Yerman Mukhtar: We don’t build walls in the steppe

Yerman Mukhtar [Parliament of Kazakhstan]

This article is part of our special report Multi-vector diplomacy.

In a wide-ranging interview, Yerman Mukhtar, the chairman of the Kazakh parliament’s committee on foreign affairs, defence and security, explains his country’s foreign policy initiatives, known as ‘the Three Dialogues’.

Yerman Mukhtar is the chairman of the Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Security of Mazhilis (the lower house) of the Parliament of Kazakhstan.

He spoke to EURACTIV’s Senior Editor Georgi Gotev.

Can you explain Kazakhstan’s ‘Three Dialogues’ initiative? In Brussels, we have only heard about one of its aspects, the invitation by the First President of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, to host a summit of the big geopolitical players: the United States, Russia, China and the EU.

The idea of such a global summit was first voiced by the First President of Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbayev in 2015, at the 60th anniversary of the United Nations. In 2016 he repeated this idea at a meeting of the Eurasian economic union. Then again, he reiterated the proposal at the Asia-Europe (ASEM) summit in Brussels in October 2018. In that sense, the announcement made in China last April in the framework of the One Belt- One Road forum, was not a spontaneous initiative, it was an initiative already tested at various forums during four years.

The philosophy of the idea is linked to the reputation of our country. I just learned that an India-Pakistan Davis Cup tie will take place in our capital Nur-Sultan because the two countries didn’t agree that this tennis match be played in Pakistan. But they agreed to play the match in Kazakhstan and thanked us for that. So two southern countries with a warm climate will come to the winter capital of Kazakhstan [where at the time of this interview the temperature was -20 degrees Celsius] to play an official match under the Davis Cup.

This story reminded me of the 2002 summit in Almaty [the former capital of Kazakhstan] of CICA [Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia] when there were serious tensions between these two countries. And our president succeeded, first, to have the leaders of India and Pakistan, of two nuclear powers, sit on the same table, and also they subscribed to a common document, and we saw the tensions between the two decrease. I’m giving these examples to explain our philosophy of peace and cooperation.

In relation with the big players, the US, Russia, China and the EU, we know that the US and Russia have their own agenda, and the same goes with the US and China, the latter being largely economic. There is a common aspect – all players are members of the nuclear club, of course, in the case of the EU only France and the UK have nuclear weapons. But the US, Russia, China have their geopolitical plans and strategies how to increase their potential, to leverage their influence. It’s clear that these countries will not sit around the table tomorrow. But such a tendency should be encouraged.

There is a need to create a political background, a media background leading to the materialisation of this proposal. Of course, each of these countries are very different, but Kazakhstan has good relations with all of them. Last year First President Nazarbayev met with President Trump, this year President Tokayev was in the US for the UN General Assembly session. And we have good relations and a strategic partnership with the Russian Federation, a comprehensive partnership with China, and a couple of days ago I met with a delegation of the EU, they visited us in Kazakhstan, and we made the point that Italy was the last EU country to ratify the Enhanced Partnership and Cooperation Agreement and the next step is just procedure ahead of the full entry into force of EPCA, from 1 January 2020.

In short, we have the possibility, with each of these global players, to exchange views. And what is important is that our initiative is already on the agenda.

Regarding the “second D” – Eurasia, can you elaborate on how your country sees uniting the potentials of CICA [the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia] and the OSCE? Can you better explain about CICA – the EU audience is not very familiar with it?

CICA’s history started in 1992, when President Nazarbayev proposed the initiative at the UN General Assembly. Today 27 countries of Asia, all players on the continent, are members of this organisation. This includes India, China, the two Koreas, Pakistan, Russia, Turkey, Uzbekistan, Vietnam, Egypt, as well as eight observers, including the US and Japan. Observer organisations are both OSCE and the UN, among others.

What is the role of Kazakhstan in CICA? We are a Eurasian country, a large part of our territory is on the European continent. We are the only country which was able to convene the summit of OSCE here, in 2010. After their meeting in Astana, as the capital was called then, OSCE leaders were not able to gather in the same format again, attempts have failed.

Given our close relations with OSCE and our role in CICA, President Nazarbayev has formulated the idea of having an Asian version of OSCE, an Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Asia. This means changing the format of CICA, transforming it into OSCA. We live in very dynamic times. And two mega-continents, Europe and Asia, could cooperate very actively in the framework of these big organisations, OSCE and OSCA. We have voiced our ideas, and we believe it is making its way.

