Minister: Europe can learn from Kazakhstan’s religious tolerance

Kazakhstan will prioritise inter-religious tolerance, an area where it has achieved substantial successes, Kazakh Foreign Minister Kanat Saudabayev, chairperson-in-office of the OSCE (Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe), told EURACTIV in an exclusive interview, setting out his country’s goals for its chairmanship of the organisation in 2010.

Kazakh Foreign Minister Kanat Saudabayev is a career diplomat. He has served as his country’s ambassador to Turkey, the UK and the USA.

He was speaking to EURACTIV’s Georgi Gotev.  

To read a shortened version of this interview, please click here

Mr. Minister: Your country, Kazakhstan, holds the chair of the OSCE (Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe) in 2010. This is the first time that a post-Soviet country has chaired the organisation, whose 56-strong membership stretches from Vancouver to Vladivostok. You are today [25 January] in Brussels, presumably to present your priorities to the EU institutions. Who are you meeting here? 

I will hold meetings, first of all, with my counterpart, the High Representative for Foreign Affairs Baroness Ashton. I will also meet [European] Commission President Mr. Barroso, and I also expect to meet NATO Secretary-General Mr. Rasmussen. I will also meet the foreign minister of the host country, my Belgian colleague Steven Vanackere, and also Mr. Moratinos, the foreign minister of Spain, holder of the EU’s rotating presidency. Some more meetings are also under preparation. 

What are the priorities of Kazakhstan’s OSCE chairmanship? 

The decision to make Kazakhstan, a predominantly Muslim country, the first of the former Soviet republics to be entrusted to chair the OSCE, such an authoritative international organisation, is a sign of recognition of the impressive success of the social and economic development of my country under the leadership of our first president, Nursultan Nazabrayev, over the last 18 years. It’s also a recognition of the sizeable contribution of Kazakhstan to regional and global security. 

As you may know, we are the most successfully developing country in our region, in the post-Soviet space, and a factor of regional stability. We are a multi-ethnic, multi-confessional country, and we are very proud of having been, I think, the only ones to have avoided any violence, any conflicts based on ethnicity or religion, throughout these 18 years. We have been an island of stability, if I may put it this way. 

Also, my country inherited from the Soviet Union the fourth-largest nuclear missile potential worldwide. 

Which your country gave up… 

Yes, we gave up of our own volition this potential, we closed the nuclear weapon test site of Semipalatinsk, and we stick rigorously to and promote nuclear non-proliferation. Last year the United Nations decided to declare 29 August the International Day Against Nuclear Testing. We are very happy about it, because it was on 29 August 1991 that Nazarbayev closed by decree the Semipalatinsk test site. 

Therefore our priorities in the OSCE stem from our own experience. We say that we succeeded in preserving peace and understanding with our 140 nationalities and 46 confessions. Of course we will try to share this experience and promote international and inter-ethnic tolerance. You probably know better than me that in most prosperous European countries, these problems take an acute form. Inter-religious tolerance is put to the test as a result of migration processes, and we have witnessed such tensions in Switzerland, where a referendum [on banning minarets] has been held, or in France, where legislation is being prepared. 

Over the scarf and the burka in public places? 

… and we remember also the case with the publication of cartoons [in Denmark]. And also other similar cases. We take the view that these questions require the utmost attention. A very balanced, a very considerate attitude is required from all sides. What is needed is respect, understanding, confidence. The world is becoming so inter-dependent that it would be impossible to name a single country that would not be affected by a possible fallout from such processes. This is why we want to give priority to these issues during our chairmanship. 

Also Afghanistan: although geographically it doesn’t belong to the OSCE zone of responsibility, we have 43 out of 56 member countries which participate in the processes of rehabilitation and stabilisation of this country. But in spite of the many years of efforts by the international coalition, the desired results are not there. Kazakhstan, as a regional player, has been supporting the international military efforts, but the modest results so far make us think that by military means alone stability in this country cannot be secured. This is why we find it necessary to develop and strengthen the humanitarian component of our common efforts, and to create conditions for the peaceful development of this country. 

Is your country providing assistance to Afghanistan already? 

