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New capital with high hopes

Skyscrapers downtown Astana

A benign, progressive and open country, Kazakhstan is emerging as a sought-after mediator in conflict resolution finds Aydin Calik although not much scrutiny is applied to its fledgling form of democracy

‘The ninth largest country in the world,’ ‘the biggest landlocked country,’ ‘a former Soviet Union republic,’ ‘a nomadic history,’ ‘rich in hydrocarbons,’ ‘a young democracy,’ ‘it launches rockets into space,’ ‘they eat horse!’. These were the most common pieces of information thrown at me when I asked people both inside and out of the country to tell me about Kazakhstan.

Full disclosure: The Kazakhstan embassy in Cyprus got in touch with the Cyprus Mail offering a trip to Kazakhstan to attend the seventh round of the Syria peace talks and the inaugural Nazarbayev Prize for a Nuclear-Weapons-Free World and Global Security ceremony at the presidential palace. Of course, I jumped at the offer. I mean, who goes to Kazakhstan? What do you know about Kazakhstan?

Located in central Asia, Kazakhstan is a developing country of around 17.5 million people. It gained its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 and has been ruled by President Nursultan Nazarbayev since. The official state language is Kazakh, which is Turkic in origin, but the lingua franca is Russian.

It is home to over 120 different ethnicities, with Kazakhs constituting the overwhelming majority. Ethnic Russians account for about a quarter of the population and there are also smaller proportions of Germans (ask Stalin about that), Ukrainians and Uzbekis. Historically, it was ruled by Persians and Mongols until the 13th century when the various Kazakh tribes united into a single entity.

Under Soviet control, Stalin shipped his perceived political enemies all around the country where a lot of them perished in his infamous gulags. The Russian influence is everywhere, Cyrillic is omnipresent – but the president has just ordered a switch to the Latin alphabet. It will be the third time the country has changed its alphabet in less than 100 years.

Astana, the capital, which rather unimaginatively literally means ‘capital’, is admittedly not as colourful and hospitable as the people that call it their home. It replaced Almaty in 1997 as the capital and was practically built from scratch. I like to think of it as a post-soviet city – capitalism with Kazakh characteristics. 

Walking through the tall skyscrapers and wide boulevards on the almost empty pavements, I felt out of place in a city that is also perhaps out of place. Life revolves around the various shopping centres (malls) dotted around the city, the most renowned one being the Norman Foster designed Khan Shatyr – no guessing where the oil money has gone.

I am a big foodie, and pride myself in being open to almost anything. I had never tried horse meat, but you know how it goes ‘when in Rome’. A Kazakh friend of mine from university recommended a good place for me to try their national dish, Beshbarmak, which literally means ‘five fingers’ because it is traditionally eaten with your hands.

It consists of horse meat, onions and potatoes rested on layers of noodle sheets. Sounds pretty good, right? Well, let’s just say it is an acquired taste. Anyway, I wasn’t in Kazakhstan to write restaurant reviews – I wanted to get a grasp of its place in the world.

Deputy Foreign Minister Yerzhan Ashikbayev in a briefing to foreign journalists began dissecting his country’s foreign policy from a geographic point of view.

“Landlockedness means we are dependent on our relationship with our neighbours… we want a safe, stable and prosperous environment across our borders,” he said.

Kazakhstan is 12th in the world for proven oil reserves (30 billion barrels) and is heavily reliant on its hydrocarbon exports.

The country can boast of having patched up affairs between Turkey and Russia, contributing significantly to the Iran nuclear deal, hosting seven rounds of Syria peace talks in Astana and making strides to help resolve the conflict in eastern Ukraine. Indeed, Kazakhstan is emerging as a sought-after mediator in conflict resolution.

While the Syria peace talks in Astana have arguably done more in the way of reducing fighting than any other initiative since the beginning of the war, notably through an agreement on creating ‘four de-escalation zones’ in Syria, the seventh round failed to make much headway beyond a rather vague statement on the need for confidence-building measures.

Another round is scheduled to take place at the end of December.

It was eye-opening observing the conflicting parties – estimated to have taken almost half a million lives – in the safety of the Turkish-owned, luxurious Rixos hotel in the capital. As civilians battled for their lives in Syria, diplomats clashed over the wording of a statement in the tranquility of the warm conference hall.

Deputy Foreign Minister Yerzhan Ashikbayev briefing foreign journalists

To top off the feeling of detachment, after the Kazakh foreign minister finished reading out the joint statement, I overheard an international journalist say, “right, that’s done, we’re going to hit the bar – fancy a couple?”

Nevertheless, Kazakhstan’s mediator role has paid dividends and any effort to resolve seemingly intractable conflicts must surely be commended. Sworn to pursue its foreign policy via diplomatic means, Astana appears to be pushing its soft-power credentials to the forefront.

