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The Silk Road Superhighway: Kazakh Transportation as Geopolitics

Dr. Matthew Crosston

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It is entirely common for a federal government to make budgetary promises to improve infrastructure. Indeed, every country around the world is full with both promises and jokes lampooning said promises to ‘fix roads, fill potholes, and make it easier to get around and do business.’

Kazakhstan in 2015 is no different in that case from any other government. But there are some interesting regional, transregional, and truly global infrastructure projects Kazakhstan is including alongside the standard local fixes that could carry significant geopolitical weight moving into the future. Indeed, just how successful Kazakhstan is in ‘fixing the potholes’ across its country could become incredibly important to countries like Russia, China, Turkey, Germany, and the United States. Who knew road work could be so exciting!

First consideration goes to the Western Europe – Western China International Transit Corridor, which is a massive construction endeavor aiming to reinvigorate what is basically a modern ‘Silk Road,’ only with all the amenities of modern highway construction. The 7.5 billion USD infrastructure investment will basically connect Western Europe with an efficient superhighway to Western China (and subsequently through China’s highway system all the way, theoretically, to the Pacific Ocean) through Kazakhstan. The 2,840 km transit system has approximately 2/3 of the cost coming from the World Bank, ADB, EBRD, and IDB. Kazakhstan for its part highlights the importance of this corridor not just in its economic reports but in its foreign policy and national security briefings, with its ultimate goal to decrease the delivery of goods from China to Europe from the current road travel time of 45 days down all the way to just 10. This new Silk Road ostensibly rests on Kazakhstan for being the crucial ‘middle passage’ that makes the Europe to Asia connection possible. In its own policy briefings Kazakhstan emphasizes this need not just as a better conduit for improving business and trade but literally connecting the world via roadway in a peaceful and open endeavor. It is somewhat surprising much of the Western world has not capitalized on this massive human geopolitical transportation project more heavily.

Kazakhstan also intends to improve its national rail system, hoping to increase its operating efficiency and reach by being the main connector of the Caspian Sea to the Pacific Ocean and the chief conduit for China to reach Central Asia and beyond to Western Europe. Many fine scholars and analysts in the past have made note of Kazakhstan’s irrefutable central location as the connection point between Europe and Asia. While history has often made reference to Istanbul (nee Constantinople) as the ‘Gateway to the East,’ that is largely a contextual reference based on a history that is now past. The true ‘gateway’ with proper infrastructural development, both economically and politically, could be Kazakhstan. It finally seems fully aware of this potential, given the new emphasis within its budget, foreign policy, and national security policies. More interesting still will be to see, if this comes to fruition, how much there will be a cascade or copy-cat effect on the rest of the Central Asian ‘Stans. Kazakhstan perhaps more than any other Central Asian country has focused on open trade, transnational communication, participation within the global economy, and the rejection of radicalization and extremism. Perhaps most importantly, it has done this with a much less heavy-handed approach when compared to its immediate neighbors in the region.

Even more fascinating has been the launch of a completely new project called the ‘Kazakhstan-Turkmenistan-Iran’ (KTI) railway. In the past decade this project could have run afoul of the United States, what with its adamant stance on keeping Iran limited and constrained in terms of economic development as long as it was still under suspicion with its nuclear energy/weapons program. Recent improvements in Iranian-American relations, or at least the prospect of those relations warming up and becoming more tenable, could prove to be of tremendous benefit to Kazakhstan and especially the KTI railway. Most in the West have viewed the softening of relations between Iran and the West strictly from the much larger perspective of global geopolitics and conflict. Much less time and attention has been paid to the numerous payoff effects such a thaw may have on the immediate region. Kazakhstan clearly has not missed this relevance and is deftly trying to position itself to capitalize on potentialities.

Kazakhstan is not without its problems. Any country that has been ruled by the same leader, and his commensurate favorites, uninterrupted since 1991 cannot be absent the typical corruption, nepotism, waste, and bureaucratic inefficiency notorious with any government so dominant and assured of its place and future. But time and accomplishment has clearly shown Kazakhstan to be a fairly ‘dull’ country. And in this case, ‘dull’ is quite positive: it means it is relatively stable, reliable, and absent the turbulence that has been seen more than once in several of its neighbors: Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Afghanistan, and Iran just to name several. Kazakhstan may not be the most open or the most perfectly democratic of systems. But it clearly values calm stability and economic progress, not in the sycophantic and somewhat irrational way that Turkmenistan does, but in a way that sees its future as an active member of the global economic system and wanting to be considered a valued partner in the larger global community of politics. Until recently, only Azerbaijan in the Caspian region could consistently lay claim to that goal. Kazakhstan seems intent on making that club now a twosome. As the saying goes – once could be an accident, but twice would be a trend. If Kazakhstan continues to play out this new role as Central Asia’s stable giant, as the Caspian’s reliable ‘Stan, then it may just end up finding itself in a much more important geopolitical role: the conduit from West to East, the solidifier of a new Silk Road, and the foundation upon which a new era of communication, trade, and transportation develops between the two dominant civilizations in human history. Not bad for a strategy that basically started with a desire to just fix a few potholes.

