opportunities for active citizens to realize their potential and that the presidential political reforms have sparked keen interest in Kazak society.

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The elections are seen as a key step in efforts to gradually liberalise Kazakhstan's political system, which has for almost three decades been dominated by the presidency.

Tokayev came to power in 2019 after the surprise resignation of Nursultan Nazarbayev who had run the nation of 19 million since independence and the elections honour a key pledge he made at the time.

A well placed source at the Kazakhstan embassy to the EU told this website the elections of rural akims was “a very important moment which opens a new stage of political modernization in our country.”

The election campaign had partly focused on both the health and economic implications that arise from the Covid-19 pandemic.

Much of the campaigning took place online on social media, as the current situation is subject to pandemic restrictions. But it is also hoped that this can give a real new impetus of digital political democratisation for the young generations as half of the Kazakh population is under the age of 30.

The president announced the initiative to hold local elections in his address to the nation last year and less than a year has passed to this becoming a reality.

The Kazak source went on: “The elections of rural akims opens up new opportunities for citizens to directly influence the development of their settlements. They form new long-term principles in the functioning of the public administration system and qualitatively change the nature of relations between state and society.”

The election campaign had reportedly aroused wide interest among citizens and cultivated increased political competition. The high number of independent candidates was particularly notable.

“In general, these local elections will contribute to the further democratization of the country,” added the source.

The source stressed the “strategic importance” of the elections, saying they marked “serious institutional changes” in the system of local government in the country.

“Along with the adoption of a new law on peaceful assemblies and the liberalization of legislation on elections, the introduction of direct election of akims contributes to an increase in the political culture and political participation of Kazakhstanis.”

It is also hoped, he said, that the elections will also pave the way for a new generation of civil servants and improvements to the state apparatus.

“All this together will provide positive impetus to the further development of the local government system and is a progressive change in the country.They clearly show that the president’s initiatives and decisions are gradually being implemented and enjoy broad support in society.”

He points out 10 new laws on political reforms have already been adopted since the president came to power and several more are in the pipeline.

Further comment comes from Axel Goethals, CEO at the Brussels based European Institute for Asian Studies, who believes the elections  “will continue the steady progress towards a more coherent democratic structure in the nation”.

Goethals told this site the elections should be seen as a process of ‘controlled democratisation’ and it was encouraging to see “signs of improvement” which include a “fledgling multi party system and the move towards more complete representation and political competition”.

Goethals added: “Kazakhstan under President Tokayev has also made very positive inroads into increasing general representation and civil society participation in its democratic process.This election and voting process must be considered in a broader context of a country still evolving. As a former Soviet state, Kazakhstan is slowly moving towards a more open democratic system. This is a process which cannot happen overnight and requires a more gradual approach to avoid abrupt or forced changes which could result in instability, as it is also part of a learning curve of democratisation for the voters, the candidates, the political parties as well as for the institutions in Kazakhstan.

“President Tokayev has shown real commitment and determination in order to improve the socio-economic fabric of Kazakhstan through political modernisation. This has been built upon by the legacy and reforms initiated by his predecessor Nursultan Nazarbayev, the first President of the Republic of Kazakhstan.”

Elsewhere, MEP Andris Ameriks, Vice-Chair of the Central Asian delegation in the European Parliament, told EU Reporter:  “The results of the elections are highly important for Kazakhstan.

“At a time when the whole world is still struggling with a pandemic that has caused great social turmoil and provoked national governments, it is vital that these elections provide a real example of mutual trust between the people and the authorities.”

Fraser Cameron, a former  European Commission official and now director of the Brussels-based EU/Asia Centre, agrees, saying that the elections “should mark another step forward in Kazakhstan’s  steady progress towards a more open and democratic society”.

Kazakhstan

Commentary from Benedikt Sobotka, Honorary Consul of Kazakhstan in Luxembourg, on President Tokayev's State of the Nation Address

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“We are encouraged to see a wide range of policies that will set the tone for Kazakhstan’s transformation in the years ahead, and by the country’s clear ambition to reach carbon neutrality by 2060. Progress in developing the country’s net zero goals has been impressive – Kazakhstan was the first country in Central Asia to establish a national Emissions Trading Scheme to put a price on carbon. Earlier this year, the country also adopted a new Environmental Code to accelerate the shift to sustainable practices.  

"A key enabler of Kazakhstan’s transition to net zero over the next decades will be digitalization. We welcome Kazakhstan’s efforts to place digital growth at the heart of the country’s vision for the future. Over the years, Kazakhstan has taken digital transformation to a new level, investing heavily in new ‘smart city’ technologies to improve and automate city services and urban life. The country has succeeded in establishing an innovative digital ecosystem in Central Asia that has been reinforced by the creation of the Astana International Financial Centre and the Astana Hub, home to several hundreds of tech companies that enjoy preferential tax status. 

"Underlying this technological transformation has been Kazakhstan’s commitment to digital learning solutions, designed to catalyse over 100,000 IT specialists to develop technical skills that are integral to the Fourth Industrial Revolution. The shift to digital learning opportunities has also been reflected in Kazakhstan’s approach to education – with plans to create 1000 new schools, the country’s commitment to upskilling youth will be key to creating an inclusive and sustainable economy of the future.”

