New Beginnings in Troubled Times: 2015 in Kazakhstan

By Michelle Witte

baiterek towerThis year has been a roller coaster one for Kazakhstan. It began, frankly, inauspiciously, with the dramatic drop in oil prices in late 2014 and the devaluation of the Russian ruble, effects of the economic crisis that has settled into what is now being called, with a sigh, the new normal.

But it is ending on a note of hope for the future, with cosmonaut Aidyn Aimbetov returning from space with a message of tolerance and the UN adopting Kazakhstan’s proposal on a resolution approving the Universal Declaration for the Achievement of a Nuclear-Weapons-Free World.


Building political bridges …

Kazakhstan joined the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) on the first of the year, and saw the union expand from its original three members (Kazakhstan, Russia and Belarus) to include Kyrgyzstan and Armenia during the year. However, union members also saw their mutual trade fall, as the new bloc had the misfortune of taking its first steps into a world of low commodities prices and economic sanctions against its biggest economy, Russia.

Kazakhstan also officially acceded to the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2015, the culmination of almost two decades of negotiations, and is expected to formally sign its new Enhanced Partnership and Cooperation Agreement with the European Union in late December. In an interview with The Astana Times, EU Ambassador to Kazakhstan Traian Hristea said the new agreement, the first to be concluded with a Central Asian country, reflects Kazakhstan’s development and the need for a new agreement that acknowledges the more mature and equal partnership.

“This new agreement will give the EU and Kazakhstan’s relations [an updated] bilateral framework, a stronger foundation, because this is more modern, more comprehensive, more dynamic. … And what is the most important is that it will provide a stable legal framework with an important EU partner in times when stability and predictability are much more important than ever,” Hristea said.

Stability and predictability were precious commodities in 2015. Regional and global security and stability were the focus of myriad meetings and conferences this year, including the November visit of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to the country. Kerry discussed with Nazarbayev University students what he called the three biggest global and regional challenges: ensuring sustainable economic growth, fighting climate change and facing down the growing spread of radical ideas.

In 2015, Kazakhstan also had the chance to continue with some of its work in providing a platform for connection and negotiation, hosting two rounds of talks between members of the Syrian opposition in May and in October. Following the downing of a Russian plane on the Turkey-Syria border late in the year, Kazakhstan may once more play a quiet role in bringing its two partners to some kind of rapprochement.


… and Literal Ones

Economically, 2015 saw growth slow in Kazakhstan, with predictions from the World Bank and the Economist of gross domestic product growth for the year at less than 2 percent. Both in May at the Astana Economic Forum, and in speeches throughout the fall, President of Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbayev has commented that this is only the beginning, and warned that the country must Nazarbayev meet with diplomatic corps 3not hold its breath and wait for the storm to pass, but to get used to living in it.

“The most significant events of the past year for Kazakhstan are related to the changes that have taken place in the world economy,” says Dennis de Tray, member of the board of Nazarbayev University and an advisor to the university’s president. “The headline has to be the decline in world commodity prices, especially oil, but there is also the continued slow recovery of the global economy, and then there is the significantly slower economic growth in Russia and China, two neighbors with whom Kazakhstan is closely tied.”

However, Nazarbayev also pointed out during the fall that Kazakhstan has been through crises before; it was even born amid crisis, in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union, the President told the country in his State of the Nation address Nov. 30. And though there will be more hard times to come, there are already points of economic hope: the World Bank predicted in the spring that 2015 will be the low point in Kazakhstan’s growth and forecasted growth of 2.8 percent in 2016 and 3.9 percent in 2017.

The country has also chosen to respond aggressively to the economic storm with the massive Nurly Zhol programme, launched in late 2014. In 2015, it was announced that there were plans to comprehensively link Nurly Zhol, which focuses on investment in infrastructure, with China’s pan-Asian One Belt, One Road programme, which aims to knit all of Asia into one connected region. China will be investing more than $2 billion in Kazakhstan – being called the “buckle” in the huge project – through the programme, according to a report in the Global Trade Review.

