Having become president of Kazakhstan after a landslide election victory a year ago, and recently returned from Moscow, where at the invitation of President Vladimir Putin he participated in a parade to mark the 75th anniversary of Victory in the Great Patriotic War, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev gave an interview to the popular newspaper Ana Tili.
The interview reflected a wide range of issues of global and internal political nature, including the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the modern system of international relations and country governance, reforming the political, economic and social spheres, as well as the role of the state language, cultural code and philosophical views of the Kazakh people and their relationship with current trends in world development.
The coronavirus pandemic came late to Kazakhstan, despite the proximity of China, from where it began to spread around the world. This enabled Kazakhstan to prepare for its inevitable invasion and mitigation measures. Currently, there are more than 20,000 people infected with the virus in the country, and more than one hundred people have died.
The infected include members of the government and regional leaders, which led to the spread of the opinion primarily on social networks that “the Government has ceased to control the spread of the epidemic, therefore there are not enough places in hospitals.”
“The pandemic has changed the usual way of life not only of our compatriots, but of the whole humankind” and “even the most developed states were helpless in the face of a serious illness”, said President Tokayev.
President Tokayev rejected any criticism of the government’s response to the crisis: “I consider the argument that ‘we are losing in the fight against the epidemic, and the Government has lost control over the situation’ to be incorrect”.
He recalled that strict quarantine was introduced in Kazakhstan, and that three hospitals were quickly built in three largest cities of the country – Nur-Sultan, Almaty and Shymkent. He added that clinics in other regions were provided with the necessary equipment, doctors have the necessary knowledge to treat patients, and that the state has allocated the necessary funds to prevent its spread and consequences.
“We are all in the same boat. We are all in the same country, breathing the same air, experiencing the same problems, so no one can fully defend themselves against this disease. We are on the same planet, so you can’t sit back thinking that the disease from other countries will not come to us. A pandemic does not recognise borders. Only by taking care of ourselves and our loved ones will we be able to protect ourselves from the disease”, President Tokayev said.
At the same time, the President emphasised that COVID-19 is a temporary phenomenon, while special attention should be paid to how the country will develop, and what to do after the pandemic and the economic crisis.
Significant attention in the interview was given to the issues of language, primarily due to the reform of the Kazakh language, its transition to the Latin alphabet, the impact associated with this process, which received resonance not only within multinational Kazakhstan, but also beyond.
“Speaking about the status of the Kazakh language, we should pay tribute to the founder of our state, the First President – Leader of the Nation Nursultan Nazarbayev. He proclaimed the independence of Kazakhstan, when the Kazakhs were a minority in it. Nevertheless, under his direct influence, the Kazakh language was declared the state language”, President Tokayev emphasised.
“Indeed, the linguistic problem has great political significance and, if improperly handled, can lead to irreparable consequences for the statehood and security of citizens of the country. We witnessed this personally by the example of other countries.
A frontal attack with the aim of increasing the status of the state language and forcibly expanding the range of its use is counterproductive, since it can provoke destabilisation of inter-ethnic relations. In addition, we should take into account the geopolitical background, where the world’s longest land border with Russia stands apart.
Geography is also an important factor in geopolitics. But this does not mean that work should be frozen. It must continue, and be done without noise, anguish and self-aggrandisement”, said the head of state.
In this regard, he considers the experience of Uzbekistan to be indicative, where “with the tact and courtesy inherent in the Uzbeks, without making loud statements, they completely solved the language problem, willingly resorting to the Russian language when necessary.”
“Learning from history, we are obliged to think about the well-being of the Kazakh people in the new era, where technology and robots will play a dominant role. The world is on the verge of a cardinal transformation. Therefore, under no scenario should one slide into the archaic and fixate on linguistic culturology.
Honouring our own history and keeping traditions, we must at the same time strive forward. Constant lamentation over the flawed state of the state language is perplexing abroad, especially in Central Asian states. This is the case when we need to talk less and do more. Otherwise, in the eyes of the international community, we will look like a flawed nation”, said President Tokayev.
In this regard, President Tokayev highlighted a number of aspects of addressing the development of the state language and emphasised that while strengthening the position of the Kazakh language, the status of the Russian language should not be infringed.
“Language is a big policy, so haste and capriciousness can harm our statehood. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Haste is a poor companion on this difficult path, where there are still many pitfalls. But we will not only hope for a favourable trend either. One must act smartly, with a full understanding of historical responsibility. Only in a civilised way can we turn the Kazakh language into the language of science”, the President said.
Of the various economic reforms initiated by President Tokayev, special emphasis was placed on the government program for building a labour society.
“We must fundamentally revise the attitude of society towards workers. Every work should be held in high esteem. Therefore, I established a new state award ‘People’s gratitude’ and expanded the list of merits for promotion with the order ‘Labour Glory’”, President Tokayev noted.
