Saturday, June 13, 2015

New Adventure in Moscow


I started this blog in May 2011, just before my first study abroad experience in Kazakhstan. I was a rising junior in college and just starting to learn Russian. Four years later, it is a thrill to review old posts and reflect on my experiences and how I, as a regional enthusiast and an individual, have grown. I feel quite honored and privileged to have had so many opportunities to conduct research and study in Russia and Kazakhstan -- and I appreciate all of the feedback from readers.

In May, I graduated with my MA from Georgetown and am officially done with school (at least for the immediate future). I am starting a new adventure! I will soon be moving to Moscow as part of the Alfa Fellowship Program. 

The Alfa Fellowship is a 10-month exchange program for young professionals (ages 25-35) interested in Russia. In Moscow, I will continue to work on energy issues, building on my work in DC. 

Recent tensions in U.S.-Russian relations render exchange programs and "people-to-people diplomacy" initiatives invaluable to improving bilateral ties in the future. Now, more than ever, is the time to engage. Through the years, I hope that my blog posts have demonstrated that people are people, regardless of their country of citizenship. It is easy to criticize another country's policies, cultural traditions and norms, or to generate blanket characterizations of their ways of life. However, it is much more difficult to empathize (not sympathize, but empathize) with, and understand, the factors shaping another society, and why other cultures and countries are the way they are. 

That's where this blog (and others) comes in. I hope to continue to write about Russian and Central Asian affairs while in Moscow, as long as it is safe for me to do so. 

As always, I am fully responsible for all opinions and material posted on this blog.

Thanks readers. Until next time!  

Monday, May 4, 2015

Understanding Kazakhstan's Internal Politics


Please check out an article I wrote for The Diplomat on Kazakhstan's internal politics. Click here.


Saturday, May 2, 2015

Some Photos from the Field


Happy Saturday (here in DC)! I'm happy to have survived the week, despite the jet lag. Here are some photos from the field.

Thanks to photojournalist Patrick Ryan for passing on the first four photos in this post.  Please check out his blog, The rest of the photos are mine. Cheers!

Thanks to M, a gracious civil servant in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who hosted me and Patrick in Astana. M studied in Montana on a Bolashak scholarship and has fabulous English. She also successfully put up with me for four days -- bravo!

Chatting with Foreign Minister Idrissov. Next to me is London-based journalist and editor of The London PostDr. Shahid Qureshi. 

From Left to Right: Journalists from South Africa, Vietnam, the Netherlands (2), Foreign Minister Idrissov, yours truly, two journalists from the UK, one from Spain, South Korea and Vietnam.

The group one of the factories in the Astana Economic Zone. This one uses GE technology to produce railway cars.

The construction site for EXPO 2017.

Construction site of the main building for EXPO 2017.

This photo basically sums up Astana. Construction cranes galore.

I like to think of this photo as a metaphor for Kazakhstan's industrialization-development agenda. 

Photo of the outside of the factory that produces Talgo trains for Kazakhstan Temir Joly, the national railway company.

Talgo factory.

Bike rack outside of the "KazMunaiGaz" building. The text in Russian says "Our choice - ecology and sport."

Information on voters' rights for election day.

More information on voters' rights.


An official from the Ministry of Internal Affairs providing a briefing to members of the press at the Central Election Commission at 11 AM on election day. Translator is seated.

Members of the election commission preparing for press conference on April 27th.

The Man.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Unpacking Kazakhstan's Election Data


Now that I am back in DC, I can sit down and analyze the various facts, figures and notes I collected over the past few days in Astana.

While it is no surprise that President Nazarbayev was reelected with an overwhelming majority, the political implications of the elections, and the factors driving them in the first place, are more dynamic than have been presented in most Western media sources.

I am no Nate Silver, but as a political-economist, I do love some data analysis. Let’s look at the numbers. The Central Election Commission (CEC) reported that President Nazarbayev was reelected with 97% of the vote, with 95% voter turnout. Kussainov secured .68% and Syzdykov secured 1.68%.

I tallied up the votes from the oblasts reported by the CEC (available here) and I obtained slightly different numbers. As you see, I obtained a voter turnout of 94.93%. The sum of the reported oblast-level data totaled 9,036,724, whereas the CEC reported 9,090,920 voters. 

