A Conversation with Kazakh Ambassador Kairat Umarov
On July 1, Kazakh Ambassador Kairat Umarov spoke at a Center for the National Interest event. The Ambassador discussed a wide range of issues affecting Eurasia, including economic development and international relations in the region. The event was moderated by Center for the National Interest President Dimitri K. Simes.
As a result of the Ukraine crisis, Eurasia has become the “epicenter of global geopolitical standoff due to the escalating tensions between the West and Russia,” declared the ambassador of Kazakhstan, Kairat Umarov, to a Center for the National Interest audience on July 1st. In an event moderated by the Center’s President and CEO, Dimitri K.Simes, Ambassador Umarov discussed Ukraine, Kazakhstan’s relationship with Russia and the West, Iran, and the importance of Central Asian economic development.
The fallout between Russia and Ukraine has been particularly difficult for Kazakhstan, due to its friendly relations with both countries. While “historically and geographically, Kazakhstan has always had significant economic, political, and cultural ties with Russia,” it is “equally close” to Ukraine. The ambassador stated that Kazakhstan hoped to see a “speedy resolution of the crisis on the basis of the Minsk Agreement.” Ambassador Umarov expressed his country’s desire to continue cooperating with Moscow and Kiev, and urged both Russia and the West to respect this stance rather than trying to make Kazakhstan abandon its relationship with the other. Alluding to the 19th century struggle between Tsarist Russia and the British Empire for control of Central Asia, the ambassador stressed that the region “should not be victim of” a modern day “great game” between the West and Russia. Instead, all sides should work towards the “great game” being “converted into great gain” in trade and other forms of cooperation.
Regarding Eurasian Economic Union’s current situation, Ambassador Umarov admitted that “not everything is kind of going smoothly today.” However, he insisted that Kazakhstan remained committed to the project out of a firm belief that “in the long run, it will show its strength.” Kazakhstan doesn’t view membership in the Eurasian Economic Union as mutually exclusive to strong economic relations with the European Union, the ambassador explained, pointing to the fact that the European Union was Kazakhstan’s leading trading partner.
Working with major powers to promote infrastructure development is an important priority in Kazakhstan’s foreign policy agenda. According to the ambassador, the various Silk Road projects by the United States, China, and others are compatible and could enable Central Asia to become an “integral component of global web of both north-south, east-west trade corridors.” It would allow the countries of Central Asia to go from being “landlocked” to “land linked.” Kazakhstan rejects the view that cooperation with global powers on infrastructure development in the region should be viewed in “zero sum terms.” On the contrary, Kazakhstan welcomes all initiatives for infrastructure development regardless of whether they come from Russia, China, or the United States, because such initiatives would be beneficial to the entire region. “All powers have enough space for engaging in Central Asia,” the ambassador asserted.
Ambassador Umarov noted that Kazakhstan is doing its part to contribute to regional infrastructure development, having committed $18 billion in 2014 to construct more airports, highways, and railroads. Infrastructure is even a consideration when it comes to Kazakhstan’s position on Iran, as an agreement ending sanctions would offer a greater potential for “the development of transcontinental trade and transit.”
Domestically, Kazakhstan adopted an ambitious developmental plan in 2012 aimed at transforming the country into one of the top 30 world economies by 2050. To achieve this plan, Ambassador Umarov outlined five major reforms Kazakhstan is undertaking: establishing a merit based civil service, reforming the legal system to better protect rule of law, promoting industrialization and economic diversity, encouraging feelings of national unity rooted in citizenship rather than ethnicity, and increasing transparency and accountability in government. This process would culminate in a constitutional reform that would transition Kazakhstan into a parliamentary republic and transfer power from the federal level to the regional level.