Kazakhstan has been dealing very seriously with this issue in recent years. We provide substantial humanitarian aid, we build schools, hospitals, and we bring in food. Last November I was in Afghanistan and upon instructions from our head of state, agreement was reached with the Afghan authorities for training one thousand young Afghans in universities in Kazakhstan to become engineers, doctors, teachers and agricultural specialists. In spite of the serious consequences of the world financial crisis, we have earmarked the necessary funds and the programme is already underway. In our capacity of OSCE chair, we will put a strong emphasis on Afghanistan. 

On 28 January, there is a conference on Afghanistan in London, on the initiative of the UK prime minister and the UN secretary- general… 

Precisely, and I will take the floor as OSCE chairman-in-office, and I look forward to developing further these ideas. But I would like to add another priority for our OSCE chairmanship. All our countries are affected by the world economic crisis, and various structures deal with it. However, the OSCE up to now had not touched upon this subject. The OSCE has the so-called ‘three baskets’, with security as the first basket, where we will be discussing the new architecture of security in Europe, and where we have the proposal by Russia for a new Euro-Atlantic security treaty, which deserves the most attention, we have Afghanistan, which I already mentioned, and we have the so-called ‘frozen conflicts’, of which not one has been solved. 

In the second basket, the economy and ecology, we take the view that the consequences and response to the crisis need to be discussed. And also ecology, for which my country is very sensitive. Kazakhstan is suffering two ecological catastrophes. The Semipalatinsk nuclear test site, used for over 40 years, and from which more than 1.5 million of our citizens have suffered health consequences, has deprived the country of the use of a land territory as big as Germany. And of course, the Aral Sea [which has been steadily shrinking since the 1960s after rivers that fed it were diverted by Soviet irrigation projects]. The salt from the surface of the former sea is taken by the wind as far as Western Europe. 

In the third basket, I mentioned the issues of tolerance, but these appear to overlap with the first basket, because intolerance breeds terrorism. Without any doubt, for us the most important priority is the further strengthening of basic human rights and freedoms. By this, I mean further promoting and strengthening those principles in our own country. And we would seek a balance between the three ‘baskets’. Our interest, our ambition in each one of the three areas is equally important. 

This is why I think that the initiative of our president to hold an OSCE summit in 2010 is ever timelier. Eleven years have elapsed since the last OSCE summit, held in Istanbul in 1999. Enormous changes have taken place ever since, but the world, unfortunately, has not become a better or a safer place. I would like to say that the pressing problems within the competence of the OSCE will not be solved by permanent representatives; they cannot be decided at ministerial level either. These are from the field of responsibility and prerogative of our heads of state. We can now enter the process of agreeing on the agenda items of the summit, and next we will agree on the date and venue. 

Your outline looks ambitious. However, don’t you think that Western leaders rely on NATO for security issues such as Afghanistan, on the G20 for economic issues such as the world crisis, and that they tend to avoid duplication? Do you really believe that the OSCE can gain such importance? You also mentioned Russia’s idea for a new Euro-Atlantic security treaty, but some Western countries see it as an attempt to undermine NATO. Don’t you think that by pushing for this idea you undermine your chances of holding the proposed OSCE summit? 

The very idea for a new Euro-Atlantic security treaty, launched by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, like other proposals made by other OSCE members deserves the right to be thoroughly discussed within this organistation. You say Afghanistan is a NATO issue – but you can see how many years NATO has been dealing with Afghanistan and we know what the results are. The OSCE was established to deal with security issues, and I would like to ask you – is there any problem more pressing for international security than Afghanistan? This country’s stabilisation concerns not only our region, it’s a matter of concern for the entire OSCE zone, from Vancouver to Vladivostok. For us, who now hold the OSCE chairmanship, Afghanistan should be subject number one. 

If leaders agree, I hope it will be possible to discuss also issues related to the world crisis. At the [December] Copenhagen summit, climate change was discussed. We propose to discuss in parallel ecology issues. 

How would you comment on recent Russian statements: apparently Moscow considers you as part of its sphere of influence. Recently Russia’s Ambassador to NATO Dmitry Rogozin said that since NATO was the US sphere of influence, Russia too wanted its sphere of influence, and mentioned in this context the Organisation of the Treaty of Collective Security (OTCS), of which your country is a member [together with Russia, Belarus, Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan]. Are you in Russia’s sphere of influence? 

