Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) and his Kazakh counterpart Nursultan Nazarbayev attend a signing ceremony following the Russia-Kazakhstan Interregional Cooperation Forum in Astana, Kazakhstan on October 4, 2016. Sputnik/Kremlin/Alexei Druzhinin via Reuters
Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) and his Kazakh counterpart Nursultan Nazarbayev attend a signing ceremony following the Russia-Kazakhstan Interregional Cooperation Forum in Astana, Kazakhstan on October 4, 2016. Sputnik/Kremlin/Alexei Druzhinin via Reuters

Kazakhstan’s Ambassador to the United States, Kairat Umarov, quietly affirms (without boasting) that “We expect our next 25 years of independence to be better than our first 25 years.” Asked to elaborate, he simply, and correctly, says: “Don’t just believe me, come to Kazakhstan and see.” Anyone who knows the history of Kazakhstan, understands that Ambassador Umarov has every right to be proud of his country’s achievements since independence from the Soviet Union in December 1991, 25 years ago.

The Republic of Kazakhstan (unlike the more arduous paths of the other Central Asian republics of Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan) has emerged, beyond all expectations, from political infancy and economic devastation in the 1990s to become a regional powerhouse and model of socio-political stability in the region.

What explains Kazakhstan’s success to date? a) a relatively robust economy (particularly when the prices of oil, chrome, uranium, bauxite, coal, phosphate, titanium and wheat are high), b) a refined foreign policy moored in a principled realpolitik, c) an unambiguous recognition that radical militant Islam is indeed an existential threat to peace and stability, d) a policy of open-mindedness and acceptance of religious and ethnic minorities in a multicultural society, and e) a policy of intelligent engagement with all its neighbors.

It might be a surprise to some that Kazakhstan is perhaps the only country in the world with constructive diplomatic and economic relations (at one and the same time) with China, Russia, Iran, Israel, the Emirates, Turkey, India, Pakistan, Poland, Ukraine and the rest of Europe and Asia. Remarkable. Might not Kazakhstan’s approach to international relations be a good example to those who believe (in the first instance) that global peace is served better through engagement rather than confrontation and policies of regime change?

President Nazarbaev, who is highly respected in diplomatic circles, represents the kind of leadership which has allowed Kazakhstan to earn a non-permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council, chair the OECD and host Expo 2017 in Astana, the capital of the country.

Kazakhstan’s vital national interests have hugely benefited from its multi-vector foreign policy; it is targeted, flexible and robust. Ambassador Umarov explains (calmly but assuredly) that “Kazakhstan will continue to engage its regional partners in Central Asia (and in its near abroad), not only to advance peace and stability through dialogue but to facilitate the expansion of trade, financial flows and transport infrastructure.”

In furtherance of its foreign policy strategy, Astana aims to become a regional financial center within the next 5 years. To achieve this demanding objective, the markets must be confident that the government will strengthen a somewhat shaky banking sector, improve corporate transparency and make sure that English commercial law is not only in place but actually works. Towards this end, Kazakhstan’s Minister of Economy, Kuandyk Bishimbayev, indicated recently that foreign direct investment through the first eleven months of November 2016 was US$ 18.12 billion, up 4.7 percent over the same period last year. No small feat in a highly unpredictable global economy.

Kazakhstan has served as an effective broker in resolving regional disputes. Ambassador Umarov stresses that even in the case of the convoluted and unforgiving Syrian conflict, “President Nazarbaev has offered Astana as an impartial platform so that the Syrian government and legitimate local opposition groups might find a permanent solution to the war.” And Ambassador Umarov quickly adds that “the suffering and injustices from all sides must end.” Behind the scenes in Astana, it is hoped that all parties to the conflict approve a lasting settlement to the war, including Turkey, Russia, Iran and the US (and the other invisible silent players).

Another example of its foreign policy of “peace through engagement,” Kazakhstan has been simultaneously pursuing, independently, relations with Iran and Saudi Arabia at the highest levels. Towards this end, Hassan Rouhani, President of Iran, visited Astana in December 2016 where he and Nazarbaev signed significant agreements to boost trade, transport, and tourism. They also touched on issues related to the Caspian Sea, oil and education. Two months earlier, President Nazarbaev had traveled to Saudi Arabia to meet Prince Faisal bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud, Minister of Defense. In the process, Kazakhstan secured approximately US$ 200 million in contracts. Could Kazakhstan help in mediating the crisis in Yemen through its seat at the UNSC?

Ambassador Umarov emphasizes that “in addition to engaging our neighbors to further our legitimate national interests, Kazakhstan will continue to diversify its domestic economy and accelerate efforts to expand logistics and transport capabilities. Astana will also redouble efforts to develop the country’s agriculture sector, which was exceptionally hard hit after independence.” At the same time, Umarov insists, “Kazakhstan will make sure that international interests in the banking, agro-industrial, oil, transport, mining or advisory sectors serve to build local capacity and knowhow. Education is one of our top-priorities.”

Barring unpredictable externalities or some sort of unwelcome foreign meddling, in 25 years, Kazakhstan’s people should be able to look back and praise their leaders for having crafted and systematically carried out policies (domestic and foreign) that advanced the country’s national interests and secured its people’s identity as a nation.

Javier M. Piedra

Javier M Piedra is a financial consultant, specialist in international development and former deputy assistant administrator for South and Central Asia at USAID.

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