Presidential envoy: For Kazakhstan, the EU is a neighbor

Yerzhan Kazykhan in Brussels on 22 June 2021. [Georgi Gotev]

In a wide-ranging interview, Yerzhan Kazykhan, special representative of the president of Kazakhstan for international cooperation, discussed the state of play of the Central Asian country’s relations with the EU, its international initiatives and new projects, such as joining the EU’s battery alliance.

Yerzhan Kazykhan is a career diplomat who was a former foreign minister and aid to the President and has served as Kazakhstan’s ambassador to the United Kingdom, ambassador to Austria, permanent representative of Kazakhstan to the international organisations in Vienna and the permanent representative to the United Nations in New York.

He spoke to EURACTIV Senior Editor Georgi Gotev.

Can you introduce yourself and tell us what is bringing you to the capital of Europe?

I’m the special representative of the president for international cooperation. This is a new position. And this is my first visit abroad in my new capacity. I’m a career diplomat, I’ve been in diplomacy for the last 30 years. The President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev decided to send me to Brussels is to meet the leadership of the EU, of its institutions. And he tasked me to convey a message to Council President Charles Michel.

One of the reasons why I’m here is that we are preparing the visit of the president to Brussels, if conditions permit, hopefully towards the end of this year, and as usual, before this high level visits, we need to do some homework.

The EU was and remains our top priority in terms of foreign interaction. The EU is the biggest trading partner in Kazakhstan, roughly accounting 50% of our trade turnover, it is the biggest foreign direct investor into our economy, thousands of European companies are operating in Kazakhstan. One of the reasons of my visit is to reach out to the leadership of the EU with this simple message that in a post-pandemic world with the new supply chain configuration, Kazakhstan has many competitive advantages, and we can open new avenues of cooperation.

Kazakhstan is the biggest economy in the region, a powerhouse in Central Asia, our GDP is double the size of the GDP of all the countries of Central Asia combined and the Caucasus. We will be marking the 30th anniversary of our independence this year. And certainly, there are several particular areas that we can work together. First and foremost, it’s post-pandemic recovery. You know, Kazakhstan has produced its own vaccine, QazVaq.  We are planning to increase the production and provide supply to those in need, in our region, to smaller countries, least developed countries. And we can find a good cooperation with the European Union, given the EU commitments to support developing worlds.

We started an inoculation campaign in our country as of February of this year. By the end of the year, we hope that we will be able to vaccinate 55% of our population. But not all the countries in our region are privileged of having this kind of possibilities. So we think that this is something that we can do together with European partners.

Another area is climate change, a hot topic. Kazakhstan took a very robust stance to come up to carbon neutrality by the middle of the century. And for that, we preparing a low carbon development strategy that will be ready fairly soon. We are preparing the president trip to Glasgow for Cop-26. And we understand that we need to go to this summit with something tangible in our hands. We strongly believe that the EU Green Deal initiative is a great opportunity to join our efforts and work together on renewables, because Kazakhstan is planning to reach 15% renewables by 2030. And the EU has great expertise and great potential of helping Kazakhstan in achieving those goals.

The third area I would like to specify is the transit transport cooperation. Kazakhstan is a land bridge, the historically famous Silk Road traversed our lands and we continue to serve as a land bridge, we invested billions and billions of dollars into our infrastructure.  It’s worth to look into that potential, especially for example the trans-Caspian corridor.

I would separately point out another interesting area, which is the European Battery Alliance, the European raw material Alliance. And we had some discussions here about that. And we think that Kazakhstan could integrate into the battery supply chain, when it comes to extraction and processing of the materials. You know, the Kazakhstan is the ninth largest country in the world with abundance of resources. And we conscious of the fact that Europeans has completed or building the construction of such factories on its territory. And I think that we can find a good synergy in this respect.

One other area, of course, is the food security. Now Kazakhstan is positioning itself as a breadbasket in the region. And we certainly interested in developing our agricultural sector a being reliable and strong suppliers of processed foods to the region. Food security, especially during the pandemic became more and more a pressing issue for the rest of the world.