Dr. Matthew Crosston is Senior Doctoral Faculty in the School of Security and Global Studies at the American Military University and was just named the future Co-Editor of the seminal International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence. His work is catalogued at: https://brown.academia.edu/ProfMatthewCrosston/Analytics

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Central Asia

Kazakh court case tests Chinese power

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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A Kazakh court is set to put to the test China’s ability to impose its will and strongarm Muslim nations into remaining silent about its brutal crackdown on Turkic Muslims in the north-western province of Xinjiang.

The court will hear an appeal by a former worker in one of Xinjiang’s multiple re-education camps against the rejection of her request for asylum. The appeal illustrates the political quagmire faced by Central Asian nations and Turkey given their ethnic, cultural and linguistic ties to China’s estimated 11 million Turkic Muslims that include 1.5 million people of Kazakh descent.

It also highlights China’s risky bet on being able to leverage its economic power to ensure the Muslim world’s silence about what amounts to the most concerted effort in recent history to reshape Muslim religious practice.

Up to one million Turkic Muslims have, according to the United Nations, been detained in a network of re-education camps in which they are being forced to accept the superiority of Chinese Communist Party beliefs and the leadership of President Xi Jinping above the precepts of Islam.

Beyond the camps, Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang, a strategic minerals-rich province bordering on eight Central and South Asian nations that China has turned into a 21st century Orwellian surveillance state, are forced to refrain from religious practice and custom in public.

After denying the existing of the camps for the longest period of time, China last month felt obliged to acknowledge them and give them legal cover.

Authorities in Xinjiang amended their anti-extremism regulations “to allow local governments to set up institutions to provide people affected by extremist thoughts with vocational skills training and psychological counselling.” China asserts that the crackdown is intended to counter extremism, separatism and terrorism.

China’s acknowledgement was designed to counter the UN report, threats of US sanctions against officials and companies involved in the Xinjiang crackdown, and revelations by 41-year-old Sayragul Sauytbay, a Chinese national of Kazakh descent.

Ms. Sauytbay testified in an open Kazakh court that she had been employed in a Chinese re-education camp for Kazakhs only that had 2,500 inmates. She said she was aware of two more such camps reserved for Kazakhs.

Ms. Sauytbay was standing trial for entering Kazakhstan illegally after having been detained at China’s request.

She told the court that she had escaped to Kazakhstan after being advised by Chinese authorities that she would never be allowed to join her family because of her knowledge of the camps. Ms. Sauytbay was given a six-month suspended sentence and released from prison to join her recently naturalized husband and children.

Since then, Ms. Sauytbay’s application for asylum has been rejected and she has until the end of October to leave Kazakhstan. She hopes that an appeal court will reverse the rejection.

Ms. Sauytbay’s case puts the Kazakh government between a rock and a hard place and is but one of a string of recent cracks in the Muslim wall of silence.

Kazakh authorities have to balance a desire to kowtow to Chinese demands with a growing anti-Chinese sentiment that demands that the government stand up for its nationals as well as Chinese nationals of Kazakh descent.

Ms. Sauytbay’s revelations that ethnic Kazakhs were also targeted in the Chinese crackdown sparked angry denunciations in Kazakhstan’s parliament.

“There should be talks taking place with the Chinese delegates. Every delegation that goes there should be bringing this topic up… The key issue is that of the human rights of ethnic Kazakhs in any country of the world being respected,” said Kunaysh Sultanov, a member of parliament and former deputy prime minister and ambassador to China.

In a further crack, Malaysia this week released 11 Uyghurs who were detained after having escaped detention in Thailand.

The Uyghurs were allowed to leave the country for Turkey. The move, coming in the wake of a decision by Germany and Sweden to suspend deportations of Uyghurs to China, puts on the spot countries like Turkey and the United Arab Emirates, where Uyghurs risk extradition.

Malaysia’s release of the Uyghurs occurred days before Anwar Ibrahim took the first hurdle in becoming the country’s next prime minister by this weekend winning a parliamentary by election.

Mr. Ibrahim last month became the Muslim world’s most prominent politician to speak out about the crackdown in Xinjiang.

Earlier, Rais Hussin, a supreme council member of Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad’s Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu) party and head of its Policy and Strategy Bureau, cautioned that “that geographical proximity cannot be taken advantage by China to ride roughshod over everything that Malaysia holds dear, such as Islam, democracy, freedom of worship and deep respect for every country’s sovereignty… On its mistreatment of Muslims in Xinjiang almost en masse, Malaysia must speak up, and defend the most basic human rights of all.”

Pakistan’s Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony minister, Noorul Haq Qadri, was forced to raise the issue of Turkic Muslims with Chinese ambassador Yao Xing under pressure from Pakistanis whose spouses and relatives had been detained in the Xinjiang crackdown.

Ms. Sauytbay’s appeal for asylum is likely to refocus public opinion in Kazakhstan and other Central Asian nations on the plight of their Turkic brethren.

She will not be deported, we will not allow it,” said Ms. Sauytbay’s lawyer, Abzal Kuspanov.

