KAZAKHSTAN: Our people’s tolerance and initiative guarantee irreversible development
Thomas Cromwell

Kanat Saudabayev was in Washington the second week of June on a whirlwind visit of senior government officials and friends of Kazakhstan as he said goodbye after six and a half years as his country’s ambassador here. In May he was appointed Secretary of State, serving directly under President Nursultan Nazarbayev, and immediately took up responsibilities for that position.

Below follow his responses to questions from DiplomaticTraffic.com on his new responsibilities, on recent changes in Kazakhstan’s constitution, on regional energy issues and his country’s success and potential. He also offered reflections on developments in U.S.-Kazakhstan relations over the period of his posting to Washington.

DT: Is there a position in the U.S. Government similar to Kazakhstan’s Secretary of State? What are your priorities in your new job?

SAUDABAYEV: A Secretary of State in Kazakhstan is one of the highest state positions with broad responsibilities.

The position of the Secretary of State is outlined in Kazakhstan’s Constitution and is fifth in seniority, behind the President, the Prime Minister and the speakers of both houses of Parliament. Kazakhstan’s Secretary of State reports directly to the President. He oversees the implementation of important national programs of both domestic and foreign policy, including the work to promote peace and accord in a country with more than 100 ethnic groups and 40 religions; the selection of Kazakh youth for study in the world’s best universities under the “Bolashak” (Future) presidential scholarship; granting and repealing citizenship, as well as the fight against corruption.

DT: What are the results of your meetings in Washington? Who did you meet and what were the main subjects for discussion?

SAUDABAYEV: This is an unusual visit for me. On the one hand, I have just completed my six and a half year mission as Kazakhstan’s Ambassador in Washington. On the other hand, this is my first visit to the United States as Kazakhstan’s Secretary of State. It comes very soon after the recent changes in our Constitution which opened a new stage in Kazakhstan’s development and, I think, in relations with the U.S. These issues, and the future of our bilateral relations, were the main subjects of my meetings in Washington.

I discussed the prospects of our cooperation with Vice President Richard Cheney, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of Energy Sam Bodman, Chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee Joseph Lieberman, Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Tom Lantos, Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia, the Pacific and Global Environment Eni Faleomavaega, Senators Richard Lugar, Chuck Hagel and Orrin Hatch.

Our American friends repeatedly noted that Kazakhstan is a strong partner of the United States in the region and the international arena. The officials I talked to commended the processes of further democratization in Kazakhstan noting that such steps complement and support Kazakhstan’s economic achievements, strengthening its role as a strong partner for the United States. We are very optimistic about the future of our partnership and believe that together we can do a lot to improve the wellbeing of our peoples and strengthen global security.

I will always remember with special fondness my years in the United States. Many of my sincere and kind friends remain here today, their support helped me make my modest contribution to strengthening Kazakhstan-U.S. relations. Today, these relations are at a level of true strategic partnership. Last year’s landmark visit by President Nursultan Nazarbayev and his meetings with President George W. Bush showed the firmness and scope of this partnership geared into the future. We are grateful to the United States for its support of Kazakhstan’s new stage of democratic development, and look forward to working closely together in the future. In my new position, I will continue to spare no effort in strengthening friendship between our peoples and the mutually beneficial cooperation between our nations.

DT: Recent amendments in Kazakhstan’s Constitution have drawn comments from across the world. What do you think of those amendments? What do they mean for Kazakhstan’s future and its position in the world?

SAUDABAYEV: Indeed, a truly landmark event took place in Kazakhstan in May, opening a new stage in the development of our society. At the proposal of President Nursultan Nazarbayev, our Parliament approved amendments to the constitution which deserve to be called historic. These amendments are introduced in full accordance with the logical needs of Kazakhstan’s domestic development and are based on a solid foundation of social, economic and political reforms conducted since independence under the first president’s prudent leadership.

The constitutional amendments came as a result of many years of discussions with the participation of representatives of the Government, the Parliament, political parties, the opposition, and public groups. These proposals are a quintessence of proposals and aspirations from all strata of Kazakhstan’s society, in a way, a national program of democratic reforms.

The special nature of these amendments is that they are dictated not just by considerations of the current moment but are directed to Kazakhstan’s future development as an economically strong and democratically developed nation. Implementation of these constitutional amendments will reinforce Kazakhstan’s economic achievements with its regional leadership in the political arena.

Since its independence, Kazakhstan has followed its own path and has not blindly copied foreign experience. Instead, we have been introducing modern standards in the economy, management and politics of our nation taking into account the world’s experience, realities of our country and national interests.