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Kazakhstan collects 5 medals at 2020 Tokyo Paralympics

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Kazakhstan collected five medals - one gold, three silver and one bronze - at the Tokyo 2020 Summer Paralympic Games in Japan, Kazinform has learnt from the official website of the event. Kazakhstan para-powerlifter David Degtyarev lifted Kazakhstan to its only gold medal at the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics.

Kazakhstan hauled all three silver medals in judo as Anuar Sariyev, Temirzhan Daulet and Zarina Baibatina all clinched silver in Men’s -60kg, Men’s -73kg and Women’s +70kg weight categories, respectively. Kazakhstani para-swimmer Nurdaulet Zhumagali settled for bronze in Men’s 100m Breaststroke event. Team Kazakhstan is ranked 52nd in the overall medal tally of the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics together with Finland. China tops the medal standing with 207 medals, including 96 gold, 60 silver and 51 bronze. Ranked second is Great Britain with 124 medals. The US is third with 104 medals.

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Zhambyl Zhabayev’s 175th anniversary: A poet who outlived his (almost) 100 years of physical life

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Zhambyl Zhabayev. Photo credit: Bilimdinews.kz.
Zhambyl Zhabayev (pictured) is not just a great Kazakh poet, he became almost a mythical figure, uniting very different epochs. Even his life span is unique: born in 1846  he died on June 22, 1945 – weeks after the defeat of Nazism in Germany. He had only eight months more to live to celebrate his 100th birthday, his centenary, writes Dmitry Babich in Kazakhstan’s Independence: 30 Years, Op-Ed.  

Now we are celebrating his 175th birthday.

Zhambyl, who was born just four years after the death of Mikhail Lermontov and nine years after the death of Alexander Pushkin – the two great Russian poets. To feel the distance, it is enough to say that their images were brought to us only by painters – photography did not exist at the time of their early deaths in bloody duels. Zhambyl breathed the same air with them…

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But Zhambyl  is also the indispensable memory of our fathers’ childhood, the evergreen “grandfatherly figure”, who seemed so close, so “one of us” not only thanks to numerous photos in newspapers. But most of all – thanks to his  beautiful, but also easily understandable verses about Kazakhstan, its nature, its people. But not only about the motherland – singing from Kazakhstan’s heartland, Zhambyl found a way to respond to the tragedy of World War II, Leningrad’s blockade, and many, many other tectonic “shifts of history” that took place in his lifetime.

The living room of the Zhambyl Zhabayev’s museum, which is located 70 km from Almaty where the poet lived in 1938-1945. Photo credit: Yvision.kz.

Could someone link these two worlds – Kazakhstan before its “Tsarist period”, the times of Pushkin and Lermontov, – and our generation, which saw the end of the Soviet Union and the success of independent Kazakhstan?

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There is only one such figure – Zhambyl.

It is amazing that his world fame came to him around 1936, at the moment when he was 90. “You are never too old to learn” – this is a reassuring statement. But “you are never too old for fame” is an even more reassuring one. Zhambyl got famous in 1936, when a Kazakh poet Abdilda Tazhibayev proposed Zhambyl for the position of the “wise old man“ of the Soviet Union (aksakal), a niche traditionally filled by the ageing poets from the Caucasus lands. Zhambyl immediately won the contest: he was not only older (his competitor from Dagestan, Suleiman Stalski, was 23 years younger), Zhambyl was certainly more colorful.  Raised near the old town of Taraz (later renamed after Zhambyl), Zhambyl had been playing dombura since the age of 14 and winning local poetic contests (aitys) since 1881. Zhambyl wore traditional Kazakh clothes and preferred to stick to the traditional protein-rich diet of the steppes, which allowed him live so long. But there was certainly something more to him – Zhambyl indeed was a poet.

A monument to Zhambyl Zhabayev in Almaty.

Critics (and some detractors) accuse Zhambyl of writing “political poetry,” of being blinded by the might (which was not always right) of the Soviet Union. There is some factual truth to that statement, but there is no aesthetic truth to it. Leopold Senghor, the legendary first president of independent Senegal, also wrote political verses, some of them about the “strength” and “might” of political “strongmen” of the 20th century. But Senghor wrote these verses sincerely – and he stayed in the history of literature. And Senghor stayed in history in a much more honorary position than the political strongmen, whom he admired.

For Zhambyl, the people of Leningrad, (now St.Petersburg) who sustained awful famine during the siege of their city by the Nazis in 1941-1944, – they were INDEED his children. In his verses, Zhambyl felt pain for every one of more than 1 million people starved to death in that majestic imperial city on the shores of the Baltic sea, whose palaces and bridges were so far away from him. For poetry, distances do not matter. It is the emotion that counts. And Zhambyl had a strong emotion. You can feel it reading his verses of a 95 years old man:

Leningraders, children of mine!

For you – apples, sweet as best wine,

For you – horses of the best breeds,

For your, fighters, most dire needs…

(Kazakhstan was famous for its apples and horse-breeding traditions.)

Leningraders, my love and pride!

Let my glance through mountains glide,

In the snow of rocky ridges

I can see your columns and bridges,

In the sound of spring torrent,

I can feel your pain, your torment…

(Verses translated by Dmitry Babich)

The famous Russian poet Boris Pasternak (1891-1960), whom Zhambyl could call a younger colleague, had huge respect for the kind of folk poetry that Zhambyl represented, wrote about this verses that “a poet can see events before they happen” and poetry reflects a “human condition” at its symbolic core.

This is certainly true of Zhambyl. His long life and work are a tale of human condition.  

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