Kazakh strategist: The Eurasian union is only about economic relations

Sanat Kushkumbayev [Georgi Gotev]

Kazakhstan sees the Eurasian Economic Union purely as a means to develop economic relations, while it strives for much deeper integration with its Central Asian neighbours, based on the model of the European Union, Sanat Kushkumbayev told EURACTIV.com in an exclusive interview.

Sanat Kushkumbayev is deputy director of KAZISS, the Kazakhstan Institute for Strategic Studies under the President of the Republic of Kazakhstan.

Your country belongs to a part of the world which does not often attract the attention of Brussels. What would you tell an audience that would like to learn more?

I would mention EXPO 2017 as an effort by our country to increase its visibility, but also to boost its economy. Our country is an exporter of energy resources, but we are preparing for the future of energy, we are making changes and substitute traditional sources with new ones. There is a tendency towards acceleration, and what yesterday was innovation, today becomes a part of our lives.

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I visited the EXPO and noticed that individual countries, like France for example, are promoting their nuclear industry, because they expect to do big business in Kazakhstan…

But this is normal. This is exactly what we tried to do at the EXPO Milano 2015, also in other places. It’s normal that Areva would like to flag their technologies, and it’s no secret that we need those technologies, as we have plans to develop nuclear energy, being one of the biggest, if not the biggest exporter of uranium. Let me mention also the Pugwash conference our country hosted and the opening of the Low Enriched Uranium (LEU) bank on the territory of Kazakhstan, under IAEA supervision. These are important events for Kazakhstan. But maybe the world doesn’t notice them.

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How would you describe the importance of the LEU bank?

It should be seen as an integral part of the strategic priorities of our external policy. Kazakhstan has consistently been at the forefront of international efforts for nuclear non-proliferation, it closed the Semipalatinsk nuclear test site during the Soviet period and our president and our government are pressing forward with initiatives for nuclear disarmament on the world scene. Moreover, we now have a tribune at the United Nations, as our country has been elected non-permanent member of the UN Security Council.

But more concretely, about the LEU bank?

This is a new political and foreign policy resource. It’s not a business project, although in the longer term the presence of such a bank on the territory of Kazakhstan under the supervision of IAEA is a credit of confidence which has economic implications.

The bank is a diplomatic tool, isn’t it?

Kazakhstan has played a role in the solution of the Iran nuclear issue, and two rounds of the talks between Iran and the six world powers took place on our soil. Then there was no such instrument. We say very openly that under the control of IAEA and with our cooperation, Iran can develop its nuclear energy programme for peaceful purposes, and can use the resource of the LEU bank.

The Iran case seems to be solved, but North Korea appears to be a much bigger challenge. 

We give as an example the fact that Kazakhstan gave up its nuclear arsenal. But of course Kazakhstan is not so influential that it can make an impact on the North Korea standoff. Unlike Iran, North Korea is less predictable. In the case of Iran, we acknowledge their pragmatic, business-like approach. In the case of North Korea, there are too many emotions. From the statements of the North Korea leadership, we don’t hear about nuclear energy programmes, we hear about nuclear missiles.

How would you describe your country’s relations with Iran, in the wider context?

We consider Iran to be, strategically speaking, a very important country in the Middle East, representing a big market with huge economic potential. We are linked via a railway we built a few years ago, crossing the territory of Turkmenistan. But it’s not only us who use this railway. Russia and China can join, and China sees it as an important building block of the One Belt – One road initiative. We are interested in a stable, predictable Iran. This would give us access to Southern ports, as Iran wants to develop the Chabahar port, together with Bandar Abbas. Before the sanctions, we had excellent trade with Iran, via swap deals.

The diplomats I spoke with said that Kazakhstan seeks and actually succeeds in having good relations with all its neighbours…

Indeed, we consider that the multi-vector model is optimal for our interests. It’s very easy to open a conflict and very difficult to find solutions to conflicts. That’s why we want to make sure that our neighbours, and especially the giants of world politics such as Russia and China, and the next circle of countries including India and Pakistan, engage in constructive relations with us. And the Iranians too look at us and at our region of Central Asia as a strategic rearward. They are interested in stable, predictable relations with us.

You didn’t mention the EU…

In the economic sense, the EU represents, as a whole, the number one partner of Kazakhstan. The numbers vary from month to month, but as a whole, the EU is our key economic partner. The second aspect is that we are satisfied with the policies of the EU, which doesn’t show geopolitical ambitions which could put us in the situation of a permanent geopolitical choice between itself and any other player. So the EU is not imposing its interests on us, but rather it is trying to convince us to be part of various programmes. This is what we like. We know Europe has its own problems, but it’s their business to solve them. We appreciate the well-wishing attitude the EU has toward us.

Some countries would like the EU to collapse because it imposes rules on their companies which they don’t like; ask Google or Gazprom. Other external players prefer to continue to deal with the EU, instead of with 27 member states. Where does Kazakhstan stand against this background?

