Being the region’s largest post-Soviet republic, Kazakhstan is the most critical of all Central Asian states when it comes to regional security. While the current government remains relatively stable, corruption plagues the country, especially within the armed forces, and officials are staging a crackdown.
Senior officials in several defense and security-related state agencies signed a memorandum on combating corruption in the armed forces, Interfax-Kazakhstan news agency reported on Nov. 25. Quoting a defense ministry press release, the Russian-language report said the measures would come into force on Jan. 1, 2016. According to the report, Defense Minister Imangali Tasmagambetov said, “corruption is one of the main factors that destroy not only the system but also the foundation of any state.” He added that the consequences of having corruption in the security forces are even greater.
Normally, such a major multi-agency effort to root out corruption within the armed forces of an autocratic regime would be extremely odd. After all, authoritarian states depend heavily on their armed forces to maintain their power. In the case of Kazakhstan, corruption has been a massive issue for Nazarbayev’s regime since even before the country became independent following the Soviet implosion. But in the past decade, the regime has become increasingly active in curbing the problem. Although, this has not had a significant impact considering Transparency International’s Corruption Index ranked Kazakhstan at 126 out of 174 countries in terms of corruption levels last year.
Even worse, the government has not only openly admitted that corruption is systemic in nature but also that the black economy accounts for 50 percent of the nation’s total commerce. At a time when the country is experiencing state-wide budget cuts, triggered by weak economic, corruption within the military is an even bigger issue. The World Bank forecast only 1.8 percent growth for 2015, compared to 4.3 percent in 2014 and 6 percent in 2013.
Today’s statement on combating corruption in the armed forces comes on the heels of an anti-corruption bill signed by Nazarbayev five days ago. This was accompanied by the chief prosecutor’s announcement on Nov. 19 that over 1,000 people had been disciplined since the beginning of the year due to involvement in corruption and 3,088 corruption-related crimes were logged – a 49 percent increase from 2014.
One of the main reasons for the regime’s crackdown is that investors are steering clear of the country. In addition, public discontent has been a concern for the country’s leaders since January 2014, when public protests erupted in Almaty and sparked a 19 percent devaluation in the tenge. Two months later, the defense ministry reported that corruption in the army had fallen 46 percent since 2011. Of course, these claims conflict with the latest anti-corruption drive specifically targeting the military.
In March, the head of the country’s Border Guard Service was sentenced to 11 years in jail for taking bribes and setting up an organized crime group. The list of disgraced elites is rather long and includes a former defense minister, former deputy defense minister, former air force chief and a high-level military official.
The new defense minister spearheading the anti-corruption effort was appointed in 2014. Tasmagambetov is touted by many as Nazarbayev’s successor and has been entrusted to clean out the military – a massive responsibility for someone who never wore the uniform. He is reportedly popular and an effective manager who has been in the ruling circles since independence. Ever since he took over the defense ministry, the armed forces have been in the process of a major reform.
As part of this process, Nazarbayev held a widely-publicized meeting with the top brass of the defense ministry and the joint chiefs of staff regarding the military’s capabilities to respond to security crises in 2014. The Kazakh president criticized the army leadership for “weak” financial discipline and “unnecessary” rotation and administrative restructuring, which cost the budget over $2 million in 2012 and $3.3 million in 2013.
What makes this situation even more of a problem is that efforts to rein in corruption can also prove destabilizing especially when the regime depends on the distribution of resources to elites. In other words, corruption is not just a threat but also a way to manage competing interests. One of the reasons anti-corruption is being emphasized is Astana’s limited supply of cash and efforts to implement privatization. It also comes at a time when the country is surrounded by crises, from its closest ally, Russia, to its key trading partner, China, and even Europe. In addition, the specter of jihadism is haunting Central Asia, given the rise of Islamic State in the Middle East and the Taliban in Afghanistan.
These various issues place far greater stress and strain on the smaller Central Asian countries but Kazakhstan is by no means sheltered from these problems. In fact, its corruption malaise could aggravate the threats from radical Islamists, public uprisings and, more importantly, military coups. Therefore, the government’s efforts to clean up the institution of the military is a key development that will need to be monitored closely.