Central-Asia geopolitics through the eyes of Kazakhstan

2016 was the year where all the former-Republics of the USSR were celebrating 25 years of independence. In this framework, Brussels Express interviewed  Roman Vassilenko, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs from the Republic of Kazakhstan, in Astana.

Roman Vassilenko

After 25 years of independence, what are Kazakhstan’s main achievements? 

I think we can be proud of what we have achieved, and of becoming a good global citizen. If we look at the situation 25 years ago, Kazakhstan was one of the least developed former Soviet states. Our economy was based on producing raw materials and shipping them to Russia or Ukraine for processing. Our ethnic mix, according to some international experts, could have been a cause of potential tension. We can’t forget the environmental damage caused by nuclear tests conducted by the USSR in the east of the country. The leaders’experience of governing a country was almost non-existent, and on top of that Kazakhstan has never had borders determined by a legal international entity. So you see the background of our modern existence was extremely complicated. All of these factors combined made many international experts predict that we would not survive in this new era. We seemed doomed to fail as a nation.

Why didn’t Kazakhstan collapse?

I think to the great extent thanks to the prudent policies of Kazakhstan’s founding President Nursultan Nazarbayev. which were aimed at maintaining peace and harmony in a very diverse society and turned diversity as a disadvantage into a strength.

But do you think all the ethnic minorities have a say in this country?

First of all, in our Constitution the status of the Russian language as an official language is specified along with the Kazakh language, which has the status of the state language. This has calmed down a lot of concerns on behalf of many ethnic groups – and by the way, we don’t use the expression “ethnic minorities” in this country. There are ethnic groups, that’s all. Secondly, the Constitution also made it clear that no political parties would be established based either on ethnicity or religion.  Another step that we took in order to promote inter-religious peace was the establishment of the Assembly of People of Kazakhstan in 1995. It’s not a parliament but it’s an assembly that brings together all the ethnic groups and we have about 800 ethnic cultural centers throughout the country. In one city, there can be German, Russian, Bulgarian and Uzbek cultural centers.It is through this Assembly that all the issues of potential tensions among ethnicities are resolved. The main goal is to prevent tensions from even appearing.

In terms of language, you said the Kazakh is the state language, but you also use Russian.

Every time the President speaks publicly he starts in Kazakh, later on switches to Russian, and finishes in Kazakh. The same thing happens in the parliament. There is a constant interpretation, so people are free to speak whichever language of the two they want.

How do you explain Kazakhstan’s tiny population of 17 million people?

I think several factors contributed to this situation. One is the brutal famine and migration in the 1930s. Second is Kazakhstan’s participation in the Second World War. It’s important to underline that up to 1.3 million Kazakhs fought the Nazis in the ranks of the Soviet Army and no less than 400,000 never returned home. Then from 1949 to 1991 the Soviet Union tested nuclear weapons in the east of the country. In fact, the United Nations estimated that up to 1.5 million people could have been affected by nuclear tests, dying or getting sick from exposure to radiation. Today we have around 200,000 people who are on a watchlist because of exposure: birth defects and several types of cancers. The life expectancy in the east is very low – 59 years old. So these are the three main factors that can explain our relatively small size of population. But today our birth rate is growing again and we expect to reach 25 million by 2030.

Talking about another topic: what was/is the impact of the sanctions on Russia in your country?

We launched the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) in May 2014 with Belarus and Russia. Later on, Armenia and Kyrgyzstan joined. Western sanctions against Moscow were already in force at the time. Of course, we are not directly affected by the sanctions because the sanctions are only apply to Russia, but we trade with Russia and as people say: “when Russia sneezes, countries like ours catch a cold.”

I will give you one example: Russia and Kazakhstan produce cars. At some point Russian currency devalued and ours was still kept artificially inflated at twice the rates. The result was that many Kazakhs were buying cars in Russia: in one month alone our citizens bought 30,000 cars in Russia. Our auto industry nearly ground to a halt.

