There can be few greater challenges than to attempt to complete in little more than a decade a political process that in the West took many decades, if not centuries. But this is what Kazakhstan has been attempting since becoming independent in 1991.
In the United States, markets preceded democracy. In Kazakhstan, however, we have sought to lay the foundations of a market economy, civil society and democracy simultaneously.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, we believed this was the only way to pursue economic growth and raise living standards while maintaining stability. Without all three, there was little realistic expectation that an oil-rich state the size of Western Europe, but with a population smaller than that of Holland, could remain free.
Our actions in the early 1990s, including the decision to remove our arsenal of nuclear weapons inherited from the Soviet Union, laid the foundations of our stability and prosperity. As Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld commented during his visit to my country last week, had Saddam Hussein followed Kazakhstan’s example, the war in Iraq never would have been fought. We are now a key ally of the United States in Central Asia and a force for stability and security in the region.
Having set our sights on radical change, we had to rely primarily on our own resources, building new civic institutions from scratch, freeing industry from the shackles of state ownership and fashioning political reform in a way that reflected Kazakhstan’s wide religious and ethnic diversity.
Today, 90 percent of the Kazakh economy is in private hands. Growth has averaged 10 percent over the last four years and is projected to continue at comparable levels. Our financial institutions approach Western standards of efficiency. Poverty is steadily being tackled, unemployment is falling, and sound macroeconomic policy has ensured low levels of inflation.
Meanwhile, oil exports are rising by 15 percent each year. With the world’s energy needs set to double during the present century, there is international recognition that Kazakhstan is emergingasanimportantand responsible player in international energy markets.
In the longer term, however, we know that oil wealth by itself will not ensure prosperity or guarantee inter-ethnic harmony. Only a broadly based, flexible economy will enable us to address the challenges of rural poverty, provide modern standards of health care, employment and pensions, and tackle the illegal shipment of people, drugs, weapons and extremist ideas from neighboring countries.
Economic reform will, we hope, be further stimulated by Kazakhstan’s forthcoming entry into the World Trade Organization. My country’s growing participation in international institutions provides an important learning opportunity. But we are not expecting a free lunch. As President Bush wrote in his recent letter to me, the United States is “grateful for Kazakhstan’s continued assistance in the war on terror.” We have given robust support, allowing our air space to be used and granting emergency landing rights during Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. Currently, our troops assist in the peaceful reconstruction of Iraq.
After centuries during which the big decisions came from Moscow via a complex bureaucratic chain, freedom and personal responsibility are new concepts to us. But our record should leave no doubt about our intentions.
Democratic reform and measures to enhance human rights must not, however, be introduced in a way that undermines stability. We cannot afford to disturb the atmosphere of religious and inter-ethnic tolerance that every visitor to our country, including his holiness, the pope, and the chief rabbi of Israel, notices immediately.
To those who say the pace of political change is too slow, I offer this personal assurance: We have not given up on reform. This is amply demonstrated by the decision made just a few weeks ago to impose a moratorium on the death penalty and by new legislative proposals to ensure free and fair elections this fall. Indeed, we hope that our twin record of external engagement and internal reform may persuade many countries to support our chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in 2009.
When friends tell me that we are still not moving quickly enough, I am tempted to reply: “Bearing in mind how far and how quickly we have traveled, how much faster would you like us to go? In steering the infant Kazakh democracy, the accelerator has been used far more than the brake. Please remember also just how long your own societies took to complete the processes on which we are now embarked.”
Nursultan Nazarbayev is president of the Republic of Kazakhstan.