This was fishy. So I wrote to my contact at the CEC, who is the head of international affairs for the body. He responded that the difference can be explained by votes that were not counted because they indicated multiple candidates on their ballot and/or it was not possible to determine which candidate the voter selected. In total, there were 54,196 ballots that were discarded because they were illegible. This is understandable. After all, let us not forget the saga of the 2000 Presidential election with the vote count in Florida.

(On a side note – my contact has been very transparent and helpful both in Astana and communicating via email. As a foreigner, my interactions with government officials in any former Soviet state can be very hit or miss, so cheers to him for his professionalism.)

I spoke with the CEC after they announced the votes. In total, 93 complaints were registered. Most of these complaints were focused on issues surrounding the candidates, but no complaints were reported on violations of an individual’s right to vote.

Because the OSCE/ODIHR did not report major fraud, and noted that the elections were efficiently administered, I am going to accept the data as it is presented. Given the high turnout, is it possible that there was some sort of manipulation of votes? Sure. But I do not have the evidence to substantiate such a claim. Plus, in some of my more academic work, I deal with a lot of data from this region, and I can assure you, there is no such thing as good data. You work with what you have.

The numbers are quite revealing.

First, Nazarbayev secured the lowest percentage of the vote in Almaty city. With 92.55%, while this is the highest of all three candidates, it is the lowest level of support out of all of the oblasts and administrative districts.

Second, Kusainov proved to be a marginal candidate. I interviewed the leadership team of Kusainov. They indicated that they set up field offices in almost every oblast, except for oblasts they knew they did not have a chance. One of those oblasts was Mangistau. Not surprisingly, Kusainov only secured 707 votes there. Kusainov performed best in Almaty city (1.48%) and in Karaganda oblast (1.07%). Kusainov is from Karaganda oblast so he is a “favorite son.” In Almaty, voters who did not support Nazarbayev likely selected Kusainov as an alternative.

Third, Syzdykov performed remarkably well in Almaty, with 5.97% of the vote. I suspect that he attracted many older voters. He did less well in Astana city, securing 1.12% of the vote. The average age in Astana is 32 and almost everyone works in the government in some capacity, so it is not surprising that support for Syzdykov was low (but higher than in other oblasts and cities), and that Nazarbayev secured a strong 98.54% of the vote. Interestingly, Syzdykov performed the strongest in Mangistau oblast. Mangistau is an oil-producing region that borders the Caspian. According to Mangistau’s Development Strategy 2011-2015, the oblast had the second highest per capita GDP in Kazakhstan of 2542,5 thousand tenge in 2009. This is also 2.3 times higher than the national average for per capita GDP of 1068 thousand tenge. This is however, an inflated number because of the amount of oil produced and the high salaries of international oil workers. Many low ranking oil workers do not obtain attractive salaries and Mangistau has historically been a place of discontent and unrest. There were riots in the Mangistau in 1989 and in 2010. It is therefore not surprising that voters showed great support for Syzdykov.

On a methodological note, voters are registered to vote by their propiska – or registration. Every citizen in Kazakhstan has a propiska that is associated with an oblast. If I am living in Almaty city, and my propiska is in East Kazakhstan Oblast, in order to vote in Almaty, I must obtain the necessary documentation (like an out of state ballot) to cast the vote. In terms of the results of the data, this means that there are voters who are voting in areas outside of the regions where they are registered. Many people who work in Astana, for example, still have their Almaty propiska, simply because they haven not yet gotten around to the paperwork. Comrades, do not read into this, as this happens all the time in the US. For example, I am a resident of Virginia, but am registered to vote in NJ.

I hope that was a helpful exercise, readers. I have much more commentary to come, but I have received some feedback that my posts tend to be very long, so I am trying to keep them short, to the point and more frequent. I look forward to your feedback!

Monday, April 27, 2015

Quick Post-Election Comments


Yesterday, I visited a polling station, spoke with some voters, and listened to international observers. I spent a good four hours at the Central Election Commission observing the interaction between journalists and the members of the 15-member commission, who represent government officials and professionals from different regions.

During my time here, I met with members of Kussainov’s team, a representative from Nur Otan Party who was also a Bolashak Scholar in the US, and even had the opportunity to ask the President a question!!! (see 12:29 in the embedded video…though my Russian is shaky and I am quite nervous). I also attended the post-election briefing and comments by the U.S. observers.

I have quite a bit to write about. For now, let me share some quick comments on the administration of the election and timing of events.

