BRUSSELS – Following the resignation of Kazakhstan’s First President Nursultan Nazarbayev last March, the Central Asian republic will hold early elections on 9 June, to remove any ambiguity about the course of the country – including international commitments – through the legitimacy and strength that the open vote confers.
What is more, Kazakhstan finds itself in the midst of a sustained diplomatic outreach, under its strategy of equidistant multilateralism, to balance out oft-conflicting big-power interests in the region. Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Kazakhstan Roman Vassilenko was in Brussels on 28 May to attend the sixth High-level Political and Security Dialogue between the European Union and the countries of Central Asia, which comes at a pivotal moment for EU-Central Asia relations, following the adoption by the European Commission on 15 May of a Joint Communication on “The EU and Central Asia: New Opportunities for a Stronger Partnership.” The document solidifies the renewed commitment and interest of the bloc in upgrading its role and partnerships in the region.
New Europe had the chance to sit down with Deputy Minister Vassilenko to talk about Kazakhstan’s regional and global vision, the future of its economy and the upcoming election, in a full-length interview.
Andrianos Giannou (AG): The first question has to do with the global security nexus and your vision of Kazakhstan’s role in a changing world, the future security architecture. You are in between different powers in a developing power game, and you have very diverse interests ranging from the Eurasian Economic Union to the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, as well as a new EU strategy for Central Asia, in which you have a key role. Also, an Enhanced Strategic Partnership Dialogue with the United States. What is your vision? What do you think the role of Kazakhstan can be, and what would you like it to be? What is your strategy?
Roman Vassilenko (RV): Well, the strategy was clearly outlined by President (Nursultan) Nazarbayev, our first president in the early 1990s, and we stick to that strategy and that is about multi-vector foreign policy, where we build equally positive, mutually beneficial relations with all our neighbours and partners, near and far. In our 27 years of independent development, we have now realized this is perhaps the only correct strategy for Kazakhstan in our circumstances. We are the ninth largest country in the world, yet we have a population of only 18 million people and our border with Russia is the longest contiguous land border in the world, it is 7,500 kilometres. Our border with China is 1,800 kilometres long. Very long, mountainous border. So naturally, since the very first day of our independence, we thought that the best way to ensure our own survival as a state is to engage in this mutually beneficial cooperation, by creating conditions for these countries that want to engage with us to see the benefit in this cooperation and see the benefit in the presence of the others.
And in fact, we think that the opportunities and the resources, for example, in Kazakhstan, are enough, or some might say huge, to be sufficient for this cooperation, for all to have a piece of the pie, so to speak, and be happy with the presence of others.
So, if you look at the oil industry in Kazakhstan, for example, which is the key industry in the country, providing for 60 percent of our export revenue, you will see that in that industry, the largest investors are the United States of America, the European countries, and China, with Russia coming up pretty quickly in terms of investment.
When you look at the way Kazakhstan’s oil is exported after it is extracted, you will also see that this principle of multi-vector policy works there as well. Because there are pipelines running through Russia. There is a pipeline transporting oil to China. And we have been transporting oil across the Caspian Sea by tankers, and then through Azerbaijan and Georgia, and the Southern Rim of Europe or through Turkey to the port of Ceyhan, where it is loaded onto tankers and transported on to consumers in Europe and even beyond. So, this is also a reflection of how we thought that this business should be done and how this policy should be implemented.
Another dimension of our approach is multilateralism, a multilateralist approach, where we thought to establish various multilateral formats that will bind us together in a cooperative manner. What I mean is the establishment of the Shanghai Corporation Organization (SCO). It was predicated on the need to strengthen confidence along the border between China and four former Soviet countries – Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan – and it began with the understanding among these five countries that we will withdraw troops to within 100 kilometres from each other’s borders, and this worked as the basis for trust, which eventually helped transform this Shanghai Five, as it was known for five years, into the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, when Uzbekistan joined – it does not border China, but it joined the organisation. For many years, SCO’s focus was on security matters but now it has a focus also on economic matters, and so it has expanded.
A similar reason laid behind Kazakhstan’s efforts to establish, along with Russia, Belarus, and other countries, the Collective Security Treaty Organization, which is an organization that deals with hard security matters, and it provides for coordination among our militaries. A similar reason laid behind Kazakhstan’s initiative to establish an OSCE-type of organization in Asia, called Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia (CICA). Now it is an organization that brings together 27 member states ranging from Egypt, Israel, Iran, to China and Vietnam. It is, perhaps, the only organization, outside the United Nations, where both Israel and Iran are members.
