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Kazakhstan’s Anti-Corruption Efforts: progress, but for how long?

Kazakhstan’s Anti-Corruption Efforts: progress, but for how long?

Photo credit: Kazakh journalist Samat Iskakov. The Light Rail Transit System aimed at promoting urban mobility has been under construction in the Kazakh capital, Astana, for a decade. Every new mayor of the capital has promised to complete the project and has received adequate funding to do so, yet it still lies unfinished. It is dubbed by the public “The Monument of Corruption”.

Dr Saltanat Janenova is Lecturer at the School for Policy Studies at the University of Bristol and Visiting Professor at The Academy of Public Administration under the President of Kazakhstan 

Kazakhstan has ambitious plans to become one of the top thirty developed countries in the world by 2050. Its most recent route map to achieve this is the “Economic Course of a Just Kazakhstan” announced by President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev in September 2023. A key pillar in this reform agenda is the development of a transparent, accountable, and ‘listening’ state. Rampant corruption is a key challenge in achieving the vision of a ‘Just Kazakhstan’. 

Kazakhstan has shown a slight improvement on Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index 2023 with a score of 39 out of 100 (climbing three points since 2022) and holding 93rd place out of 180 countries. This is the best result for Kazakhstan to date which is still considered as a ‘highly corrupt’ country. Yet, in the post-Soviet region Kazakhstan has outperformed its neighbours: Uzbekistan (33); Kyrgyzstan (26); Tajikistan (20) and Turkmenistan (18) as well as Azerbaijan (23, 154th place); Belarus (37, 98th place); and Russia (26, 141st place).  Corruption, loyalty, and patronage still prevail in the post-Soviet region crossing key policy sectors and reaching from the top to the lower tiers of governance. 

Gaining international legitimacy is now pivotal for Kazakhstan after its reputation as a politically stable country was shattered during the public unrest of 2022 and anti-corruption efforts are key to this. So, what lies behind the incremental improvement in anti-corruption efforts made by Kazakhstan? A combination of three key factors has made a positive impact on this progress: strong political commitment to anti-corruption; civil society activism; and the digitisation of public services.  

The first factor is a strong political commitment to fight corruption under the relatively new leadership of the country’s second post-independence President, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev. In the aftermath of the public outcry in January 2022 calling for a restoration of social justice, the government has been revisiting the social contract through de-monopolisation, de-oligarchisation and de-bureaucratisation. Under the policy of building a ‘Just Kazakhstan’, the anti-corruption drive has become a top priority on the political agenda. The recent appointment of 43-year-old Prime-Minister Olzhan Bektenov, former Head of the Presidential Administration and Chairman of the Anti-Corruption Agency, has given a clear signal to political and business elites and the public that there will be “an uncompromising fight against corruption”.    

A key milestone in the anti-corruption campaign was the adoption of a law “On the return of illegally acquired assets to the state” in July 2023 which triggered heated debates in the domestic political sphere. The law aims to target present and former senior managers in the government, quasi-governmental sector, and affiliated citizens who possess assets worth more than $100 million.  The Committee for asset recovery was established within the Prosecutor General’s Office and led by the Prime Minister, it includes senior officials from law enforcement agencies, parliamentary deputies, and public figures. The returned assets will be invested into social and infrastructure projects demonstrating the government’s efforts towards social justice. For example, over sixty new schools will be built to replace old buildings and address the shortage of student places using the returned assets.  Around 1 trillion tenge (or 2.2 billion USD) of illegally withdrawn assets including diverse types of property such as hotels, restaurants, business centres and land plots have been reclaimed.

A series of anti-corruption measures has been introduced in Kazakhstan over the past few years. In my research, I have analysed the role of ethics commissioners in combatting corruption as an attempt to transfer Western practice into the Kazakhstani context, albeit with limited success. The Anti-Corruption Agency, led by Askhat Zhumagali, registered over 1,500 corruption cases in 2023. It has been experimenting with behavioural policy tools such as anti-corruption SMS-messaging and billboards discouraging citizens and government officials from engaging in bribery. The impact of the behavioural interventions is yet to be examined.         

Photo credit: the Anti-corruption Agency of Kazakhstan. The message of the billboard says “Do you give to the ‘paw’? Stop feeding the ‘beast’” (i.e. “Do you give a bribe? Stop bribing corrupt officials). The message was misunderstood by the citizens of Kazakhstan and backfired through social media memes.

The second factor in facilitating progress is an increase in civil society activism following the January 2022 events. Civic activists (including Didar Smagulov, a leader of public union “Adildik Joly” – “Path to Justice” and Sanzhar Bokayev with his YouTube channel and 134,000 subscribers) use the dissemination of evidence and video recordings of their investigations through social media to ‘name and shame’ corrupt officials. 

The government’s response to such civic activism is mixed and can sometimes be contradictory. An Anti-Corruption Volunteering project was launched by the Anti-Corruption Agency to engage civil society in the fight against corruption, with over 2,000 concerned citizens participating. But in other cases, harsh legislative measures have been taken against journalists and civic activists who criticize the government for lack of transparency and accountability to the public. 

Finally, the third factor in reducing corruption is the digitisation of public services led by the Ministry for Digital Development, Innovations and Aerospace Industry. In the United Nations (UN) Global E-government Development Index for 2022, Kazakhstan held 28th position among 193 UN member states leading Central Asia and the South Caucasus. Research shows that many public services have become more transparent and easily accessible in Kazakhstan through the e-gov online portal, mobile app, and Public Service Centres (offering multiple integrated services at one location). The Minister, Bagdat Musin, and his team are driving significant technological changes and innovations across Kazakhstan’s public sector and beyond, sharing good practice with other Central Asian countries.          

What can we learn from this?  When government and civil society collaborate in fighting corruption with the support of public service modernisation and innovations, there is hope for improvement, even in a non-democratic context. But is this positive trend sustainable in the long-run? Will anti-corruption efforts improve the quality of ‘human’-centric public services (education, health care, welfare services) which cannot (and should not) be fully digitised?

Finally, serious concerns remain surrounding the use of authoritarian tools to control and restrict the voice of civil society in Kazakhstan resulting in a so-called ‘Half-Open Government’. No government in the world has been able to fight corruption successfully without joining forces with journalists, civic activists, researchers and gaining public trust. An anti-corruption campaign closed from public scrutiny would risk manipulation by inter-elite conflicts over power and financial resources. 

The opinions expressed are those of the contributor, not of the University of Bristol, The Academy of Public Administration or the RSAA.

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