 Supreme Eurasian Economic Council
Session of the Supreme Eurasian Economic Council in 2014 ©Kremlin

Don’t you think that creating the EAEU in 2014, at the time when Russia was under sanctions, was considered as a provocative move towards the West?

No, not at all. In fact, our President launched this idea in 1994. At that point this idea was seen with a lot of skepticism because everybody was trying to run away from the USSR that had just collapsed three years prior to that but time gave him reason. There was an imperative to create such a union. It is an economic union. Not a political union. This is not the re-incarnation of the USSR. This is about economics. Kazakhstan is the world’s largest landlocked country, and it is of paramount importance for us to improve access to international markets. We are in a very challenging situation. We don’t have open ports, we depend on others. That’s why we are so keen to develop the EAEU.

How do you define your relationship with Uzbekistan?

We are in a transitional phase. They had the presidential election on 4 December, and I think new winds will blow in the region. Kazakhstan has always worked with our neighbours in the region to promote greater economic integration. All our countries landlocked, in fact, Uzbekistan is doubly landlocked, the only country in the world in such a position. We need to have greater economic integration in the region of Central Asia, where 50 million people.

The geopolitical and regional problems we face can only be solved together. I’m talking about water and energy issues. The problem here is that our interests don’t particularly align. Our upstream neighbours (Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan) need to produce energy from the water, especially in winters, and we don’t need this water during the winter. And in the past we had problems of floods in certain regions because of this. It’s a complicated issue, one that only be solved through commonly accepted solutions which take into account the interests of all regional countries concerned.

Do you cooperate with your neighbours in order to fight ISIS?

Of course. To control ISIS and to monitor the border with Afghanistan. That’s why we promote the development of the Afghan’s economy. For example, since 2010 we have been implementing a program where we spend 50 million dollars to educate 1,000 Afghans in our universities and professional schools. Currently we have around 600 students here in our country. We help them learn to be engineers, doctors – very peaceful professions, not military ones. In the region there is a growing hope that we will be working together more than we did in the past.

But the relations with Uzbekistan were not frozen?

Not at all frozen, but there is now hope that they will bloom. Uzbekistan is an essential country in Central Asia. It borders all the others countries and it’s a country of 30 million people. The expectations are very high that we have a more united Central Asia in order to promote peace.

Talking about promoting peace, what happened to your nuclear weapons?

That’s one of the contributions in the 25 years that we are proud of. We had the world’s fourth largest nuclear arsenal in 1991. Ukraine and Belarus also possessed important nuclear arsenals. All three countries destroyed or gave back to Russia their entire nuclear arsenals. The weapons-grade uranium was sent to the United States in order to power their nuclear stations under the Megatons to Megawatts program. Kazakhstan has really taken the lead in this process because we were the first country among the three to disarm our nuclear weapons. We continue to promote nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation in Central Asia and globally. Together with our neighbours we have established the Central Asian Nuclear Weapons Free Zone and we have also been campaigning on an international level to ban nuclear weapons tests through the entry into force of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. And I would specifically mention a global awareness campaign, launched by Kazakhstan, called The ATOM (Abolish Testing. Our Mission) Project.

Kazakhstan's foreign minister Erlan Idrissov
Kazakhstan’s foreign minister Erlan Idrissov is congratulated after Kazakhstan’s election as non-permanent members of UN Security Council. ©United Nations

From January 2017 Kazakhstan will be the first Central Asian country to be a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council. What can we expect from Kazakhstan?

Our agenda will be to promote stability in the region and fight against terrorism. Since we are neighbouring Afghanistan this will be our main focus. In fact, we expect that we will be given the chairmanships of the three committees on Afghanistan, on ISIS/Daesh as well as on Eritrea/Somali. Our President has spoken at the United Nations in September 2015 and called for creation of a global anti-terrorism coalition or network and for a global register of terrorism organisations. In March 2016, he put forward what is known as the Manifesto “The World. The 21st Century” which outlines our vision for a world free from wars and conflicts and the steps the world can take to achieve that vision.