Backgrounder – Security Sector Reform in Kazakhstan By: Allison Chandler | Kazakhstan | Nov 30, 2015

With the notable exception of Afghanistan, the region of Central Asia has historically been underrepresented by the security sector reform (SSR) field. While reform efforts in Central Asia are considerably more modest than well-publicized SSR initiatives in other parts of the world, the experiences of restrained reform in the region are nonetheless instructive. The record of SSR in Central Asia shows that reforms in limited parliamentary democracies face a different set of challenges and opportunities than SSR programs in fragile and conflict-affected states.


The state of Kazakhstan is a particularly interesting example to explore the capabilities and limitations of SSR in Central Asia. Kazakhstan is undergoing arguably the most extensive reforms in Central Asia, though they may be considered modest by the standards of some war-to-peace transition countries. Nevertheless, Astana’s reforms may prove to be unsustainable over the long run, as the reform efforts lack the comprehensive democratic foundation that forms the core of SSR orthodoxy.  As such, reforms are inconsistent across different institutions and issues like corruption, poor governance and cronyism still inhibit fully effective SSR.

Geopolitics and domestic security sector reform

Kazakhstan has one of the longest borders in the region, and fraying ethnic tensions and increasing instability in neighboring countries (particularly Afghanistan) have pushed Kazakhstan to reform border security to better conform to European norms. International drug trafficking in neighboring states presents a secondary threat to Kazakh society, as it can serve as a destabilizing force and undermine the centralization of the state if left unchecked.  Stronger border controls informed by European standards can thus reinforce internal stability.

Furthermore, Kazakh diplomacy has seen a shift in the past 15 years towards better relations with the EU and the West. In 2006 Kazakhstan signed an Individual Partnership Action Plan with NATO to inform defence and domestic security reforms, and in 2010, Kazakhstan became the chair of the OSCE.  In 2014, Nazarbayev completed negotiations over a new Partnership and Cooperation Agreement with the EU.  The 2015 EU Strategy for a New Partnership with Central Asia highlights the ongoing importance of strong multilateral cooperation when it comes to Central Asian states’ security. No doubt Astana’s desire to foster better relations with the West, modernize, and become “one of the top 30 developed countries by 2050” have influenced their reform efforts.

Key dimensions of security sector reform in Kazakhstan

Astana’s support for SSR is concentrated in the areas of military reform, judicial reform, and increased respect for human rights, with secondary areas of focus being police and intelligence reform. Despite reforms already underway, Kazakh SSR remains imperfect due to its rather piecemeal nature. No comprehensive strategy for reform across all security institutions has been developed, and certainly not one rooted in the liberal values espoused by the SSR model.

As a former Soviet state, the Kazakh security structures put in place following independence in 1991 closely mirrored Soviet security institutions. The military itself was large but relatively weak, and the majority of security functions were carried out by the Kazakh successors of the Soviet interior ministry and KGB. Security institutions were used to reinforce the power and authority of the regime and suppress dissent. Nevertheless, the rise of non-traditional security threats to Kazakhstan, like the international drug trade, has contributed to Kazakh President Nazarbayev’s decision to pursue some reform.

Military reform has so far focused on professionalization, turning a large but ineffective standing army into a modern elite fighting force at least ostensibly guided by the value of openness and transparency. Notably, military reforms have also highlighted the role Kazakhstan can and should play in international peacekeeping, with their first foray into the world of peacekeeping occurring in 2013. Police reform has also been largely limited to professionalization efforts; changing the culture of the police system towards a more service-oriented profession is the goal, at least according to the rhetoric of President Nazarbayev. However, existing patronage networks and limited resources are major impediments to progress in this arena.

