President Nursultan Nazarbayev is in town for the 47-nation nuclear summit set up by the Obama administration.
Q: There is talk of the new great game in Central Asia with the West, Russia and China vying for influence and the mineral wealth of the region. Do you see such a game unfolding and what do you see as Kazakhstan’s role in this game?
A: In light of its geostrategic location and large primary resources, the region draws a lot of attention. Energy companies from the United States, the EU, China and Russia actively work here in Kazakhstan. We are intent on further maintaining our cooperation with them. The main imperative for Kazakhstan’s foreign policy is to develop partnerships with all states of the world. We recognize the importance of balanced political approaches, and that is why Kazakhstan is actively involved in the formation of the architecture of security and cooperation in our region. We are not just participants in international structures … but also initiators of many undertakings.
Kazakhstan has become a key factor of stability and sustainable development of the region that is crucial to the security in Eurasia. That is why our country may contribute to the constructive interaction between the U.S., Russia and China in Central Asia.
Q: Iran did not attend the Washington summit. What do you say to Iran’s leadership regarding their efforts to acquire nuclear technology? How would you reassure the West, Europe and the United States who are worried about Iran’s nuclear ambitions?
A: Kazakhstan is a firm advocate and an active participant of the global process of non-proliferation and nuclear threat reduction. Not in words, but in deeds. Kazakhstan voluntarily gave up the world’s fourth-largest nuclear and missile arsenal and permanently closed the Semipalatinsk nuclear test site, where almost 500 nuclear tests were conducted.
At the same time, Kazakhstan’s non-nuclear choice after the breakdown of the USSR was made in extremely difficult conditions. Kazakhstan is in Asia and most of the population professes Islam. We had to deal with a diverse number of advisers … who tried to talk us into keeping the nuclear weapons, promising critical financial support and international “prestige” as the first and only Muslim nuclear-weapon state.
With regard to the Iranian nuclear program, we are advocating a diplomatic resolution. We recognize the integral right of Iran to engage in peaceful nuclear energy development. At the same time, we think all activities must be carried out in strict compliance with the Safeguards Agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency.
I guess all parties concerned must actively use all available dialogue mechanisms. Kazakhstan is supporting the initiative of President Obama on convening the Global Nuclear Security Summit. Personally, I am very inspired by his decision to give a new impetus to the soonest ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. The progress in negotiations between Russia and the U.S. on concluding a new agreement to replace the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) is crucial.
Q: How would you explain to the Americans why you think that building an international nuclear fuel bank in Kazakhstan under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) auspices is a good idea?
A: Our initiative to host the international nuclear fuel bank is a concrete contribution to strengthening the nonproliferation regime, elimination of the “blind spots” that exist in international legal area with regard to the development of national peaceful nuclear programs by a number of states. Kazakhstan supported the proposal put forward by Sam Nunn, co-chairman of the Nuclear Threat Initiative on creating the international nuclear fuel bank. We believe Kazakhstan fully complies with requirements to host the international nuclear fuel bank.
Kazakhstan is ready to host the facility and is intent on going into the issue in detail together with the IAEA. While in Astana in April 2009, President of Iran Mahmoud Ahmadinejad approved the idea of establishing the bank.
Q: At the Washington summit you hold the moral high ground in regard to nuclear disarmament, having given up the world’s fourth largest nuclear arsenal. Yet when it comes to human rights in Kazakhstan, your administration, stands accused of a less than perfect record. Why is it that you still hold back on some issues, such as press liberties? What is it that you fear from giving the press complete freedom?
A: We can argue for ages with our critics about whether or not Kazakhstan fully meets the standards of democracy in their Western understanding. One can also argue about whether it is fair at all to separate standards of democracy into Western and Eastern understanding. We here in the East do not agree with the stance that the Western way of life and views should be the ultimate truth. The world is diverse. I should note that Kazakhstan is a nation in transition that is following a new way of building democratic institutions on the basis of and in accordance with our reality and traditions.
Over the years of independence, Kazakhstan has consistently moved along the course of democratic reforms based on our own national interests. Democratic reforms have been and are being conducted in Kazakhstan regardless of whether there is or isn’t any criticism, and they are based on our interests, realities and current regional situation. It is important to note that our society did not have the experience of democratic development, like the one that was accumulated, for example, by Central and Eastern European countries. Moreover, democracy is a long-term process that acquires new facets and shades in the course of time. Kazakhstan is in the early stages of this way.