As already mentioned, the CEC released the number of voters every two hours, with an hour lag time: the results announced at 11:00 AM reflected the number of votes that had been casted as of 10:00 AM. The CEC releases the percentages of total registered voters per region, and then calculates the average percentage of the population that voted by dividing the total number of votes by the total number of registered voters. Do not try to do an average of the percentages, because you will obtain a slightly higher figure. I calculated the number of votes casted after each announcement based on the percentage and regional totals. My calculated average using the aforementioned methodology is in yellow, while the CEC reported national average for voter turnout is in light green. For now, for the purpose of statistical simplicity, I accept the data as is presented. But a detailed investigation of the numbers is certainly warranted. The italicized numbers are figures from the CEC; the rest are my calculations.

Let me point out a few things:

First, voter turnout in Almaty city is 78.28%, the lowest in Kazakhstan. This reflects the fact that there was a major marathon yesterday, but also because Almaty citizens are quite cosmopolitan. I do not mean to suggest that cosmopolitan people do not vote, but rather, many of them have studied in the U.S. or overseas and have more liberal and diverse political perspectives relative to the rest of Kazakhstani society that lead them to voluntarily forego visiting the polls. It is also quite likely that many people registered to vote in Almaty either live overseas or in Astana, and forgot to fill out the equivalent of an “out of state” ballot.

Second, there has always been a high voter turnout in Kazakhstan. During the Soviet Union, citizens visited the polls en masse. Voting was, and is, considered a civic duty. To quote Vadim Socor, a scholar at The Jamestown Foundation and an observer of the election, “deference to authority,” and respect for the state, are parts of Kazakhstan’s political culture.

Third, please do not be disillusioned by the 100%+ increase in votes between 10 AM and 12 PM. This reflects the fact that, in Almaty, for example, 85,713 votes were cast by 10 AM, while 177,497 were cast by 12 PM. Similarly, in South Kazakhstan Oblast, 174,408 votes were cast by 10 AM, and 409,588 were cast by 12 PM. In percentage terms, this is a lot, but when you look at the number of votes, it is really not that outlandish. Later in the day, the percentage increase in votes tapers.

More to come…

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Election Day: View from the Ground


Happy election day! It has been a very long day, and I have more anecdotes and analysis than can fit into one blog post. So let me use this blog as a platform to give an "on the ground" view of the administration of the elections, showcasing pictures from the field. More details tomorrow!

Apologies for the late posting -- as my cab was driving up to the hotel last night at 7:45, one of my journalist colleague from the Netherlands was waiting for her driver to take her to the opera. She saw me and exclaimed, "I need a driver, and I have an extra ticket to the Astana opera, would you like to come?" I mean, how could I say no? So hence the delay...but I can say with confidence that a visit to the Astana Opera is a MUST.

A briefing held by Zhangul Kusmangaliyeva and Nurlan Yermbetov of the Central Election Commission for foreign journalists. Funny, because I ran into Yermbetov at the polling station today.

An informational poster that explains the rights of voters and observers.

The campaign posters for Nazarbayev (top), Kussainov (bottom right), and Syzdykov (bottom left).

A school where voting occurred.

Information on voting. Notice that the information appears in both Kazakh and Russian. The ballots are also in Kazakh and Russian.

In terms of political culture and election day paraphernalia, Americans have "I voted" lapel pins, and Kazakhs have photo boards. Different strokes for different folks.

Add caption

Dancers and music at the polling station. This may seem silly to most Americans, considering our voting stations are pretty bland, but this is actually very Kazakh. This

A sample ballot (in poster form).

An informational board for the elections.

Voters waiting in line. I sat for over an hour in the designated area for media, observers and lawyers. I noticed some individuals were in line for over thirty minutes, until they could verify their ID and then vote. 

Voters registering. I chatted with two Kazakhstani observers -- both women were int heir 40s and decided to volunteer for the day. Several thousand observers were deployed throughout the country. The observers counted people as they entered. The gal I chatted with, indicated that some 800-1,000 people entered her room alone! They also watched to make sure there was no funny business. I asked them to explain the voting procedure. It works the following: you present your registration document (where you live) and an ID to the individual at the desk, sign in, and get a ballot. You then enter behind the curtains, select your candidate, and drop the ballot into the box. You are then on your merry way. They did not explain the counting and verification process. 


The three candidates at a school where voting occurred. 