The same reason also drove Kazakhstan and Kazakhstan’s First President Nursultan Nazarbayev to initiate the establishment of the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), which he put forward as an initiative in 1994, and which we celebrated the fifth anniversary of this past Wednesday, on May 29, when there was a summit of the Eurasian Economic Council in Nur-Sultan, as our capital is now called. But this was a mechanism for us to, on the one hand, create better conditions for our economic cooperation, among its member states, and, on the other hand, to remove barriers for trade out of Kazakhstan because we are the world’s largest landlocked country.
We are the world’s ninth largest country, but despite that huge size, we have no access to open seas. So, any initiative that helps us turn this disadvantage into an advantage is welcome. And in this sense, we have been developing the Eurasian Economic Union, which is now, for example, a single customs union. And when you think about transporting goods from China to Europe and backwards, you need to be mindful that there are only two customs borders along the route: one is between Poland and Belarus, the other is between Kazakhstan and China.
Naturally, we see that in recent years there has been a fraying of the international system of relations, and that is why the then-president Nursultan Nazarbayev put forward this initiative while attending the ASEM [Asia Europe Meeting] Summit in Brussels in October 2018. An initiative to hold a dialogue among four key players: Russia, China, the EU, and the United States. He reiterated this proposal in his address to the Second BRI [Belt and Road Initiative] Forum in Beijing in April this year, a month ago, where he said that there is a need of three layers of dialogue.
One is between these four players that I mentioned on matters of principle and on matters of security. Matters of principle are relations among the West and Russia over Ukraine, among other things. The second level is OSCE and CICA, this conference in Asia that I mentioned, and the third layer is about the economy-related dialogue, which can be established between the European Union, the Eurasian Economic Union, the Shanghai Cooperation Organizations, and ASEAN. And we will be working to advance these ideas, some will come sooner than the others, some will be easier to achieve.
For example, we expect that even this year, there will be a meeting between the OSCE and the CICA secretariats to compare notes on the efforts that these two organizations are implementing to strengthen security and dialogue within their areas of responsibility. They are overlapping, by the way, because quite a good number of CICA members are participants of the OSCE.
AG: So, are you looking forward to taking leadership?
RV: We’re offering our services.
AG: How do you see your role in the region and the wider neighbourhood? There are ongoing challenges and conflicts – Afghanistan, for example, or, if you go even further, Russia and Ukraine. So how do you see your role in the region?
RV: Well, if we define our role in Central Asia, I would say that we have advocated for a stronger regional cooperation for many years. And in September 2016, we have received a positive reply from Uzbekistan. And that reopened this opportunity for greater regional cooperation, it was not the case for many years. Now, it is the case and we are seeing this revival of regionalism. Now, we are mindful of one thing – that we can succeed as a region and only as a region.
And even though Kazakhstan’s economy is twice as large as all of the other Central Asian countries’ combined, we do not take solace in this recognition or understanding. Because, as I said, we think that only by ensuring the sustainable development of countries in Central Asia can we achieve sustainable development for all. And that is the premise for our regional policies. In fact, Central Asia is highlighted as our number one priority in our foreign policy concept that is now in force.
There has been progress in the region. We hosted the first meeting of the five heads of state in Astana, as our capital was known then. We now expect that this second summit as planned is to take place in Uzbekistan this year. The biggest issue that we will have to tackle head-on will be the issue of water management. Water is already scarce in the region. The population in the five Central Asian states is booming.
We now have 60 million people. The UN projects that this number will grow to 90 million people by 2050, so it is an upward trajectory. And there will be less water, not more water for us, because of the global climate change. Which, I said, is a thing to acknowledge but that is the reality and we have been engaging with the international community to achieve the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement goals, so we are among those who firmly believe action is needed on climate change.
But going back to the region of Central Asia, this is where we will focus our efforts: on the water and energy issues. This is where we need to focus because these are the most pressing issues. If you look further, you mentioned Afghanistan. We have together with our regional neighbours worked to help Afghanistan be more stable, ensure economic development. We have provided humanitarian assistance as a country to Afghanistan, to the tune of 100 million dollars. This may not be a huge amount by European Union standards but, for us, – this is a significant amount.