But Kazakhstan cannot escape regional or global tensions, de Tray, who used to work at the World Bank for many years, points out. “Less often discussed but of maybe even longer term potential impact is the security situation – both globally but especially regionally. Afghanistan continues to struggle and the potential for contagion to the north is significant. These and other issues have created an environment of uncertainty in Kazakhstan’s economy that is causing the tenge to fluctuate and continue to depreciate. Investors do not like uncertainty, so the more Kazakhstan can do to reduce uncertainty the better the economy will perform.”

De Tray says falling prices for oil and other resources “are forcing Kazakhstan through a transition it has to go through if it is to stand any chance of achieving the goals President Nazarbayev has set for the country in the Kazakhstan 2050 Strategy. Kazakhstan’s adjustment to the new global reality, while essential, will not be pain free. The people of Kazakhstan will need to demonstrate patience and understanding – but at the end of this transition process is a better, stronger country.”


Setting a course for reform

Kazakhstan made a decisive choice about its future this spring, re-electing Nazarbayev by a vast majority in a snap election to a fifth term in office. With that decision, Nazarbayev was given the mandate to implement the five institutional reforms programme he had campaigned on, which encompass forming a professional state apparatus, supporting the rule of law, facilitating industrialization and economic growth, developing identity and unity, and forming an accountable government.

Since these reforms were announced, the President has signed a collection of laws covering election reforms, access to information, health insurance, local law enforcement and a host of other topics, all intended to create the legal basis for the country’s ambitious reform programme. In December, Nazarbayev signed the law facilitating the creation of the Astana 2008AstanaInternational Financial Centre, a new centre based on English law that is intended to launch Astana as a regional financial hub and a centre for Islamic finance. When the new centre was announced at the May Astana Economic Forum, panelist Kenneth Rogoff, chief economist for the International Monetary Fund from 2001–2003 and a professor at Harvard University, called the center “a game changer.”

Rediscovering Kazakh culture, arts and history

There has also been reason to celebrate in 2015. Cities and towns across the country marked the year as the 550th anniversary of the establishment of the Kazakh Khanate with celebrations of Kazakh history and culture, new monuments erected and even movies and a television series. The President noted the need for more attention to be paid to Kazakh history, which had been ignored through the decades of Soviet rule and is now coming more and more to the fore.

In December, the Kazakh tradition of aitys, poetry and singing competitions accompanied by dombra playing, was recognized by UNESCO as part of the intangible World Heritage.

The Ministry of Culture and Sport of Kazakhstan reports that restoration work was conducted on 31 objects in 11 regions of the country this year. “The restored objects are unique monuments of architecture and archeology from different periods of history of Kazakhstan. In the current year, restoration work has been carried out on Karaman-ata, Shopan-ata, Shakpak-ata mosques in the Mangistau region, on the Balanda complex in Kyzylorda region and on Saka burial mounds in the East Kazakhstan region, covering the second to sixth centuries BC,” the ministry told Edge Magazine.


Laying foundations for peace

This year saw both the launch of a new, internationally significant projects to promote global security as well as a retrospective on what is possibly one of the least-known but most important global collaborations on global security in Kazakhstan.

In June, Kazakhstan, Russia and the United States took a look back at one of the most serious and secret projects funded by the Nunn-Lugar program, which supported the decommissioning of weapons of mass destruction, with an oral history seminar on the program that gathered experts and former and current members of government in the three countries in Astana.

“We are here because Kazakhstan’s decisions and the vision of President [Nursultan] Nazarbayev truly set the world on a path toward peace,” said Laura Holgate, senior director for Weapons of Mass Destruction Terrorism and Threat Reduction at the U.S. National Security Council, during one of the open sessions of the seminar. “Consider the alternative – the creation of one and possibly three nuclear powers, the possibility of armed conflicts in connection with retrieving the weapons by force, destabilization in the region and overall a very different and more dangerous world. Instead, we’ve had two decades of peace and prosperity in the region, and the entire world is better for it.”the Pyramid

Titled “Reducing Global Security Threats: Lessons from Kazakhstan,” the seminar included panels on weapons-decommissioning projects funded through the Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) program, also called the Nunn-Lugar program, after former U.S. Senators Sam Nunn and Richard Lugar who initiated the legislation to allow the U.S. to fund nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction elimination efforts in the former Soviet republics.