To this end, the Government has developed an employment roadmap for which up to 1 trillion tenge has been allocated. There are about 2 million self-employed in Kazakhstan and significant unemployment.
“This is a serious social problem that needs to be quickly resolved … The era of self-survival of states has come, and labour as a way of life should come to the fore”, the President said.
President Tokayev served as the UN Under-Secretary-General, and head of the UN European Office in Geneva, and his views on the current international agenda in the new reality are interesting for both professional diplomats and ordinary people. Therefore, questions regarding the foreign policy vector of Kazakhstan and its role and place in the system of international relations occupied a large space in the interview.
It is noteworthy that some of the current trends were predicted by Tokayev back in 2008, but his conclusions were not supported by politicians and scientists back then, yet they have become apparent today. The President of Kazakhstan recalled this in the interview.
“The world has indeed changed. It would seem that the unshakable globalisation, under the influence of the pandemic, has lost ground in favour of self-isolation and self-survival of states. There is an increased demand for nationalism in international relations. Even a vaccine against coronavirus is developed outside international cooperation on the principle of ‘each for himself’”, he said.
The head of Kazakhstan stated that in a pandemic, the voice of the United Nations sounds weaker as an uncontested, unique international organisation. Confrontation between the major powers, as well as regional conflicts, are escalating.
“For Kazakhstan, as a regional state, this is an unfavourable trend. Due to the sanctions wars and political confrontation, our economy suffers losses”, President Tokayev emphasised.
He added that Kazakhstan has consistently demonstrated its peacefulness and readiness to make a constructive contribution to global and regional security. Leader of the Nation – the First President Nursultan Nazarbayev is known throughout the world as the leader of the anti-nuclear movement and a strong supporter of general disarmament. During the years of independence, much has been done to strengthen it. According to Tokayev, the most important thing is the inviolability of the state border.
“The legal confirmation and delimitation of the border of Kazakhstan with Russia, China, and the states of Central Asia has truly historical significance. We see the terrible, irreparable consequences of the lack of agreements on the borders.
Kazakhstan has always had its own understanding of a secure world, its distinctive style in international diplomacy. Our First President, Nursultan Nazarbayev, relied on a multi-vector, balanced foreign policy with emphasis on strategic partnership, cooperation with Russia and regional integration. It was the right choice.
But the situation in the world does not stand still, the geopolitical aspirations of the leading powers are changing. In these conditions, Kazakhstan is obliged to take care of its national interests”, President Tokayev said. He emphasised that this is why at the EAEU summit on 19 May he stated that “integration will be supported by us until it does not harm the sovereignty of Kazakhstan”.
Democratic transformations within a country are not only a matter of domestic political trends; they have long determined the place of any state in the system of international country ratings. And under President Tokayev’s leadership, last year was marked by significant achievements.
“Participation in peaceful assemblies and rallies is the constitutional right of citizens of Kazakhstan. In my last year’s Address, I clearly said that, as a guarantor of the Constitution, I see my duty in fully ensuring this right.
Parliament adopted a new law on peaceful assembly. Passed through public examination, this law, in my deep conviction, is a big step forward in promoting democracy in our country”, President Tokayev said. To hold peaceful assemblies, it is now only necessary to give a five day notice to local authorities without asking them for permission.
Special places will be allocated for the organisation of such meetings. The rally organisers are required not to disturb the public order and peace of citizens, not to come up with unconstitutional slogans, and not incite ethnic and social discord. And this is quite natural, especially given the recent events in the United States and other developed countries.
At the same time, Kazakhstan does not intend to follow the critics of the new law, who receive grants from international human rights organisations, and advocate for foreign citizens and minor children to participate in rallies.
“The thinking is obvious. They need unrest and destabilisation, and we need a rapidly developing, prosperous and sovereign Kazakhstan”, President Tokayev said: “For now, our country is subject to “rally mania”, mostly imposed by provocative slogans from the outside. This puts Kazakhstan at a disadvantage in the international arena, where serious competition at the regional level is escalating.
In Central Asia, the main states are Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Large-scale cooperation is developing between us, which does not exclude economic competition. We should never forget about this. Kazakhstan is obliged to maintain its leading position. And for this, our country must be stable. As for our internal culture, stability should not be ensured by power structures, but first of all by the population itself.”
At the end of the interview, Tokayev summed up the results of his first year as President of Kazakhstan:
“The past year of the presidency was really not easy. We can say that this was a year of overcoming difficult trials. But I always felt the support of the people, and this gave me strength and confidence in the ultimate success of such a complex matter as government. During the year, many reforms were carried out in the political and economic fields. This policy will be continued.”
“We should never forget the simple truth that in this complex, multidimensional world, we Kazakhs, by and large, are not needed by anyone. We need only our own country. In other words, the development and prosperity of Kazakhstan is exclusively in our hands. We have no right to make a mistake, the destiny of the Kazakh people is on the scales of history”, the president of Kazakhstan emphasised.