The Central Election Commission (CEC). A representative of the CEC gave a briefing with the number of votes at 11 am, 1 PM, 3 PM, 5 PM and 7 PM. The ballot stations opened at 7 AM and closed at 8 PM. There were 9,741 polling stations throughout the country, and there are  9,518,897 registered voters. To provide some context, the population of Kazakhstan is 17 million -- give or take for unregistered migrant workers from the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). The official Kazakhstani labor force is ~10 million, so this the number of registered voters is roughly accurate. Interestingly, however, the CEC releases the amount of votes casted, but does not release for which candidate the votes were casted, or any preliminary results. In fact, it was not until after 12:00 local (Astana) time, when the exit poll results were released: President Nazarbayev won with 97.5% of the vote, while Kussainov secured 0.63%, and Syzdykov garnered 1.87%.   

A representative of the Ministry of Interior and a translator giving a briefing at the CEC noon. By law, the law enforcement bodies work from April 22-28 for the elections, as does the general prosecutor's office. Some 20,000 police officers were deployed throughout the country. In Karaganda oblast, where floods have recently wreaked havoc on rural populations, efforts were made to accommodate such voters.

The press area at the CEC.
Members of the local media at the CEC. Say what you want about the elections, but certainly members of the media take their job very seriously. The CEC was swarming with activity, as election results came in and journalists rushed to post the results. It was a younger crowd, of course. In fact, the average age in Astana is 32. This of course, is a reflection of the fact that Kazakhstan is a young government and that at the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union, it only had a handful of experienced statesmen. This explains why so many high ranking officials are young, relative to Western standards.

Election observers from Bulgaria. Throughout the day, international observers delivered remarks at the "Duman hotel," where many international journalists are staying. Kudos to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for their organization.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Day 1: The Kazakhstani Economy in Transition

Day 1 Elections


Greetings from Astana, Kazakhstan! The last few days have been long, but nothing short of exciting. I arrived in Astana at 5:50 AM local time on Friday morning, after the long journey.

I confess this is my first time covering a Presidential election as a member of the international press corps. But I have been a member of the “press” in Kazakhstan before, as I had traveled with a group of journalists to cover the opening exhibit of the “Khorgos II” special economic zone in October 2013. But this cohort has a United Nations of press people, with TV reporters and print journalists from Vietnam, the Netherlands, South Korea, South Africa, the UK, Canada and Italy. There’s one other American – a DC-based photojournalist.

The day was jam-packed: Press briefing with Foreign Minister Idrissov, a visit and briefing to the Astana EXPO 2017, and an interview with the leadership team of the self-nominated candidate Abelgazi Kussainov (unfortunately Kussainov was in a different city). On Saturday, I toured three factories located within the Astana Economic Zone and then went to a press briefing hosted by Public Election Monitoring Commission Chairman, Nurlan Yerimbetov. And I’ve managed to squeeze in a few visits with friends.

I am going to hold off on commenting on the elections, as I was only able to meet with one of the candidate’s team, and today is the official “day of silence” before the elections. I am reluctant to share an opinion until after I have the opportunity to sit down with all three candidates’ representatives.

In this post, I want to contextualize the political-economic environment in which the elections are occurring, and how some members of Kazakhstani population view themselves and the future of their country.

I was fortunate to ask Foreign Minister Erlan Idrissov at the press briefing for international journalists. My first question: Kazakhstan is a member of the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) and Eurasian Customs Union (ECU), which are part of its goal of “being land linked, rather than land locked” and maintaining a multi-vector foreign policy. Kazakhstan has also expressed its intention to join the World Trade Organization (WTO). During its first few years of implementation, we have seen a number of unanticipated and anticipated challenges to the ECU. For example, there were bans on the export of certain oil and gas (O&G) products, such as Kerosene, from Kazakhstan, and Kazakhstan also prohibited imports of halal products from Russia. The beginning of any economic institution is always challenging – after all, NAFTA was not easy to negotiate, let alone implement early on. How has Kazakhstan addressed these initial challenges? How is Kazakhstan working with Russia and Belarus to address anticipated challenges and predict unanticipated challenges?

In his answer, Idrissov agreed that these challenges are a natural part of the beginning of any new trade-economic union. He noted that many of these trade issues were not caused because of ECU membership, but because of three external factors:  Western sanctions against Russia, the fall in the value of the ruble and the tenge, and a drop in global commodity prices. These developments affected the workings of the EEU, creating the “bumps in the road.”  Idrissov emphasized that all of these trade actions were taken in consultation with other members of the ECU with the understanding that they are temporary policy measures, rather than fundamental changes in Kazakhstan’s long-term trade policy. Idrissov added that the response of Kazakhstan and the entire ECU to negative market developments is an indication of the long-term sustainability of the ECU insofar as members can collectively discuss issues and formulate a solution.