I would like to say that in the OTCS we are all equal partners and each member contributes to ensuring security in our region. Speaking about spheres of influence in this context is beside the point. This year we marked 18 years of our independence. When we enter an organisation such as the OSCE or regional organisations, we do it on the basis of equal partnership and of our own volition. This is my answer to your question. 

Your country is also a member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), together with Russia, China, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. What motivated you to join this organisation? 

The SCO was established to ensure a perimeter of peace, security and cooperation along the countries’ borders. Now we can say that Kazakhstan, for the first time in its history, has been able to sign agreements with its neighbours, which secure its borders. We have 7,500 km of borders with Russia and 1,700 km with China. Even Russia does not yet have yet such an agreement with China. We are proud of our achievement. We see it as an enormous success of our President Nursultan Nazarbayev. 

Also, the SCO is active in the further strengthening of economic, social and humanitarian cooperation between its members. The organisation has no aims against other countries or structures. We are against zero-sum games. As OSCE chairs, we seek to cooperate with the EU, with NATO, and also with the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-building Measures in Asia, which was initiated by our president in 1992, and now regroups countries with a total population of three billion. 

We need to maintain a distance from former bipolar confrontations, we need to overcome the Cold War mentality. The biggest fence is not the Berlin Wall or the Great Wall of China. The biggest fence can only be in mentalities. 

You repeatedly mention your president, Mr. Nazarbayev. If I remember correctly, he was re-elected in 2005 with 90% of the vote. Human rights groups and the Council of Europe say Kazakhstan has still to a long way to go to achieve Western standards of democracy. Kazakhstan has petrol, gas and other resources, and is economically prosperous. Does this perhaps partly explain the broad support for its leader? 

From the first day of independence, we said that Kazakhstan will build democracy, based on a market economy. And we have kept this course. Indeed, the economic reforms have taken precedence. But we have ensured the fundamental rights of our citizens: the right to education, to health care…we have ensured fundamental freedoms, which include respect for culture, religion. We are one of the few Muslim countries where synagogues are being built. On the initiative of our president, we have held already three congresses of the world’s traditional religions. 

And we have ensured freedom of speech. We have 3,500 media, of which 95% are private, independent media. 

But how can you explain the fact that only one opposition member has been elected to parliament? 

The government should not be blamed if the opposition parties did not succeed in gathering enough votes to enter parliament. It is a problem also for the government if those parties do not possess an electorate, that they cannot gather significant support. Those parties appear as mushrooms after rain, as soon as elections are called, and then they become active. Real party activity requires day-to-day hard work; it requires a dialogue with the masses. And those parties need to express the needs of at least a part of the population. Unfortunately, those parties are only active in struggling for grants from different [international] organisations. We even adopted a law last year, enabling a party, even if it does not reach the threshold to be represented in parliament but it has scored better than other such parties – say it did not succeed to gather 5%, but 4%, – that it would be allowed to be represented in parliament, so we would have a multi-party parliament. 

Where would you prefer to export your energy resources? To the EU or to China? 

It is of course a blessing for us to possess very substantial natural resources, petrol and gas, but also uranium, as we are now the major uranium producer worldwide. We develop actively our partnership with the EU in energy-related matters, but I would like to add that we would like to develop a more diversified trade with Europe. Throughout recent years we have tried to diversify our economy, and we did not use petrol proceedings in our budget. We tried to learn how to live without those proceedings, and thanks to this, we gathered a very substantial national fund – 43 billion dollars, which includes proceedings from natural resource exports and gold and hard currency reserves. This cushion helped us to already exit the crisis, as in 2009 we had positive growth. 

How would you describe your relations with China? 

China is our great neighbour, our strategic partner, with whom we have very wide economic cooperation. China is one of our major energy clients, we have built in the last few years an oil pipeline from Western Kazakhstan to Western China, and in the end of last year we have inaugurated the gas pipeline Turkmenistan-Uzbekistan-Kazakhstan-China. As we intend to increase our production in the next few years, it is very important to have alternatives for our energy exports. In the next few years we will produce 170 millions tons of petrol. We need only 35 million, and for the rest, we need to export it. The more the alternatives, the better for us. As for the routes our energy will take, the main factor which will determine this is cost-efficiency. 

Are you interested in the Nabucco pipeline project? 

Nabucco is only in a project phase. If there were arguments about profitability, we would be interested. 

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