Secondly, we have implemented our own 50-million-dollar programme to educate one thousand Afghans in our universities in peaceful professions. This is a program that is in now in its tenth year of implementation. It has trained 700-plus Afghans out of this one thousand that we have planned. The rest are studying and it has been so successful in terms of their return rate, their employability rate, back in Afghanistan, that we suggested the EU cooperate with us on the same premise. As a result of this conversation, in May this year, the European Commission approved a quadrilateral programme to develop Afghanistan, to help Afghan women. It is known as the first phase of the program, whereas the EU will finance education for Afghan women in Kazakhstan and in Uzbekistan.
Further afield, we have been trying to support the parties implementing the Minsk Agreement on South-East Ukraine, because for us this is a very painful situation that Russia and Ukraine are in confrontation, that Russia and the West are in confrontation, because our largest trading partner is the European Union. And this trade cannot be effective because of the sanctions on Russia, and Russia’s reciprocal actions against the EU, because again, together with Russia, we are members of the Eurasian Economic Union.
AG: Moving on to the relationship with the European Union, there is a high-level meeting tomorrow. There is a new strategy that is soon going to be approved, I believe. What is your expectation? How do you see your relationship developing in the future? And also, a related question – you have seen the rise of populism in Europe and we have, as Europeans, to go back to European citizens and explain everything, including why this economic partnership is beneficial to them. So, what would you say the average European has to benefit out of Europe’s relationship with Kazakhstan? What does it mean to them? How could you sell this project to them? What do you say to them?
RV: To whom?
AG: To the average European. Would it mean cheaper energy, cheaper goods?
RV: If one looks at the history of wars in the European continent for millennia and if one realises that, for the past 70 years, this has been a continent of peace and it is the EU that has been the reason for why it has been so, there has been no major war, yes there has been conflict in the Balkans, but there have been no major wars, and that is thanks to the European Union. And it is not a coincidence that the European Union was recognized by the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012. But beyond that, and this is the fundamental achievement, beyond that, of course, the EU has been key to lifting the living standards of millions and millions of Europeans throughout the countries, in the original and the newer members.
And people tend to forget quickly how bad it was just even a few days ago, not to mention a few years ago, or few decades ago.If people really are fair to the European project, they should recognise that this has been the most successful integration project in history, not without its hiccups, it brings together 28 member states for now, and it is not an easy thing to integrate even two countries, let alone 28. For Kazakhstan, it is an inspiring example, and we have always been a strong advocate for a more coherent and active Europe internationally. The new EU strategy for Central Asia, a document to which we contributed to, is a very strong statement of commitment from the EU to our region.
This cannot be but welcome. And this is our reaction, it is a visionary document that outlines the priorities of European relations with our region. I would also recall with great satisfaction that the original first EU Strategy for Central Asia was developed in 2007 under the German presidency, and it was a success. But this strategy for today is coming at a very interesting time for the region of Central Asia for the reasons I have outlined, because there is greater commitment, greater interest in regional cooperation. And it is a very opportune time for the EU to engage on a clearer footing with us.
AG: How about the Enhanced Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (EPCA) between the EU and Kazakhstan?
RV: Kazakhstan and the EU and its member states signed this agreement in 2015. It has been provisionally in force since May 2016, meaning that those parts of the agreement that are the prerogative of the European Union, are in place, and that relates to trade matters.
But all the other areas of agreement, and there are 29 areas of cooperation, they will come in force after ratification by all the Member States. Right now, only one country has not ratified it, and that is Italy, and even there, we understand that it is in the Parliament and we hope this will be in done in due course shortly and this year this agreement comes into force in full.
By the way, this agreement is serving as a blueprint for EU talks now with Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan on a similar type of agreement and we are only happy that the EU will engage with two other countries in Central Asia in the form of such an Enhanced Partnership and Cooperation Agreement.
AG: Moving on to the economy, what do you see – what is your vision of Kazakhstan’s economic future? Would it be based solely on energy? Would it be based solely on infrastructure? There is the Nurly Zhol (Bright Path) project for example, but you do not want to be seen only as a transit country, you want to be seen as a linked country, I believe. You want to be linked more than that, rather than simply be a transit area. So, what do you believe is your economic future? And how will it be sustainable?
RV: Well, indeed, oil, minerals, gas, and other resources, they have just been the basis of our economic development so far and they will continue to play a big role in our deliberations, but the vision for our country’s economic development is outlined in our country’s 2050 strategy, which sets the goal for becoming one of the top 30 most competitive and developed countries by 2050, it is a very high and tall order, a tall goal, which we will seek to achieve.
