Democracy, With Traditional Values

This is an excerpted transcript of a wide-ranging interview by Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbayev with the French weekly "Le Nouvel Economiste" of January 23-29, 2004, covering the pace of democratization in Kazakhstan, its economic performance and policies, relations with its neighbors, fight against terrorism and religious extremism. The newspaper's chief editor Philipp Plassard conducted the interview.

Q: Kazakhstan is a young democracy, sometimes criticized. How would you respond to critics?

President Nazarbayev: Margaret Thatcher, whom I deeply respect, believes Western democracy is only possible in countries with Western culture and Western mentality. And I agree with her.

We appreciate positive Western values, such as democracy, tolerance, respect for law, for labor, for a person, but we do not set goals to become a Western-style country.

Indeed our democracy is only ten years old, while Western democracy has been centuries in the making. And I understand that our circumstances do not yet fully correspond to your understanding of democratic principles.

We are consistently moving toward an open society according to the basic principle: economy first, politics second. Right now we are modernizing the system of state management. It means the expansion of powers of local authorities and the transfer of some state functions to local bodies.

We work hard to improve our election system which is due to become even more transparent and open. Strengthening the institutions of civil society is another important task for us. We will move forward step by step, preserving the values of our culture and political stability. I believe the history will judge well the choice we made.

Q: You have projected a 10 percent GDP growth in 2003. Can you sustain such rate of economic growth in 2004?

President Nazarbayev: We did plan 8-9 percent and we are going to make it. In that year the GDP grew by 9 percent. I hope we will keep these rates in both in the coming year and in the near future.

Of course, our expectations are to some degree based on stable world markets for energy resources and other staples of our export. Last year, domestic investment for the first time exceeded foreign investment. The economy has acquired the characteristics of a self-sustaining system. The institutional reforms of late 1990s are bearing fruit.

Q: Your economy is stimulated by the oil industry and you pin big hopes on the Kashagan oil field. How do you intend to shield Kazakhstan from the "resources' curse"?

President Nazarbayev: We are fully aware of this danger and we want to escape oil dependence. Energy resources and other raw materials are to play a role of a catalyst of Kazakhstan's economic development. Some of the funds are accumulated in the National Fund which is due to play a stabilizing role in case export revenues fall. Other tasks of the National Fund include the development of top priority economic projects, as well as saving funds for our future generations.

A program of industrial and innovation development has been developed in Kazakhstan, and special funds were established to finance them. We estimate putting this program of economic diversification into practice will ensure the economy grows 3.5 times by 2015.

We talk about expediting the growth levels of processing industries, primarily by creating a machine-building industry for oil and gas extraction.

Social issues are another priority. Right now, Kazakhstan is in the group of medium income countries. According to UN human development index, we are approximately in 70th place in the world. Our goal is to join the first 30 nations, in other words to join the developed countries. I think such a goal is achievable in 10-15 years. Almost half of the state's budget is spent on social programs. Included are measures aimed at reducing unemployment, developing a system of micro-credit, creating additional jobs, professional training, raising qualification and retraining of the unemployed.

Q: You initiated the support for foreign investment and spearheaded reforms in that area. What are the latest figures?

President Nazarbayev: Our economic strategy required establishing a liberal regime for foreign investors. This allowed attracting into the country a needed inflow of financial resources and specialists.

The fact that Kazakhstan's economy attracted US$ 23.4 billion from 1993 through 2003 speaks about an attractive investment climate and the image of the country. I would be remiss if I don't mention the major countries of origin for this investment: they are the U.S. with a share of 30.7 percent, the UK, 13.7 percent, Italy, 7,0 percent, and Switzerland with 5.7 percent. For the next 25 years, we have contracts signed with foreign investors for an overall amount of US$ 100 billion.

Q: How do you plan to reconcile economic growth with environmental protection?

President Nazarbayev: When the Soviet Union collapsed, the problems we inherited from it did not disappear. To name just a few: the deficit of water resources and soil degradation, shrinking and drying of the Aral Sea, the deadly legacy of the Semipalatinsk test nuclear test site, industrial waste, and the danger of an oil spill in the Caspian Sea.

We view worsening environment as a threat to national security. We have developed a program of sustainable development and established a national commission to oversee the issues of environment, fighting desertification.

