Kazakh strategist: The EU is a precious, but undervalued partner

Sanat Kushkumbayev at the conference “Institution of Presidency – Kazakhstan’s model” in Nur-Sultan, on 27 November 2019. [Georgi Gotev]

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

On the sidelines of a conference dedicated to Kazakhstan’s experience with the presidential model of governance, EURACTIV spoke to Sanat Kushkumbayev, a prominent foreign policy analyst, about Kazakhstan’s diplomatic and geopolitical efforts, including its relations with China and the EU.

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

Is it possible to compare the situation in Ukraine and in Kazakhstan, almost three decades after both countries’ independence from the USSR?

It is not by chance that at the conference we both attended it was said that in a transition period it is very important to have a long mandate to carry out reforms. Kazakhstan adopted the presidential model and long-termism.  Short-termism and a big role for Parliament doesn’t help, maybe this was the issue in Ukraine, and the democratic process can also often bring about populism. This is especially true when unpopular decisions need to be taken. Maybe in Central Europe, the parliamentary model worked, but in the post-Soviet space, Ukraine, Moldova, it didn’t.

But can we speak about cult of personality in the case of Nazarbayev?

I would call it otherwise: paying respect by society to the man, whose leadership and authority contributed hugely to Kazakhstan becoming an independent country, becoming what it is now. The First President Nazarbayev retired, he remains an important figure in Kazakhstan’s politics, but he is no longer the head of state, he stepped down voluntarily.

The respect to Nazarbayev you are talking about, isn’t it also the result of a net improvement of living standards in the post-Soviet period?

Of course, this is clear, and we see mentalities change, we see people becoming more ambitious about their future.

Your speciality is international relations and in your speech, you mentioned the Astana Process which assists the peace negotiations for Syria, with the so-called three “guarantor states” in the lead, Russia, Turkey and Iran. You mentioned that a 14th such meeting will take place in Nur-Sultan in December. What are the expectations?

The meeting is planned for the first half of December. It is expected to focus on technical issues, in the northern part of Syria, the area of Idlib and the banks of the Euphrates. It’s about expanding previous agreements regarding the same zone, in the north-eastern direction. This is a sensitive area where there are Turks, Kurds, and remains of the terrorists from Islamic State.

It’s a very tricky area…

Indeed. We are not trying to force anything, this is not the task of the Kazakh diplomacy, our task is to provide help on technical issues. We don’t aim at replacing the Geneva talks for the political solution. The Astana talks are about practical implementation on the ground.

But you say that the Astana talks will meet for the 14th time. The Geneva talks, if I am not mistaken, haven’t taken place since March 2017…

You are probably right. But what is important is to keep the dialogue alive.

Regarding another of your country’s priorities, the dialogue and cooperation in Central Asia, what are the main areas of the dialogue, at the time when the leaders of the five countries are meeting for a second summit?

The main issue is transport, economic cooperation. We focus on areas where there are no contradictions. I don’t think we can solve all the questions regarding water management or energy cooperation. But transport is very important, and we will start from there. The most important is to create a win-win atmosphere for further cooperation.

Where is the EU on Kazakhstan’s radar? You have such powerful neighbours: Russia, China.

I consider that the EU is to a great extent an undervalued partner. It’s an economic giant without geopolitical ambitions. I would say, for us, the EU is the ideal partner for all types of relations: economy, legislation, culture, political cooperation. Kazakhstan was the venue of an OSCE summit [in 2010], but our relations should be constant. This is an anchor for our multi-vector policy. But I think the EU is undervalued globally. It is not a political subject, although economically, it is number one for us, for Central Asia, and I think for many. We should definitely focus more on our relations with the EU.

At this forum, it was said that Kazakhstan has no issues with its neighbours. But how do you see the situation of the Kazakh minority in Xinjiang?

It’s a very worrying issue for us. But we see that the issue is being raised at the global level, in the UN, by the world press. Media reports sound dramatic. The issue requires transparency. We expect that the people who sounded the alarm will be able to see for themselves the situation.

Do you authorities raise this question with your Chinese neighbour?

Yes, our foreign ministry has discussed the issue several times.

But they are very discrete?

There are legal issues. We cannot interfere in China’s internal affairs, China is very sensitive. But there are cases of people with double nationality and in their case we can intervene.

Are there ethnic Kazakhs who returned from Xinjiang and what do they say?

I think we need to gather facts and analyse them. And we need to cross-check what they are saying. So there is a need for transparency. We hope that China will not be interested to keep this in the dark. Because it would seriously harm China’s reputation. We hope that as a neighbour, as a partner China will help solve the issues we raise.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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