Our economy will be more diversified. Already we are investing a lot of effort in developing the services sector, primarily the banking services sector, because we have established the Astana International Financial Centre (AIFC). It is the only such centre, modelled on the Dubai model -English law as the law of the land, we even had to change our constitution to allow this centre to be regulated by the English common law – that has the English language as the language of operations.
And with a lot of tax breaks -for example, there are zero corporate taxes for years 2016 to 2026 – for companies that register. This centre will serve as the hub for financing economic development in the region, as well as financing economic projects on the New Silk Road that connects China and Europe. It has a stock exchange, where listings have been taking place, and there will be more listings, looking into the future of national companies in Kazakhstan.
So, services, and banking services in particular, is one area I would highlight. The other area is digital transformation, and we have the “Digital Kazakhstan” programme, investing money and also infrastructure, but primarily in creating the environment for the start-up culture to develop. Again, this is done on the premises, there is an Astana IT start-up hub. The third legacy project is the International Green Technologies & Investments Center (IGTIC), whose purpose is to monitor and support the implementation of more than one hundred technologies Kazakhstan saw at the Astana World Expo 2017 – out of 500 that were presented there – and decided to use in the country.
AG: What about infrastructure?
RV: Yes, we have indeed built 2,500 kilometres of railroads during the years of independence, reconnecting the east and west of the country, because in the past, the connections were mostly from south-east to the north-west, to Russia, that is, by the way, more than all the other countries of the Soviet Union have built in the years of independence, because we needed to build all of those. There is this hard infrastructure that is needed for transportation along the Silk Road of the modern age to succeed.
We continue to develop motor roads. We have built about 5,000 kilometres in the years since independence, including the 2,800-kilometre stretch of the Western China-Western Europe highway in Kazakhstan, this is a highway that is 7,000 kilometres long and Kazakhstan’s stretch is the longest, 2,800 kilometres. So, we will continue to do that, because if we really want to see the Silk Road of the 21st century succeed, we need to develop this infrastructure. For example, while this road is there, a lot of the supporting infrastructure is still lacking, it needs to be what you would expect driving along the roads in Europe.
AG: What about the elections? I understand that the main reason behind the elections was ensuring stability and continuity to a certain extent.
RV: Yes, and the reason why President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev decided to call elections, is because he wanted to remove any ambiguity about the future and the course of the country, and he wanted for the people of the country to choose the leader in full accordance with the law and that is where we are heading.
We are now in the midst of the most competitive election campaign in our history with seven candidates running, including for the first time ever a woman: for us it is an important first step towards greater gender equality. By the way, women make up about 65% of the workforce in the public service, not at the top level, but if you look at all the numbers, men are in the minority. If you look at the ambassadorships for example, speaking of foreign service, there are four female ambassadors out of 65. We have a long way to go. When you look at the parliament, we have 25%, one quarter women. So again, this is only a first step. We have a very wide range of candidates, they have a very wide range of programmes and ideas, and people are indeed going to have a genuine choice of options in terms of where they want this country to be led to in the future. So, it is a very interesting time. A lot of attention is paid inside and outside of the country with more than 1,000 foreign observers expected for the national vote, and more than 250 foreign reporters are expected to cover the election, the highest numbers in our history.
The key message I guess for the European audience is that this election will give the new leader of Kazakhstan, whoever that will be, the full mandate from the people, and it will strengthen Kazakhstan as a country as it develops further and as it seeks to resolve all our issues with our neighbours, as it seeks to engage with international issues, such as the Syrian conflict, and it will provide the confidence in the stability of the country and the stability of its commitment to international contracts. Because it is important, you can see the fact that we have attracted 320 billion dollars in foreign direct investment, that is 80-percent of all foreign direct investment in the region.
AG: Where would you like to see Kazakhstan in 20 years from now? What is your dream?
RV: I mentioned this already, this clear strategy for Kazakhstan 2050, where we would like to see the country in terms of its future.Twenty years from now we see Kazakhstan just as it is now, a peaceful country, a good partner for all its neighbours, living in mutually beneficial cooperation, living in a better and more integrated and more connected region of Central Asia.
As a key hub along the bustling Silk Road of the 21st century. We expect that 2 million containers will be travelling through Kazakhstan from China to Europe and backwards [every year], and it will peak. Right now, this number stands at 365,000 containers annually. So, this will be a trilingual country. We will be using the Latin script for the Kazakh language, we will still be using the Russian language, and it will be a country where at least 25% of the population will speak English freely. So, it will be a modern, advanced, dynamic country.