Another area that I think also might be interesting is the women empowerment of women entrepreneurship. There is a McKinsey report that said that if the women in the world will be provided equal opportunities in business, similar to men, the world GDP will be increased up to $30 trillion, which I think speaks for itself, so we need to support women, women interruption entrepreneurship women empowerment, and we are the leading country in the region in terms of all these things.

Your country has traditionally had an active international role. It was the idea of your country’s leadership to host a summit between the leaders of Russia, China, the United States and the European Union. Is this still on the table after the pandemic?

The pandemic has changed many things in the world. But most importantly, the hearts and minds of the people that we live in very connected world, we depend on each other very significantly. And the rich countries must pay attention and support the developing world because this planet is a small place. We are encouraged by the fact that the US-Russia Geneva meeting took place. We are talking first and foremost about strategic stability. For Kazakhstan, it’s very close topic, because we made strong contribution to nuclear non-proliferation and nuclear disarmament by removing warheads and dismantling missiles on our territory, closing nuclear testing ground.

And of course, Kazakhstan, since long ago, positioned itself as a as a country that is offering good office support for any kind of resolution and dialogue, to mitigate differences, to bridge positions among between the countries. The proposal that you mentioned about the meeting of the leaders of the big powers, including the European Union, is getting more and more important, especially in the context that we are approaching. An important milestone is the 50th anniversary of Helsinki Final Act that outlined a very important set of principles that were accepted by a large number of countries. We strongly believe maybe the time has come now for the big powers to reconfirm all those important principles. And we will welcome similar proposals coming from other countries. But if leaders decide to, to join their heads in my country, they will be most welcome.

The anniversary will be in 2025, it’s still a long time away…

It’s a long time, yes. But in any case, we strongly believe that the time has come for the leaders of, of the world to understand and to reconfirm all those commitments that has been once made by our predecessors.

We remember the huge importance of the 1975 Helsinki Final Act and the big changes that followed, when the Soviet Union accepted to discuss the issue of human rights. But these days, we see a different trend. Countries like Russia or China say: “Don’t interfere in our internal affairs”. It won’t be easy to reconfirm Helsinki today?

Well, yes. The world is evolving constantly, new dynamics taking place everywhere. Speaking about Kazakhstan, we believe that there will be no further economic development without meaningful political modernisation of the country. That’s our firm commitment. We think that the more liberalized the society, the stronger the dialogue between government and civil society, the more freedoms preserved and protected, the stronger our society will be. In this context, the president launched the concept of the listening state. Over the last two years, we passed a number of laws that I would call very progressive. They concern the peaceful assembly, parliamentary opposition, elections legislation  the NGOs and civil society, etc. But we understand no matter how beautiful the laws, the devil in the details, and double devil in the implementation, so a week ago President issued a degree of seven points, outlining a concrete steps that we will take to further strengthen democratic principles in our country. We are doing that not to please anybody in the West, we are doing that fully understanding that this is the right way of strengthening our position.

And it’s also a good example for other countries.

Yes, I agree with you. Of course, each and every country has its own way of development. But as I mentioned earlier, we understand that the world is interconnected, the problems don’t recognize borders. And that is why Kazakhstan, for example, is a strong proponent of greater connectivity amongst the five Central Asian countries, you know that our first president initiated high level informal summits.

I was there at the first one, in March 2018, in Astana.

Two more summits took place and we are preparing the next one. President Tokayev proposed to set up a mechanism within the five Central Asian countries to prevent any border conflicts in our region…

… as we have seen recently, between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

Yes, unfortunately. We propose to host the next summit in Kazakhstan. We have a beautiful city in the southern part of Kazakhstan, which is called Turkistan. It’s the cultural and historical capital of Central Asia. And so we invited leaders to come, and if there would be ideas and proposals to hold the meetings at some other place, we will certainly respect that. But as I said, we put forward our proposal. I mentioned to the our European Union friends that we very much appreciate the format, which we call CA5+EU, designed to help and promote stronger connectivity and collaboration among the countries in the region. There are already a number of important projects that are being implemented for many years. I’m talking about Cadap, Traseca and others, but we need to do more. The new realities in the world and in the region require this. That is why I think that we treat the European Union as our neighbour, be it distant, and we want to deepen our close cooperation.

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