Under the auspices of the British Council’s Researcher Links programme, the University of York and the L. N. Gumilyov Eurasian National University convened a workshop on the theme of Sustainable Cities: rapid urbanisation and sustainability in Kazakhstan – exploring the use of novel technologies and research methods to address environmental and social change. The workshop brought together 20 early career researchers and academic mentors from UK universities with their counterparts from Kazakhstan for a week of talks, research development exercises and visits to the Eurasian National University and key urban infrastructure. As part of the week’s activities, groups of researchers were invited to share their ideas and impressions regarding the key challenges and opportunities facing Kazakhstan’s cities, which we report below. We hope that the conversations begun in Astana during this stimulating collaboration between Kazakh and UK academics will bear fruit in terms of future research collaboration.
Governing urbanisation in Kazakhstan
Like most countries, Kazakhstan is concerned with the future development and prosperity of constituent cities and regions; how is the modernisation and urbanisation of the country to be governed? How can people prosper, and social cohesion and environmental protection be ensured? In all countries, these questions must to be superimposed on existing institutions, societal norms, state budgets and cultural practice. The major cities of Kazakhstan are also modernising very rapidly. City institutions are transitioning from those of a young, post-Soviet country, to those of an established independent nation. This includes building the capacity of local government and, crucially, the cultivation of a latent civil society dialogue.
With colleagues from Kazakh Universities, a group of researchers from the UK are in the capital Astana investigating the pressures of modernisation on the governance of sustainable development in the cities and regions of Kazakhstan. Through often passionate discussions, two issues consistently emerge for the governance of sustainable development.
Firstly there has been a consistent concern about the ability of Kazakh civil society to participate in decision making on issues such as urban water management, air quality, waste management and urban planning. It’s important for UK researchers to understand how much of this is due to a cultural memory of 74 years of socialist rule, under which decisions were made centrally and civil participation could be dangerous. The operation of civil society in Kazakhstan has also recently been expressed through family or neighbourhood units. This means there is a mechanism for dealing with local issues and social provision. Yet under modernisation and urbanisation the satisfaction of basic needs can lead to larger scale impacts. Collection and disposable of solid and sewage waste in cities of one million and above can lead to large scale environmental and social problems which require strong civil participation as well as state action. The planning of a city region needs to engage with organisations above neighbourhood level.
State action and structure is the second issue under debate. Kazakhstan has a very strong central government structure, used to delivering urban and regional as well as national projects. Strengthening the capacity of municipal governments has been identified as a real challenge, as city and regional governments are becoming responsible for the daily needs of urban populations that, in the case of Astana and Almaty in particular, are growing and changing rapidly. Of course the institutional asymmetry of a strong central state with low fiscal and political autonomy for local governments is familiar to UK colleagues. This is why discussion of the shift towards localism and greater powers for Scotland following last year’s referendum has been extremely useful for framing the debate on local governance in Kazakhstan.
In Kazakhstan the parallel evolution of civic participation and the capacity of municipal government will define how far sustainable development can be democratised at the local level. At the national-level intergovernmental co-operation will also be key for sharing solutions to urban problems. There are important developments in urban planning, such as the Master Plan of Astana—newly revised for the 2017 World Expo—which are experimenting with new forms of public consultation and participation, building the foundation for civic action in major cities. The development of an active local democracy will require strong debate and is not without political risks as we have seen in other post-Soviet republics. Following how this process develops in Kazakhstan will be fascinating. Although a much smaller country in population terms but with a much greater land mass, Kazakhstan provides an important example for those concerned with the future of governance in the UK; challenging us to question whether we appreciate our own hard fought for opportunities to engage in local decision making, and asking us to reflect on how well we utilise our own institutions of civil society in order to hold government to account.
Lead author Stephen Hall (University of Leeds), with Madina Junussova (Carleton University), Dan Durrant (University College London), Marzhan Thomas (Birkbeck College, University of London), Joshua Kirshner (University of Durham), Simon Parker and Xiu Gao (University of York) Bulat Aikeshev (Gumiliyev Eurasian University), Aliya Chuyeva (New Economic University Almaty).