Basic human rights are ensured in our country - these are the rights to a decent life, education, health care, freedom of religion, right to learn one’s native culture and communicate in one’s native language. What is most important is that equal rights are ensured for representatives of all 140 ethnic groups and 46 religious denominations and that trust and stability are maintained.
At the same time, we have proceeded from the principle “economy first, politics second.” And throughout all the years of independence, we have consistently moved along the way of advanced economic development and increasing living standards, consecutively supported and followed by political liberalization.
Q: Kazakhstan is ahead of the game in terms of stability, the economy and in combating terrorism and drug trafficking; you have weathered the financial storm relatively well and you have plans to pursue the country’s financial structure based on the Norwegian and/or the Finnish models. While those two countries are indeed stable, are you not worried that their model, with some of the highest taxes in the world, will frighten investors away?
Indeed, Kazakhstan pays much attention to combating terrorism. We are well aware that international crime, human trafficking, illicit drug trafficking and international terrorism constitute a set of interrelated problems, the solution of which can not be separated from each other. We believe terrorism has neither national nor religious identity. The most sensitive and urgent issues in the field of regional and international security are those related to stabilization of the situation in Afghanistan.
It should be admitted that current measures taken to restore and rehabilitate Afghanistan are not sufficient and do not ensure full stability. The military and political situation in Afghanistan remains very complex, which causes our serious concern.
We have managed to create an investment-friendly business climate with low tax burden. Our corporate tax rate is equal to 20 percent and income tax rate is equal to 10 percent for everybody. These are some of the lowest tax rates in the world. According to World Bank’s “Doing Business” investment climate rating, Kazakhstan occupies the 63rd position among 183 countries, and we are pretty determined to further improve our standing in this list.
It is worth noting that Kazakhstan was officially recognized by the U.S. as a country with market economy in 2002. Foreign experts note that our neighbors in the region are adopting Kazakhstan’s positive experience of balanced economical policy. A recent fiscal reform has lowered tax burdens on the business sector. Business registration procedure has been simplified, which, in return, expanded the opportunity to attract foreign investments. Also, the taxation rate in the mining sector of the Republic of Kazakhstan has been one of the lowest among other oil-producing countries.
Q: What are you doing to battle the continued push by Islamist groups in the region? Do you think that there is a threat to the country’s national security? To the region? What are your hopes regarding the war in Afghanistan?
A: Kazakhstan has no grounds for the spread of extremist ideas. Throughout the years of independence, we have been able to preserve the inter-ethnic and inter-religious accord in our society, which is one of the key achievements of an independent Kazakhstan.
We are planning to educate 1,000 Afghan students in Kazakh educational institutes in 2010 through 2018, and we have allocated $50 million for this purpose. Today, we are also discussing the holding of an Organization for Security andCooperation in Europe (OSCE) summit in Astana this year, one of the main topics of which could be Afghanistan.
Q: Most Americans are ignorant about the OSCE; they do not know what it does and what its importance is. Why do you think Americans should care about the OSCE?
A: I think the attention of American media to the OSCE would contribute to enhancing awareness of the general American public on this issue. The U.S stood at the foundation of building a new European security architecture in the 1970s, which led to the creation of the OSCE. Today, as a world leader, the United States is interested in supporting the stability and security on the global scale. Here’s where the OSCE fits in.
Today the OSCE plays only secondary roles in ensuring peace in Europe and Eurasia, mostly being limited to good wishes and appeals. However, in spite of obvious problems, Kazakhstan as chair-in-office is optimistic about the prospects of the organization. We see general determination in a majority of OSCE states to make relevant conclusions and draw lessons from difficulties and failures.
Besides, we have to solve a number of other problems: Protect the rights of minorities, solve environmental problems, facilitate economic ties, combat illicit drug trafficking and human trafficking, and help Afghanistan. It is impossible to cooperate in all these dimensions, however, without establishing trust. All of these considerations together prompted Kazakhstan to initiate an OSCE summit in 2010. I am convinced that holding this summit has the potential to become a turning point towards the “recovery” of the OSCE. I proposed to discuss at the summit the current security issues in the OSCE area of responsibility, issues of tolerance, and more importantly, the situation in Afghanistan.
I think that it is in our common interests of both Astana and Washington to make sure this organization maintains and strengthens its role as a credible organization for equal dialogue and mutually acceptable solutions, allowing us to adequately react to modern challenges and threats.
Q: Finally, if you had one message to send to the White House, what would that be?
A: Kazakhstan has been and continues to be a reliable partner for the U.S. in Central Asia.
Claude Salhani is a political analyst specializing in the Middle East and Central Asia. Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s responses are excerpted from Mr. Salhani’s questions.