A year ago, Kazakhstan's president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, lectured his countrymen about the need to root out graft. A year later, with polls showing bribery continuing to thrive, the president is renewing efforts to combat corruption. But it is plainly an uphill struggle.
It was at a session of the party he leads, Nur Otan, that Nazarbayev tackled the thorny problem of corruption in January 2008, and he chose to raise the topic again with party members as last year drew to a close at a special Anti-Corruption Forum. Much has been done "to root out this social evil," Nazarbayev said. With endemic corruption undermining the economy -- which has taken a further battering from the global financial crisis -- and threatening Nazarbayev's ambition to join the world's 50 most competitive states, he is determined to keep graft high on the agenda. "Corruption threatens the development of our state, its economic growth and political stability. And we are going to conduct the most rigorous and decisive fight against it," Nazarbayev said. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Adopting a nationwide anti-corruption action plan topped Nazarbayev's list of priorities, along with overhauling the law-enforcement system, in which bribery is rife. He also is intent on concentrating the fight against graft in a single body, and revamping anti-corruption legislation.
Nazarbayev has offered few specifics on how the law-enforcement system should be overhauled, but he gave more detailed suggestions on streamlining the bloated bureaucracy. State management needs tightening up, he said, ruling out duplicate functions and gray areas.
Improving e-government to minimize contact between the public and bribe-seeking officials would be a start, Nazarbayev added, but the main focus should be on purging "corrupt elements" and creating a new generation of honest, competent public servants governed by ethical principles.
Nazarbayev has called for a new law on lobbying to prevent officials from promoting corporate interests, indicating an awareness of the blurred line between officialdom and business. This was illustrated by the appointment last fall of Nazarbayev's own son-in-law, Timur Kulibayev, as deputy head of the Samruk-Kazyna fund, which is overseeing a $3.47 billion package to purchase stakes in banks to help them weather the financial crisis. Kulibayev and his wife, Dinara Kulibayeva, own a 68.7 percent stake in Halyk Bank, in which the state is to spend $500 million buying a 25 percent stake. Halyk Bank is also set to receive $1 billion in state capital injections before the end of January. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Acknowledging low public-sector salaries as a key factor in the corruption problem, Nazarbayev has expressed a desire to establish a universal system for declaring sources of revenue. Measures to reduce the temptation to take bribes include pay rises introduced from January 1: a 25 percent rise for public servants, a 60 percent rise for local court judges, and almost tripling salaries for traffic police.
With a recent poll indicating that some two thirds of Kazakhstanis have encountered corruption, the measures to tackle bribery are sorely needed. The poll of just over 3,000 respondents -- conducted by the Association of Sociologists and Political Scientists (ASPS) in late November -- showed that almost 72 percent of Kazakhstani citizens have encountered corrupt situations.
Customs and tax officials, police, healthcare workers and judges topped the list of bribe-takers. The poll found that the average payoff for a judge was a hefty $3,746, Interfax-Kazakhstan news agency reported. Meanwhile, corruption-related crime at prosecutor's offices alone cost the state nearly $1 million in 2008, Deputy Prosecutor-General Rakhymbek Mamyrbayev said January 23.
Corruption is also reportedly rife within the education system. Data compiled by the ZhanaSu Center for Youth Initiatives, covering 28 higher education establishments in Almaty, showed that of 2,000 students polled 42 percent had paid bribes and 58 percent thought grades were up for sale. The results were published in late October by the Respublika newspaper. Meanwhile, eighty-four education workers were convicted of corruption-related crimes in 2008, Education Minister Zhanseit Tuymebayev said January 22, but observers say that these cases represent just the tip of the iceberg.
ASPS research suggested that "corruption has become part of the mentality" in Kazakhstan, Bakhytzhamal Bekturganova, ASPS chairwoman, told a round table in Astana the day before November's Anti-Corruption Forum. "People turn to corruption as a very convenient means of resolving their problems," she said in remarks quoted by Kazakhstan Today news agency.
Nazarbayev is adamant that the mentality of tolerating graft needs tackling. "Absolute intolerance of any type of corrupt phenomenon must be cultivated in the public consciousness," he told the Astana forum.
As the corruption case known as Kazakhgate continues its glacial progress through the US courts, his remarks struck some commentators as ironic. Although Nazarbayev is not under indictment, the case has implicated the president of massive bribe-taking. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. In any event, Kazakhgate -- in which US businessman James Giffen, a former Nazarbayev adviser, is accused of giving millions of dollars in bribes to top Kazakhstani officials -- is far from the public eye in Kazakhstan, with all but a handful of media outlets ignoring developments.
Despite the daunting challenges, Nazarbayev's administration has made tangible progress in containing corruption. Kazakhstan has climbed up Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index, improving from 150th in the world in 2007 to 145th in 2008. This is a better ranking than any of its Central Asian neighbors and two places above Russia.
One notable setback in the prosecution of allegedly corrupt officials concerns the former head of Kazakhstan Railways, Zhaksybek Kulekeyev, who was detained in April 2008 on suspicion of taking $100,000. The case against him collapsed in court amid suspicions that it may have been politically motivated; in November Kulekeyev was acquitted on the main charge but given a three year prison term for abuse of office, fuelling suspicion that the anti-corruption drive, however well-intentioned, can also be used for political ends.