Cooperation with international organizations, such as the UN, plays an important role. We proposed making the International Fund for Salvation of the Aral Sea a UN institution.

Q: The Caspian Sea, where the gigantic Kashagan oil field is situated, provokes jealousy. You are creating a navy which leads to some concerns on behalf of your neighbors. What goal do you pursue?

President Nazarbayev: According to international maritime law, every country with an outlet to the sea has the right to establish a navy. I would like to point out that all Caspian littoral states have navies with a considerable number of vessels.

Today, Kazakhstan's navy is engaged into protecting the maritime economic zone and the territorial waters from acts of terrorism and sabotage. Moreover, the navy provides assistance to law enforcement bodies and others protecting the environment as well as the people, natural riches and resources, and participating actively in rescue missions at sea.

We are a peace-loving country. We seek to turn the Caspian Sea into a demilitarized zone.

Q: What role does Kazakhstan intend to play in Central Asia given the region's strategic role in the world?

President Nazarbayev: The collapse of the USSR caused a historical divide between the past and the future, and the countries of Central Asia found themselves facing huge problems.

We live in a very difficult time [characterized by international terrorism, poverty, environmental catastrophes, and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction].

Kazakhstan has taken principles of openness and cooperation as the foundation of its foreign policy from the first days of independence. Kazakhstan voluntarily gave up nuclear weapons and resolved all problems we inherited from the USSR with border delimitation with its neighbors.

In a multilateral format, we participate in such regional groups as the Collective Security Treaty Organization, and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. A lot has been achieved in establishing peaceful and stable policies within the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia (the summit took place in June 2002 in Almaty) and the first Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions (September 2003, Astana).

Q: Do you believe the countries of the region should be more closely integrated?

President Nazarbayev: I don't think the five countries of post-Soviet Central Asia are at the threshold of establishing a political union. Such thinking would be self-deluding.

Yet, both political partnership and close economic interaction of the regional countries are an objective necessity. Geopolitical processes around the region on the one hand, and a common requirement of internal development for our countries require not just coordinated, but also predictable policies from Central Asian leaders.

Such requirements are determined by a commonality of economic problems, from building market economies to effective usage of water resources. Finally, we have common historic and cultural roots, ethnic and language relationship. Our region is surrounded by neighbors who represent geopolitical influence by themselves, such as Russia, China and the region of Near East. Major processes take place in every one of them that can influence the Central Asian countries directly. I believe the countries of Central Asia not only need to interact, but to integrate more closely.

Q: How do you plan to fight terrorism?

President Nazarbayev: Our country does not intend to stand on the sidelines of this global confrontation with its new challenges and threats. Because of our geographic position Kazakhstan acutely feels the negative potential of these threats since it borders on territories with high terrorist potential.

After the attacks of September 11th, Kazakhstan has unambiguously supported the United States and its partners in the international anti-terrorist coalition. Kazakhstan opened up its airspace for the anti-terrorist coalition aircraft and actively cooperates along the lines of intelligence agencies.

We have also taken measures to confront terrorism internally.

But one must understand that reasons of appearance and growth of international terrorism lie in the social and economic scourges. It cannot be defeated unless as gap between the rich and poor worlds is bridged, and unless the uncontrolled trafficking in weapons and drugs is eliminated. To fight this scourge, we need to shed all inter-denomitational prejudices and political ambitions.

Q: As a Muslim President, how do you feel about Islamic fundamentalism in Central Asia?

President Nazarbayev: One of the nontraditional threats in Central Asia is religious extremism and radical Islam. Today, in the world of religion, Islam is often confused with Islamic extremism. This breeds all kinds of theories about the Islamic threat.

But one must distinguish between Islam by itself and the religious extremissts. These are two different things. Growing religious extremism in many parts of the world and particularly in Central Asia makes us watch this phenomenon with greater attention. Our protection lies in inter-religious accord and inter-ethnic stability.

Kazakhstan is a predominantly Muslim country. But at the same time, people of 130 ethnic groups live in Kazakhstan, and they follow the teachings of around 40 religions and faiths. Such diversity promotes tolerance.

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Kazakhstan's Echo

A bimonthly publication of the Embassy of Kazakhstan
to the USA and Canada with views and comments on developments in and around Kazakhstan

February 12, 2004                                No. 7