Today, we see two paths of development for nations in transition: one is characterized by complete lack of reforms and stagnation, while the other represents artificial hastening of reforms through “colored revolutions”, whose results we now see. Yet, there is a third, evolutionary, way of development, the Kazakh way, with economic reforms leading and supported by continuous political liberalization of society. Today, our president, being the outstanding politician that he is, has grasped the need to give an additional boost to democratic reforms and harmonize economic and political development of the country. This was the aim of the proposals of our president.

First of all, they had to do with cutting the presidential term from seven to five years.

The authority of the Parliament and the local legislatures have been greatly strengthened. The correlation of checks and balances is changing very dramatically.

A proportional system of electing members of Parliament will be introduced. The number of deputies will be increased from 116 to 154. An important novelty is the election of nine members of the Majilis by the Assembly of the People of Kazakhstan, a unique instrument to strengthen inter-ethnic harmony and peace in Kazakhstan.

A prime minister will now be appointed only with the approval of the majority of the Majilis (lower House of Parliament). Deputies will now need only a simple majority for a vote of no confidence to pass, as opposed to the qualified majority of two thirds of the deputies previously required. Moreover, two thirds of the Constitutional Council, the Central Election Commission and the Accounting Committee will be filled by the Parliament. All these changes will significantly strengthen the role of the legislature.

A significant expansion of the roles of political parties and their influence on state management and other sectors of public life will be accomplished through the strengthening of their control over the formation and activity of the Government. Direct financing of political parties and nongovernmental organizations will be introduced for faster development of our civil society.

The role of local self-government will be radically strengthened. The maslikhats (local legislatures) will now have that responsibility, a most important innovation. Local representative bodies will have a qualitatively new role and will cover the appointment of all levels of local executive power. Akims (governors) of cities and regions will not be appointed without the approval of the maslikhats.
We have made a breakthrough in strengthening the system of protection of human rights. In addition to jury trials, as part of the judicial reform in Kazakhstan, we are introducing court sanctioning of arrest.
Therefore, as of today, Kazakhstan begins real transformation toward a combined presidential and parliamentary republic and has moved closer to international democratic standards.

This is a very rare historic example of a popular leader, with the support of 90 percent of the population being at the top of his success, without any pressure from within or without, will share his power and relinquish important parts of his authority.

Besides that, the Parliament deliberated the legislation and approved it with one important addition. The constitutional provision stating that one person cannot be elected president more than twice will not apply to the first president. This means that, while preserving one of the main democratic tenets of the Constitution, the highest representative body of the Republic expressed the will of our people. This decision is recognition and a sign of respect and appreciation for Nursultan Nazarbayev, Kazakhstan’s first president.

Whether the first president uses this opportunity given him by the Parliament and the people is his right and privilege to decide. In my opinion, having witnessed the will, the courage and the wisdom of this man for many years, I am happy that he continues to be in remarkable intellectual and physical health and remains the driving force of the country’s development. If he chooses to use this opportunity, it will benefit our young independent nation.

DT: How have Kazakhstan’s relations with the U.S. changed since you came here as ambassador six and a half years ago?

SAUDABAYEV: The main result of these years is the elevation of our relations to a level of true and long-term strategic partnership supported by real deeds. I would like to share a few facts here.
After the terrorist attacks of September 11, Kazakhstan has supported the United States in the war on terrorism unequivocally and unconditionally. This was followed by President Nazarbayev’s visit to Washington in 2001, with the resulting elevation of bilateral relations to the level of a “long-term strategic partnership.” In 2003, Kazakhstan supported U.S. efforts in Iraq, sending a military contingent there, which continues with its dangerous and noble mission today.

In 2001, 2005 and 2006, both houses of the U.S. Congress adopted unprecedented resolutions commending Kazakhstan’s achievements as an independent state and its contribution to nuclear disarmament.

The dynamics of trade and investment cooperation are showing positive signs. Bilateral trade grew from $550 million in 2000 to $2 billion last year. American investments in Kazakhstan increased to $15 billion. On top of that, we have seen a major increase in the number and quality of mutual visits, including the visit to Astana by Vice President Richard Cheney last spring. This trend culminated with a momentous visit by our president to the United States last fall. The meeting Nursultan Nazarbayev had then with George W. Bush and key members of the U.S. Administration and Congress showed the highest respect for Kazakhstan and our leader.

I guess one of the most important results of these years is a major breakthrough in the way the American public perceives Kazakhstan. These days, Kazakhstan is viewed in the United States as a reliable partner and firm ally in the war on terrorism. People here respect Kazakhstan and President Nazarbayev for outstanding and consistent leadership in nonproliferation. We hear commendations for inter-ethnic peace and our president’s efforts to build bridges between different religions and civilizations in our tough times.