About your remark that the Brussels audience is not very familiar with CICA – this only motivates us to do more to promote it. I am the head, from the Kazakh side, of the Committee for cooperation between Kazakhstan and the EU, in the European Parliament we had meetings, and we have invited our counterparts, during the EP ‘green week’ in February 2020, and we will discuss the perspectives of our cooperation. We are happy also to discuss with the press, and we count on interviews such as this one to increase awareness in the West about initiatives in the Asian space.

Regarding the “third D”, how do you see the establishment of a systematic dialogue between the Eurasian economic union (EAEU) and the EU?

Kazakhstan is a key actor in EAEU. The EU is the largest trade and investment partner of our country. And we are happy about it. Of course, if EAEU has grown into a community consisting of Russia, Kazakhstan, Belarus, Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, this increases the potential for economic cooperation. All transport communications are deploying along this big line from South East Asia to Europe and back. By creating a modern infrastructure, Kazakhstan has drastically reduced the time of goods crossing via its territory.

If we talk about ASEAN, one of its important members is Vietnam. On 15-16 November, I was on a visit to Vietnam and this country signed a free trade agreement with EAEU. This allows a very dynamic country, with a  growth rate of 7%, to take advantage of all benefits on the EAEU market. Serbia has signed a similar deal, and Egypt is also interested. What lies in the bottom is economic pragmatism. When economic relations are strong, the political component will also be predictable.

But aren’t sanctions against Russia in the context of the Crimea annexation and the crisis in Eastern Ukraine preventing relations between the EU and the EAEU from developing?

Unfortunately, sanctions are a matter of reality, and political motives always lie behind them. The sanctions are against the Russian Federation, Kazakhstan is not subject to sanctions, but given that we have very close economic relations, of course, sanctions impact on the economic situation.   The way out could be to separate the political from the economic issues, and realising that sanction cannot last forever. All wars, and this includes trade wars, come to an end. I would say that the losses are for both sides. Sanctions are a counter-productive policy. We live in the times of information technologies, our youth goes to study far away, we receive investors from distant countries, we work on common projects. The Iron Curtain from the Cold war is no longer possible. I believe that pragmatism is going to prevail, on the regional and global level.

Let me give as an example the cooperation in Central Asia. We see that in the last two-three years the economic cooperation between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan grow exponentially, also between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, we see the countries discussing together regional security. Indeed, security is needed for development, and development must be in the interest of the peoples. The world lives in times of mega-communication, and mega-communication should enhance our cooperation, this is my strong personal belief.

You are the chairman of your Parliament’s Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Security. How can a regional problem such as Afghanistan be solved?

History has shown that a military solution of the Afghan problem cannot be found. The British failed, the Soviet Union failed, the US failed. The use of force cannot change the mentality. I will give an example, it may be small, but it’s revealing. Our country allocates funds for young Afghans to study in Kazakhstan, to get training as doctors, engineers. And by spending five years in Kazakhstan, these people return to their country with other values. The EU supports such programs and also contributes funds.

In my understanding, the EU supports such initiatives because young Afghans who receive training in Kazakhstan return to their country, while those studying in the EU want to stay, and don’t contribute to their country’s future.

I can confirm this. And I personally saw the wave of immigration to Europe in 2015, including at the station of Vienna, Budapest or Salzburg. I spoke to these people and they told me: we come here to stay.

On 9 December in Paris, a summit will be held to help solve the Ukrainian crisis. What are the stakes for Kazakhstan?

We don’t have any problems with Russia, and we don’t have any with Ukraine either. We would like progress at this summit, progress in relations between these two countries so close by history, culture and language. A breakthrough would positively influence the global climate. Russia is a big country and Ukraine is a big country. One less hotbed of tension in the Eurasian space – we can only support such an effort.

How did Kazakhstan manage to preserve its good relations with Russia, while others couldn’t?

It’s true that the experience of different countries varies. We had the right policy. Kazakhstan is a multi-national country, with Russians, Ukrainians, Bulgarians, Polish, Koreans, Uighurs, but unlike the EU countries or the US, neither in the constitution of Kazakhstan, or in its legislation, or in our vocabulary, we never say “minorities”. We call them citizens of our country.

Also, we were pro-active, proposing formats for our relations with Moscow. The Commonwealth of Independent States was created in Almaty. The EAEU was also first formulated by President Nazarbayev in the Moscow University [in 1994].

But Kazakhs are bad at one thing. We cannot build walls. Because in the steppe, there are no walls.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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