With respect to WTO, Idrissov added that Prime Minister Karim Massimov recently returned from a weeklong trip to Washington, D.C. And as a result of the trip, Kazakhstan and the United States formally concluded their WTO negotiations. Now Kazakhstan must negotiate with a few more members. Readers, believe me, as a follower of Central Asian relations – the fact that Kazakhstan and the U.S. completed WTO negotiations is a BIG deal. This development is a real step towards Kazakhstan joining the WTO by the end of 2015.

To add in my analysis…I was very glad to hear Idrissov explicitly state that such measures were taken to support Kazakhstani producers, as I previously interviewed Kazakhstani entrepreneurs who were dissatisfied with the reforms taken to support the competitiveness of domestic industry prior to joining the ECU. Thus, steps taken by the Kazakhstani government to limit imports of select products was motivated, in part, by the imperative to protect domestic producers.

At one level, it is interesting to consider the Customs Union within the context of global trade patterns. Almost all regional trade groups face issues and domestic business elites are always major stakeholders. Look at the problems associated with reforming agricultural policy in the EU, and pushback from farmers. The fact that Kazakhstan – and Russia – have domestic business elites who are interacting with their governments indicates that businessmen are integrated into the global economy and is a positive development insofar as they have something of value they want to protect – their businesses.

It is also interesting to think about the Customs Union relative to Kazakhstan’s economic development as a whole. Kazakhstan is a middle-income country with an average per-capita GDP of over $13,000. Kazakhstan in that respect faces the traditional development challenges of all middle-income countries, in that it has more complex development challenges and obtaining 8% growth rates per annum is simply not a reality. Plus, Kazakhstan’s development is further challenged by fluctuations in commodity markets, as O&G generates nearly 60% of the budget revenue. Kazakhstan’s future growth, therefore, depends on its ability to develop a competitive advantage in select, strategic sectors.

As I mentioned, today we toured three factories in Astana’s industrial park. While I will detail the excursions in a later post, let me share one anecdote. The General Manager of a train factory explained how the factory relies on steel imported from Russia, as this steel has unique chemical properties that allow it to keep its shape at high temperatures. One of the goals of the factory is to use steel from Kazakhstan. While Kazakhstan produces steel, it does not yet produce this kind of steel. But it has the potential to do so. The factory is working with ArcellorMillar in Kazakhstan to modify their upstream manufacturing and processing procedures so as to enable the factory to locally source the materials. This will help increase the percentage of “localized material.” Currently, 24% of inputs are local sourced. At the same time because “localization” is defined by products that are from Kazakhstan and/or from the ECU, the steel imported from Russia technically is counted as “localized.” Thus, Kazakhstan’s economic development relies not only on international investment, but also on the investment into strategic competitive industries. This is about developing the sustained capacity to export high-value, niche products. But this process starts with more basic investment projects – such as a train factory, generates value-added spinoffs that increase Kazakhstan’s competitiveness relative to global standards and relative to other ECU members. This is no easy task.

My second question to Minister Idrissov (that was one, multi-part question), was: In a low oil-priced environment, how is Kazakhstan working to sustain investment in the O&G sector, particularly in upstream production?

Idrissov first responded that Kazakhstan is trying to attract investment into the non-extractive resource centers. Kazakhstan has implemented a variety of measures to attract investment, such as tax holidays, the creation of a “stop-and-shop” facility for foreign investors and a relaxation of restrictions on foreign work visas. There is also a new law, under which a foreign company that invests $20 million into the construction of a new industrial facility, and the investor is reimbursed 30% of their initial investment after one year of the facility’s successful operation. Such measures were not introduced in response to the fall in commodity prices, but are part of Kazakhstan’s overall plans for economic diversification and development.

And so, elections aside, Kazakhstan is a structurally unique position in its economic development history. At the same time, its geographic location in Eurasia positions it to be exposed a diversity of ideas and political influences. Kazakhstanis are very conscious of this, and to paraphrase Public Election Monitoring Commission Chairman, Nurlan Yerimbetov, “Kazakhstan has observed all of the problems around the world, and we believe that it is most important to have a unified country and unified people. This election is a test of our unity and an opportunity to come together.”

Until next post – Сау Бол!