In the 25 years since Kazakhstan declared its independence, the Central Asian nation has transformed itself from a fledgling nation unsure of its place in the world to a modern player on the global stage.
The transformation wasn’t easy and the future is always uncertain, but Kazakhstan’s leaders and outside geopolitical experts are confident that even brighter days await the peaceful nation.
At a recent forum in Washington celebrating the quarter-century milestone of independence, members of Congress and the U.S. foreign policy establishment, Kazakh Foreign Ministry officials and others sat down for a daylong discussion.
The group highlighted the building blocks of Kazakhstan’s success. Among them a robust energy sector, widespread religious tolerance, a central and advantageous geographic location and not least, its critical geopolitical decision at the dawn of its independence to relinquish some 1,400 nuclear strategic and tactical warheads remaining from the Soviet-era.
The speakers also explored the possibilities inherent in Kazakhstan’s future. And all agreed the future looks promising.
Rep. Robert Aderholt, a Republican congressman from Alabama and the co-chairman of the Friends of Kazakhstan caucus, saluted the country for building “a modern republic of peace and prosperity.” He said the U.S. views the Central Asian nation as an important ally in the region.
“The United States values the unique relationship that we have with the Republic of Kazakhstan,” Aderholt said. “The strategic partnership dialogue between our countries is a productive platform for important issues such as countering terrorism and violent extremism, [as well as] trade, energy, innovation, good government, human rights, democracy building and regional stability.”
Yerzhan Ashikbayev, deputy foreign minister of Kazakhstan, said his nation employs a multi-vector foreign policy that aims to bridge divides.
“Kazakhstan is looking forward to working productively with the U.S., Russia and other members to make the UN a forum for cooperation not confrontation,” Ashikbayev said.
Kazakhstan’s election to a non-permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council for 2017-2018 could give it a moderating influence on foreign affairs.
“We believe the United States, the European Union, Russia, and China share common interests in Kazakhstan and Central Asia: We don’t see the relationship in zero sum terms,” he added. “This creates a unique opportunity to work together for the benefit of the region and entire continent.”
Nisha Biswal, who served as the assistant secretary of state for South/Central Asia under Secretary of State John Kerry, said Kazakhstan’s potential on the global stage is only beginning to be realized. She said the largest Central Asian nation shows “incredible promise and potential.”
“Despite all the accomplishments of the past 25 years, the best days are still ahead and Kazakhstan’s importance is only growing and increasing,” Biswal said.
She said when Kerry and other State Department officials traveled to the Kazakh capital of Astana in the fall of 2015 for Kazakhstan’s high-profile counter-terrorism conference, they participated in a “very impressive” set of meetings with President Nursultan Nazarbayev and his advisors.
“We came away with the sense of how important Kazakhstan has been in maintaining peace and stability and advancing peace and prosperity in the region,” Biswal explained. “You can see why we are so rooted to this partnership and advancing it.”
The former top State Department official, who left the job in January, also praised the “subtle and nuanced role” that Kazakhstan played in negotiations over the Iran nuclear deal and the Russian-Ukrainian conflict.
“Across a wide spectrum of issues, Kazakhstan has played an important role in bringing countries together,” Biswal said.
She also noted that Kazakhstan will host Expo 2017 in Astana. The massive undertaking, featuring the construction of a state-of-the-art EXPO Center and grounds in Astana, is to take place under the motto of “Future Energy.” The international exposition – lasting three months from June to September – aims to create a global debate between countries and explore the development of safe and sustainable access to energy while reducing carbon emissions that cause climate change.
“We are extremely pleased the U.S. will have a flagship pavilion at that EXPO,” Biswal said. “And I can’t think of a better theme at this time than the future of energy. This EXPO will provide an opportunity to really showcase the best that the United States has to offer.”
In January, Nazarbayev, who is 76, moved to decentralize some power in Kazakhstan, shifting some control over economic decisions to the Parliament. It was just one more move in the country’s evolution to a legitimate democracy. That’s just one development that Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, a California Republican who sits on the U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs, views as a positive harbinger of things to come. He compared Kazakhstan’s nascent democracy to that of the United States, which became a nation nearly a quarter-millennium ago. He called Kazakhstan “a pivotal player” on the global stage and congratulated the Muslim majority country for “rejecting radical Islam.”
“Kazakhstan has built a character in its people – they are willing to work and work with others to make things better,” said Rohrabacher, who was among the Republicans reported to be under consideration for the Secretary of State post in the Trump administration.
“It is my honor to work with your government and your people,” the congressman added as he acknowledged Kazakh officials.
George Krol, the U.S. ambassador to Kazakhstan, praised Kazakhstan’s willingness to play a conciliatory role on the global stage and noted that while it creates opportunities, it also could raise vulnerabilities.
“Kazakhstan is open but that makes it open to a lot of risks,” Krol said. “It is at the crossroads (geographically and geopolitically) of a lot of things that are good and bad in this world and we need to stick together and maintain a dialogue.”
Dr. Joshua W. Walker, a non-resident fellow at The German Marshall Fund of the United States and an expert in the region, said Kazakhstan has consistently “set very high goals for itself.” And while oil and gas have fueled the nation’s ascendance, its longevity will depend on diversification.
“The 21st century will not lead with oil and gas,” Walker said. “It might be the right time for Kazakhstan to wean itself off of oil and gas.”
The Kazakhstan government appears to be on the case as its 2050 Strategy sets a goal for 50 percent of Kazakh energy consumption to come from renewable and alternative energy sources. There are already more than 25 large renewable energy projects in Kazakhstan generating solar, wind and hydro-electric power. More projects are due to start this year.
Walker also suggested that Kazakhstan work to foster and open a free flow of information to encourage transparency and outside investment.
“There is a lot to do in terms of creating a more pervasive information environment,” he said, while also noting at the same time that Kazakhstan’s “secular governance and laws tend to be underrated.”
Regardless of the challenges, if Kazakhstan attempts to meet them openly, the U.S. will be prepared to lend a hand, said Aderholt. He noted that U.S. President Donald Trump has already spoken positively of Kazakhstan and its leader, President Nazarbayev. He predicted that the bilateral Kazakh-U.S. relationship – already strong – will grow even more resilient.
“I have no reason to believe that President Trump and Vice President Pence will change course in their bilateral relationship with Kazakhstan, and I would hope and encourage that the relationship will grow stronger,” said Rep. Robert Aderholt, a Republican congressman from Alabama and the co-chairman of the Friends of Kazakhstan caucus. “Vice President Pence and I have a very close relationship… and so I will certainly be able to put a good plug in as far as making sure that he visits Kazakhstan.”