I think that a united Europe is better for the Europeans themselves, but also from the point of view of global stability and of more predictable rules of the game. Also for preserving the euro, as the second reserve currency worldwide. We know about the internal problems of Europe, the example of Brexit shows that Eurosceptics have won the battle at least in one case, but the UK wasn’t in the euro in the first place and I don’t see the beginning of an unravelling of Europe. Europe remains the flagbearer, the beacon of the integration process on a world scale.

Let me add that as a convinced integrationist, I consider that the EU is a very good example for Central Asia and for Kazakhstan in particular.

Kazakhstan is the biggest country in Central Asia. And your country is a member of the Eurasian Economic Union. So where are you? With Russia, or with Central Asia?

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It’s not by chance that the Eurasian union is called “economic union”. It’s only about economic ambitions. Anything else is beyond what we could discuss or comment on. We are realists. Kazakhstan and Russia have probably the world’s longest border, similar in length with the USA-Canada border. We take these realities into account and Russia remains our strategic partner, our ally. It’s in our interest for Russia to be a successful state and a responsible member of the world community. Also in the economic field, because our economies are closely linked. So even without formalising our relationship, it is very close. By formalising it, we aim at make it more orderly and mutually profitable. Also, in the EU, there is a common basis based on values.

But Russia also speaks more and more about its traditional values…

We don’t speak about that for the time being. What Russia feels today is similar to what other post-Soviet states have been through. It’s an ambition to recover the national identity, it’s a permanent ping-pong between the past and the future, between the imperial past and some vision for the future.

Integration with Russia is tricky, because it’s too big. We remember Comecon [the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance economic organisation from 1949 to 1991 under the leadership of the Soviet Union that comprised the countries of the Eastern Bloc.] It collapsed.

Precisely. This organisation was like a football pitch with one goal. That’s why we speak only about the economic aspect. In Kazakhstan there are different opinions. Some are optimists, other are sceptical about the Eurasian Economic Union. Regarding Central Asia [the five former Soviet republics Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan], we don’t restrict ourselves to the economic dimension, we speak of geopolitical identity, of what unites us in terms of history, culture, mentality. We are comparable countries. Kazakhstan is larger, but this is not decisive for the sovereignty of our neighbours, we don’t nourish leadership ambitions.

And for our external partners, it should be easier and more effective to deal with a more unified Central Asia, instead of with a collection of divided “-stans”. We are building on our non-permanent membership of the UNSC and we try to put on the agenda and discuss issues of regional relevance, on issues such as Afghanistan, water, migration etc.

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The Central Asian countries, perhaps as a result of having been part of the Soviet Union, are more secular that other Muslim countries, and there are not many cases of religious extremism here. How does your country plan to make good use of these circumstances?

The years we lived in the Soviet Union, which was not only secular, but atheistic, have left an impression, but indeed, our societies are predominantly secular, and closer to the European countries. Take as an example the city of Alma Ata [the former capital of Kazakhstan]. It finds itself 200 km from China, but the difference compared to China is huge, as on our side everything looks European, the cuisine, the way of life, the mentality, the values.

But we are also going through a process of a religious renaissance. We are active members of the Organisation for Islamic Cooperation. By returning to those Islamic roots, we are taking prudent steps. In some European countries the percentage of practicing Muslims is much higher than in the countries of Central Asia.

How do you deal with the issue of external financing of religious institutions, which sometimes can be dangerous?

In the beginning of the 1990s there was little control or regulation of external donations. For example, many young people were sent abroad for religious training, in countries like Pakistan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey. In later times, since the world was faced manifestations of religious radicalism, we have brought order and our legislation regulates external financing, without being prohibitive. Private investments in religious education, the building of mosques etc. are not allowed.

What are Kazakhstan’s priorities in the Organisation for Islamic Cooperation?

Our main message is about the need for modernisation of the Islamic world.  We see in this organisation a potential for the modernisation of the Islamic world. We remember that 1,000 years ago the Islamic world was the civilisational centre of the world, although a lot of this legacy has been destroyed in recent times.

Are there Kazakh nationals among the foreign fighters for Islamic State in Iraq, Syria?

We have such information. Maybe they are not so numerous as the nationals of the UK and other Western countries. This is part of the phenomenon of neophytes. Neophytes are always radical. In Belgium, in other Western countries, many of the radicalised Islamists are second and third generation of migrants. Many of them don’t even know Arabic well. In Kazakhstan, many of these neophytes are from industrial cities, their parents were more often communist than religious. They became radicalised in their search for identity.

Are you satisfied by international cooperation in the fight against terrorism?

I couldn’t say so.

Why do all countries seem to close their eyes to Saudi Arabia?

It’s a rich country and an ally to the most powerful country on Earth.

So the West keeps its eyes wide shut?

This is what I’m saying.