In particular, the seminar reviewed Project Sapphire, which saw nearly 600 kilograms of highly enriched uranium securely taken out of Kazakhstan in 1994, following the independent nation’s decision to reject the nuclear arsenal it was left with after the fall of the Soviet Union.

The task of the seminar, explained Minister of Foreign Affairs of Kazakhstan Erlan Idrissov, was to “extract from the concrete and visible example of cooperation in this sensitive area important lessons for the formation of future policies based on the principles of nonproliferation and aimed at reducing the threat of conflict with the use of weapons of mass destruction.” It did not go without comment that the seminar had brought together Russian and U.S. officials at a time of tension, and that perhaps reviewing past examples of successful cooperation could support the political will to continue future joint work toward the greater good.

Then in August, Kazakhstan and the International Atomic Energy Agency signed three crucial agreements on establishing an international low-enriched (LEU) fuel bank in the country. The bank, which is expected to be operational by the end of 2017, is to be hosted in the Ulba Metallurgical Plant in Ust-Kamenogorsk, which already stores uranium materials, and has 60 years of experience in storing and handling such products.

The LEU bank is to be an option of last resort for countries with peaceful nuclear power programs, in case they cannot access the fuel supplies they need on the market for some reason. The bank is expected to eventually hold 90 tonnes of uranium hexafluoride.

At the signing ceremony in Astana CEO of the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) and former U.S. Senator Sam Nunn, who initiated the project back in 2006, said, “I think it’s a real compliment to Kazakhstan; it’s a vote of confidence by the international community in Kazakhstan, in terms of locating the fuel bank here,” and noted Kazakhstan’s credibility in nuclear nonproliferation from its rejection of nuclear weapons upon independence.

The White House issued a statement on the signing of the host country agreement, saying the U.S. president “appreciates President Nazarbayev’s important leadership on nonproliferation spanning more than two decades.”

“The government of Kazakhstan, by volunteering to host the LEU bank, which was first conceived and funded by the NTI, has further cemented its reputation as a world leader in promoting nonproliferation and nuclear security,” the White House said.

united nations flagsIn September, Nazarbayev brought further visions for peace to the UN General Assembly, proposing again that all UN members annually transfer 1 percent of their defense budgets to a Special United Nations Fund for sustainable development, which he said could help eliminate conflicts fueled by unequal development and unequal opportunity in the world. He also laid out a vision for fair development, the 2045 Global Strategic Initiative Plan, which would support fair conditions for global development. One step toward this, he said, would be transforming the UN Economic and Social Council into a Global Development Council with states elected by the General Assembly and heads of all UN specialized agencies acting as a global economic regulator. And he called for designating the building of a nuclear weapons free world as the main goal of humanity in the 21st Century.

In December, one of Kazakhstan’s efforts at unifying efforts toward peace was approved when the UN General Assembly approved the Universal Declaration for the Achievement of a Nuclear-Weapons-Free World put forward by Kazakhstan and co-sponsored by 35 countries. The idea was initiated by Nazarbayev at the first Nuclear Security Summit in April 2010 and reiterated at the 2015 general debate of the UN General Assembly.


Reaching the final frontier

In September, Kazakh Cosmonaut Aidyn Aimbetov fulfilled a decades-old dream of finally making it to space, traveling with Commander Sergei Volkov of the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos) and Andreas Mogensen of the European Space Agency to the International Space Station for a 10-day mission. Aimbetov was given the state award Halyk Kakharmany (“People’s Hero”) a month later. He returned with a message of peace, telling the Kazakhstanskaya Pravda newspaper in an interview after his mission that “After returning from the flight I feel I became more tolerant. Along with this, I’ve come to understand that man is just a speck in the infinite universe and we should be more tolerant of each other.”

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