Another sphere in which the largest economy in Central Asia has been unabashedly vocal is in its efforts to cultivate nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament. The country claims a moral right to campaign for nuclear-non proliferation since it suffered so much (a tenth of its population have health problems) from nuclear tests on its soil.

Nazarbayev “voluntarily” closed down the Soviet Union’s Semipalatinsk Test Site in northern Kazakhstan and gave up the world’s fourth largest nuclear weapons arsenal it inherited following the collapse of the USSR.

Astana led efforts to create the ‘Central Asian Nuclear Weapon Free Zone’ whereby Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan signed a treaty committing themselves not to manufacture, acquire test, or possess nuclear weapons.

Alongside fellow journalists, I witnessed King Abdullah II receive his Nuclear Weapons-Free World and Global Security prize at the Akorda presidential palace. The king of Jordan is not the first person that springs to mind when one ponders the topic of a nuclear-free world, but the Kazakh president evidently begs to differ.

“As the country that said ‘no’ to nuclear weapons and as the country that shut down its nuclear test site, given the authority of King Abdullah in global policy and his contribution to many issues (related to world peace), the commission has decided to present him the first award,” Nazarbayev said.

The president specifically highlighted Jordan’s opening its doors to 1.3 million refugees from Syria, its observer status in the Syria Astana peace talks and its efforts in trying to bring about a Palestinian-Israeli settlement.

I would have valued to chance to ask about the Hasehmite kingdom’s role in the nuclear sphere but the two leaders did not take any questions.

I can’t help but feel Kazakhstan must harbour at least a sliver of regret in getting rid of its nuclear arsenal so hastily following the collapse of Soviet Union, since the world appears to be growing increasingly multipolar and unstable.

Perhaps they do, and have no alternative right now but to play up this great deed and position themselves as a responsible member of the global community. After all, they won’t be getting the greatest form of deterrence back any time soon.

I asked this question to the president of the Kazakhstan Institute for Strategic Studies – which was set up by Nazarbayev – Zarema Shaukenova. She replied “it was the right decision and the president never regretted it.” Not the kind of answer I hoped for, but one I expected.

The Nur Astana mosque

Why is Kazakhstan making so much noise internationally in this sphere? It undoubtedly reflects its foreign policy objective of coming across as a benign, progressive and open country. But could it also be part of a clever strategy to placate international opinion in the face of what might be called the country’s democratic deficit!

Kazakhstan ranks 179th in Freedom House’s ‘Freedom of the Press’ report 2017, a place it shares with Burundi, Laos and Yemen. The same organisation rates the country as ‘Not Free’. Similarly, the Central Asian giant holds the 139th spot in the Economist’s Democracy Index and is categorised as ‘Authoritarian’. In 2015, Nazarbayev was re-elected president with 97.7 per cent of the vote on a voter turnout of 95.22 per cent.

For a confident, developing country the anti-democratic image Kazakhstan has is surely an issue. On this topic, deputy FM Ashikbayev attempted to justify these shortcomings by saying “democracy doesn’t come overnight”.

It has been almost 26 years since the founding of the modern Kazakh state so how many more nights would it take? I presented this question to former prime minister and current chairman of the senate Kassym-Jomart Tokayev. “I think that Kazakhstan is a democratic country… I believe that Kazakhstan should be regarded as a young democracy.”

The chairman spoke about how his country, during Soviet times, had no traditions of contemporary standards of democracy that are applied in measuring democracy. He talked about how “in the majilis (lower house) parties freely compete in elections for the parliament.”

When prompted with a question on the Freedom House rating, Tokayev, seeming to almost relish the question, said “Freedom House clearly has no idea about the amendments we made last year to the constitution to redress the balance of power in government.”

The chairman talked about how the president was “deprived of more than 30 functions as head of state.”

In my humble opinion, these changes seem a little dubious – the president still wields a disproportionate amount of power. But maybe that misses the point; every single Kazakh I met spoke very highly of Nazarbayev. Most seemed happy enough with their situation and even with their limited English, managed to utter “I love Nazarbayev.”

Perhaps the western conception of democracy does not rank too highly in the minds of Kazakhs and I got the impression that the security, stability and prosperity that they have got used to under Nazarbayev trumps other concerns.

Kazakhstan has gone from a lower-middle-income to upper-middle-income country in less than two decades. The multi-ethnic country has managed to avoid serious political violence unlike so many former Soviet Union states.

Astana is clearly trying to play up this fact by marketing itself as a bastion of stability in trying to attract foreign investment. It has joined China’s One Belt One Road initiative of new transport links between Asia, Europe and Africa and has set up the Astana International Financial Centre hoping the capital will become a Central Asian financial hub.

Kazakhstan struck me as a pragmatic player that isn’t afraid to admit its shortcomings, but one that hopes to make the best of what they have. A country neither looking West nor East, but one that aspires to be the bridge in between.

 

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