The unrest that has gripped North Africa and the Middle East has been driven by a potent mixture of economics and politics. Citizens have taken to the streets to protest falling living standards, a lack of political power and an absence of opportunities.
In Kazakhstan, we know about the challenge of providing opportunities. Twenty years ago, when our country began its journey as an independent nation, most outside our borders dismissed us as a remote former Soviet republic. Our economy lay in ruins, and we had little capacity to provide basic services.
The situation today is very different. The Kazakh people’s hard work and unity have led to a stable, multicultural nation with a strong economy and rapidly improving living standards and public services. Increasingly, Kazakhstan is becoming an important bridge between East and West. Civil society is growing, and we are progressing steadily on the path of democratic reform.
A strong economy is essential for any country to fulfill its ambitions. Few nations can match our economic performance since independence; our gross domestic product per capita has risen more than twelvefold and exceeds $9,000. In 1991, our industries were under state control and we had no entrepreneurial class. Today, the private sector is the backbone of our economy, and there are more than 700,000 small and medium-size businesses.
This growing wealth has translated into more jobs, increased wages and investment in public services. In the past decade alone, average monthly wages have grown more than fivefold. Unemployment is down by half and is lower than the rates in the United States, Britain, France and Germany.
We have been fortunate that our country is rich in natural resources. We are the world’s largest uranium miner and home to the biggest oil discovery in the past 40 years. We know, however, that our most important resource is our people and that government must invest directly to improve citizens’ lives and opportunities. Health spending has increased 10 times in the past decade. Higher pensions and more jobs have reduced the number of Kazakhs living in poverty.
Our literacy rate is close to 100 percent. We are investing heavily in learning, with new schools and universities, as well as scholarships for 3,000 of our brightest young people to study abroad.
We are proud, too, of being a tolerant society where people of all backgrounds and religions are treated equally. We take the same approach to peoples outside our borders and have good relations with Russia, the United States, Europe, China and beyond.
Our country is, I believe, seen as a voice for moderation and peace, reinforced by our decision to give up the nuclear arsenal we inherited after the collapse of the Soviet Union. We were elected to chair the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe in 2010 and hosted the first OSCE Summit in 11 years in Astana. We are determined to play a unifying role between the West and the Islamic world through our chairmanship of the Organization of the Islamic Conference this year.
Our focus on economic strength and increased prosperity for our citizens is well justified and easily explained. Without such strength, as we have seen repeatedly around the world, stability is put at risk and democratic reform can founder.
According to the World Bank, Kazakhstan is an upper-middle-income country. By creating a strong middle class and raising incomes, we have given our citizens a powerful stake in their society. We need to strengthen democratic social and political institutions and processes to give them a bigger say over their future. Accountability and an increased focus on individual rights will go hand in hand with economic success.
We are determined to pick up the pace of reform. Next year’s elections will deliver a multiparty parliament, which is enshrined in law. On Sunday, voters will go to the polls to decide the outcome of the presidential elections. We will do everything to ensure these elections will be free and fair, and we have invited foreign observers to monitor the process.
We are also strengthening the judiciary’s independence, as well as reviewing laws and reforming enforcement agencies to better protect human rights. We are listening to our growing civil society about speeding up change in the culture on rights and freedom. We will, for example, make defamation a civil rather than a criminal offense to encourage free speech and bring us into line with international best practices.
It took the great democracies of the world centuries to develop. We are not going to become a fully developed democracy overnight. But we have proved that we can deliver on our big ambitions. Our road to democracy is irreversible, and we intend to provide economic and political opportunities for our citizens.
The writer is president of Kazakhstan.