KAZAKHSTAN: Evolution, not revolution
Ambassador Kanat Saudabayev

Kanat Saudabayev

Recent events in Uzbekistan, and before that in Kyrgyzstan, have drawn the world's attention to these countries and Central Asia generally. There are countless commentaries on what happened there and what it means for the region, including speculations on "who's next?" and "where next?"

Without engaging in polemics, I would like to share how Kazakhstan has developed since independence. A knowledgeable and unbiased person would see that Kazakhstan today is quite different from its neighbors, and that it is wrong to project events in Uzbekistan or Kyrgyzstan on other regional countries without a thoughtful analysis of the situation.

All newly independent states in Central Asia left a single home in 1991, yet each has chosen its own road. In the words of the American poet Robert Frost, Kazakhstan took a road "less traveled by, and that has made all the difference."

Kazakhstan's first President, Nursultan Nazarbayev, has set the course for bold market economic reforms and continuous liberalization of the society. Ten years ago, our GDP per capita was US$700. Last year it was US$2,700, and the forecast for this year puts it beyond US$3,000. By 2010, our GDP per capita should exceed US$5,800, reaching the level of the Czech Republic or Poland. Based on purchasing power parity, we are already close to this level.

Kazakhstan, the ninth largest country in the world, with a population of 15 million, has attracted 80 percent of foreign investment in the region, more than US$30 billion. Of that amount, US companies have invested US$10 billion.

Economic successes have brought a better life to our people. The World Bank now ranks Kazakhstan as a middle income country. In 10 years, the average income of our people has grown almost fivefold, and personal bank deposits have grown 35 times. Kazakhstan has the lowest unemployment in the region, and the highest average salary: US$250 per month compared to US$40 or less across Central Asia.

Kazakhstan is steadily nurturing democratic institutions. We hold regular democratic elections, albeit not without problems, and have created the foundations for an independent judiciary and ensured freedom of speech. Today in Kazakhstan there are 2,000 independent news media outlets, 5,000 nongovernmental organizations, and 11 political parties, of which four have seats in our Parliament.

Kazakhstan has managed peace and harmony in a society of more than 100 ethnic groups and 40 religions. The late Pope John Paul II called Kazakhstan "an example of harmony between men and women of different origins and beliefs."

We have pursued a responsible foreign policy, earning respect in the broad world.

We value our strategic partnership with the United States. It began with Kazakhstan's voluntary renunciation of the world's fourth largest nuclear arsenal and grew through our joint fight against terrorism. Kazakhstan is among the very few Muslim nations and the only one in Central Asia to support US-led efforts to stabilize Iraq by sending our troops there. Since 2003, our army engineers in Iraq have destroyed more than 3 million pieces of ordnance.

President George Bush, in a recent letter to Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbayev, wrote: "Over the past 13 years, your country has made great strides in developing its economy and ensuring a prosperous future for its people. The United States looks forward to deepening a partnership with you to realize Kazakhstan's tremendous promise by ensuring the people of Kazakhstan enjoy expanding opportunities to participate in the civic life of their country in pursuit of democratic development, prosperity, and regional peace."

Our two countries share an understanding of how democracy must be built. President Nazarbayev has noted, "You can't just declare democracy; you can only build it through hard work." President Bush has said, "Democracy just doesn't happen overnight. It is an evolution."

Indeed, knowledgeable experts today describe Kazakhstan's evolutionary way of development, which envisions rapid economic reforms accompanied by continuous political liberalization, as a third way for countries in transition. A third way meaning there are two others: first, where there is a complete absence of reforms, and second, where reforms are brought about through so-called "colored revolutions." Against the backdrop of events in neighboring countries, the results of Kazakhstan's sustainable development to date confirm our strategic course has been correct.

Based on our successes so far, President Nazarbayev called for a new stage of economic and political reforms in his annual address in February 2005. In addition to the unprecedented improvement in the quality of life, the President has proposed a National Program of Political Reforms. It would include strengthening the Parliament, decentralizing government authority, reforming the judiciary and expanding rights and freedoms for all. All the citizens of Kazakhstan, political leaders and NGOs are called to participate in its development.

We do not say we don't have challenges in our development, because we understand that only those who don't do anything never make mistakes. We welcome constructive criticism and recommendations of our partners and are eager to strive vigorously for Western standards of life for our people. Our desire to reach an ambitious goal and become the first former Soviet Union country to chair the OSCE in 2009 is another proof of our commitment.

We further believe the success of Kazakhstan, a predominantly Muslim nation that has left a totalitarian system only recently, in pursuing market reforms and building democracy in a very complicated region, is needed by the United States as a convincing example for promoting economic and political freedoms in the world.

As Ariel Cohen of the Heritage Foundation said recently, "Kazakhstan is a demonstration project that democracy and market can work in Central Asia, Asia in general and the Muslim world."

Kanat Saudabayev is Kazakhstan's ambassador to the United States