According to Erica Marat of the Geneva Centre for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces (DCAF), Kazakh judicial reform is predicated on three ambitions: boosting transparency, providing public access to court trials, and to strengthen jury trials. Human rights are also becoming an increasingly important aspect of the judicial system; an official ombudsman was created in 2008 and concerted efforts have been taken by the Kazakh government to better meet OSCE human rights standards.  These include abandonment of the death penalty, the creation of a judicial academy, and the introduction of trial by jury. Many of these reforms were guided by documents such as the 2009 National Action Plan for Human Rights. Despite these advancements, both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have noted concern in reference to an apparent backslide of human rights in Kazakhstan since the labor strikes of 2011.  In particular, Amnesty International expressed concern regarding recent terrorism legislation; laws were strengthened throughout 2013-2014, which limited individual freedoms and hindered independent oversight of detention facilities.

While the intelligence sector underwent a radical reform in 2009, details are not widely available and public accountability is severely lacking. Intelligence services remain highly autonomous, well funded, personally linked to the president and shrouded in secrecy.

While clear progress is being made, SSR initiatives in Kazakhstan have not conformed to SSR ‘best practices’. Reforms are undertaken almost entirely at the will of President Nazarbayev with issues of public accountability and democratization as secondary considerations. Civil society is routinely accused of fomenting political instability and so is not actively engaged in the SSR process.  Kazakh security institutions remain highly susceptible to corruption and existing patronage networks greatly limit the impact of reforms. Nevertheless, Kazakhstan’s initial SSR forays could portend and influence reform efforts in other Central Asian states.

Looking ahead: Challenges to security sector reform efforts

The importance of Nazarbayev cannot be overstated in analyzing SSR in Kazakhstan. Not only is he personally responsible for authorizing many of the reforms, often against the wishes of Kazakh elites who benefit from the status quo, but Astana’s budding relationship with the West can also be attributed to his regime. This begs the question: how sustainable are these reforms if and when Nazarbayev is replaced? Moreover, are such reforms possible in other Central Asian countries that lack such a powerful figure?

A potentially disadvantageous cultural attitude may also be affecting the long-term viability of reform efforts in Kazakhstan. Central Asian states still largely see the security sector as an arm of the ruling party, and a pillar of their power base. This conflicts with many of the core principles of SSR, such as its human security focus, emphasis on democratic civilian control and the de-politicisation of security institutions. As such, this can lead to selective adoption of SSR practices by Central Asian states based on perceived importance; for example, materiel support is highly valued while anti-corruption efforts may be side-lined. Selectively applying SSR principles to benefit regimes over people can undermine the viability and efficacy of those reforms over the long-term.

More so than in other Central Asian countries, the West has a clear and strong influence over reform efforts in Kazakhstan. NATO has provided significant support for the modernization of the military services, mainly in the form of hardware assistance and training. The OSCE, meanwhile, have focused on police reform in the form of supporting mid-level ‘democratic policing’ with mixed success. However, a lack of coordination between donors has been a problem, exemplified by the fact that there are few concrete links between reform programs.

It is important to avoid overstating the role of external donors, as all reforms have been designed to be domestically sustainable. Kazakhstan will not require ongoing external subsidies for its security sector, like many other recipients of SSR assistance. As such, NATO, OSCE and EU involvement has been limited largely to expertise and training rather than financial contributions. As Kazakhstan and the West grow closer, a softening of the Kazakh position vis-à-vis transparency and public accountability may follow.

As David Lewis wrote, “security sector reform in authoritarian or semi-authoritarian states needs to be approached in a completely different way to security sector reform in countries in transition, or in post-conflict environments.” In Kazakhstan, the question remains whether a workable, sustainable SSR process can ever be realized if many of its core liberal tenets are not respected. There is progress, at least in part, towards the liberalization of Kazakh security institutions, but will the reforms (of the judiciary, for example) prove sustainable without greater dedication to the liberal ideology underpinning SSR? More analysis of the role and challenges of SSR in limited parliamentary democracies like Kazakhstan is needed to better understand how to promote effective SSR in different contexts.

Allison Chandler, a former Security Governance Group intern, recently graduated with an M.A. in War Studies, where she specialized in Conflict, Security and Development at King’s College London. She holds an undergraduate degree from McMaster University in Arts & Science. Her research interests include humanitarian intervention and the interdisciplinary nature of post-conflict reconstruction.


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