DT: Russia, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan have reached a gas pipeline deal. How does this impact the EU- and U.S.-backed pipeline under the Caspian Sea?

SAUDABAYEV: Throughout the years of independence, Kazakhstan’s principled position has been to ensure multiple routes for export pipelines. That is why we welcome any steps aimed at creating such a multiple-choice system and constructing pipelines to the West, the East and, in perspective, to the South, including the Tengiz-Novorossisk route of the Caspian Pipeline Consortium, and the Western Kazakhstan-Western China pipeline.

The recent tripartite agreement, at its basis, has clearly defined pragmatism and the national interests of Kazakhstan. This project will be a direct copy of the existing gas infrastructure in the region, which stretches from Turkmenistan through Kazakhstan and into Europe via Russia. Turkmenistan’s gas potential makes the project around the Caspian economically attractive, including for Kazakhstan, given the transit potential of our country.

We are currently working to create a Kazakhstan Caspian Transportation System (KCTS) which will ensure economically feasible transportation of Kazakhstan’s hydrocarbons via the Caspian to the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline and further on westward.

We intend to export bigger volumes of oil from the Kashagan and Tengiz oil fields via the East-West corridor of the BTC route, from 23 million tons up to 38-56 million tons per year. We are interested in constructive involvement of American businesses in the establishment of the KCTS. Presently, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and private investors are creating a legal framework which will determine rights and obligations of the parties to the agreement with regard to this infrastructure.

Kazakhstan intends to further pursue a responsible, mutually beneficial energy policy to diversify supplies of energy resources to world markets. The determining factor here will continue to be economic feasibility.

DT: Since independence from the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan has been viewed as a post-Soviet state. Is this a fair assessment of today’s Kazakhstan and how can you move beyond that identity to be seen as a major player in the global system?

SAUDABAYEV: I think it has been a long time since Kazakhstan should no longer be characterized as a post-Soviet state. Today Kazakhstan is rightly perceived in the world as economically strong and a dynamically developing democratic state, a recognized leader in Central Asia, a worthy and respected partner of the international community.  

The World Bank puts Kazakhstan, with a GDP per capita of around $5,000, in the group of countries with medium level incomes. Today, Kazakhstan’s economy is twice as large as all economies of Central Asian countries combined, and is growing stably. In our multi-ethnic country, peace and harmony are secure and democratic institutions work effectively. Recent amendments to the Constitution will promote further political liberalization of our society, transforming Kazakhstan into a combined presidential and parliamentary republic. With the historical voluntary renunciation of the world’s fourth largest nuclear arsenal, as well as meaningful and timely initiatives such as the Conference on Interaction and Mutual Understanding in Asia and the Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions, Kazakhstan and President Nazarbayev make a worthy contribution to global security. All this is strong evidence Kazakhstan is an integrated part of the world community.

DT: What are Kazakhstan’s most important assets?

SAUDABAYEV: Kazakhstan, undoubtedly, is rich in many natural resources. There is a good reason why people say that 99 percent of the chemical elements in the periodic table can be found in our soil.
Kazakhstan has the 8th largest proven oil reserves in the world, sufficient for 50 years according to current projections, as well as over 75 years of gas reserves. Moreover, estimated reserves of the Kazakh sector of the Caspian Sea are huge and could exceed eight billion tons.

Our country is an undisputed leader in chromium ore reserves, with one third of the world total. We possess the world’s second largest deposits of natural uranium, with 100 years of projected supply. We are number four in copper, manganese and zinc reserves, sixth in lead and iron, seventh in cobalt, eighth in coal and gold, tenth in aluminum, and twelfth in nickel deposits.

Mere possession of such natural resources does not, however, guarantee progress and prosperity for our young independent state, and they are not our country’s main asset. There are too many examples of countries with similarly rich resources failing to achieve either peace or prosperity.

That is why I am convinced our main assets are our people’s tolerance, initiative and striving for the future. These are the factors which have ensured success for Kazakhstan today, and I believe will ensure prosperity in the future. The Bolashak (Future) presidential scholarship program, annually sending thousands of young Kazakhs to study at the best universities around the world, shows how much we care about the future. Already, the best graduates from this program occupy important positions in the government and businesses of our country. They bring not only knowledge and experience of effective management, but more importantly, the spirit of democracy and freedom. This is the guarantee that economic and democratic development of an independent Kazakhstan is irreversible.