Mr. Kuspanov’s defense of Ms. Sauytbay is about far more than the fate of a former Chinese re-education camp employee. It will serve as a barometer of China’s ability to impose its will. If China succeeds, it will raise the question at what price. The answer to that is likely to only become apparent over time.

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Central Asia

Why the upcoming Congress of the Leaders of World is so vital for peace and prosperity

Kassym-Jomart Tokayev

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Religion has been, and remains, an immense spiritual force for good in our world. The shared values which underpin all world’s major faiths have positively moulded how we treat each other. Religious beliefs give direction, comfort and hope to billions of people.

Religious communities appear to have enormous potential for addressing today’s social problems. Faith groups across the globe are prominent in feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless and caring for the vulnerable.  Our world would be poorer without the impact of religion on our lives.

Throughout history, religion has also been exploited to sow divisions. Instead of bringing people together and encouraging them to behaving decently toward each other, it has been abused to fuel suspicions and hatred, spread confusion about the true essence of religion. We are facing the problem of ignoring what religions have in common and exaggerating and distorting the difference between, and at times within, faiths.

The abuse of religion continues and is undermining hopes for peace and progress. In recent years, many thousands have died and millions more had to flee their homes in conflicts, in which religion has been used to justify discrimination and violence. Countering these dangerous distortions is one of the challenges that religious leaders should address.

There is no single answer. Yet at the heart of the solution is dialogue between religions to foster understanding and respect. This is an overarching aim of the Congress of the Leaders of World and Traditional Religions which is to be held for the sixth time in Kazakhstan’s capital Astana this month (October.)

The Congress was initiated by Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev amid the growing religious tensions and extremism following the 9/11 terrorist attack in the United States. He believed it was critical that the opportunity be provided for religious leaders to work together to prevent religion being used to divide us.

His vision has struck a chord across the world. The Congress, which takes place every three years since 2003 has engaged prominent religious leaders and politicians from different countries around most pressing issues. By 2015, the number of delegations attending had increased from 23 to 80. High-profile attendees included then UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, King Abdullah of Jordan and President of Finland Sauli Niinistö. Discussions centred on the role of religion in promoting development and measures to reduce appeal of violent extremism among young people.

The Sixth Congress, which takes place on October 10-11, will build on this efforts. Its focus is on how religious leaders can work together to play their full part in creating a secure world and prevent faith being abused to set people against each other.

Located at a crossroads of different civilizations, Kazakhstan has placed greater importance on promoting religious harmony and mutual respect. Our country’s history and geography have combined to create a society in which people of many different backgrounds and faiths live within single boundaries. Religious freedom has become a precious asset of our nation, which allows diverse beliefs to peacefully coexist and helps us to negotiate any concerns in a constructive spirit.

Such a mixture could have been, as it has been the case in other countries, a worrying source of tension and conflict. Despite negative expectations such diversity has been turned into a strength in our society where citizens are equally respected and are able to make their full contribution to the common welfare.

As a matter of fact, while Kazakhstan’s population may be largely Muslim, followers of all traditional faiths live in harmony with each other, are free to worship and enjoy equal rights guaranteed by the constitution. It is a source not only of national pride but has also been an indispensable platform for our stability and prosperity at home and growing influence abroad.

In this turbulent world, dialogue and mutual respect has never been more important. Nor has it been more critical to provide the forum where religious and political leaders can work together to prevent any distortion of faith for violent ends. The upcoming Congress is so vital for peace and prosperity.

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Central Asia

Reforms Can Accelerate Economic Diversification in Kazakhstan

MD Staff

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Kazakhstan’s future growth depends on reforms that provide a level playing field for the private sector and support economic diversification, according to a new Asian Development Bank (ADB) Country Diagnostic Study launched today.

The study, Kazakhstan: Accelerating Economic Diversification, identifies the most binding constraints to growth and provides in-depth analysis of structural reforms that will bring the country to its growth potential. The report finds that consistent and successful reform efforts can add an average of 1.2 percentage points per year to Kazakhstan’s gross domestic product.

“Kazakhstan needs to accelerate structural reforms to support the country’s economic diversification,” said ADB Country Director for Kazakhstan Mr. Giovanni Capannelli. “These reforms include improving the country’s business climate, enhancing competitiveness, and increasing private sector participation in the economy.”

Kazakhstan’s economy has transformed since its independence in 1991, mainly due to a surge in oil and gas exports. While the country achieved middle-income status in 2006, the downturn of oil and other commodity prices in 2014 exposed the country’s vulnerability to external shocks and constrained government revenues.

Future growth will depend on identifying sectors in which Kazakhstan has a strong growth potential, according to the study. These include food processing, basic metals, and chemicals. In agriculture, redirecting subsidies toward investment in infrastructure, improving access to finance, and promoting innovation can substantially boost productivity. Greater investment in infrastructure is essential to provide a link to unexploited markets, decrease transport costs, and support the production of tradable goods. Transit trade has a large growth potential, while increasing the efficiency of transport infrastructure can generate additional growth from other tradable sectors such as manufacturing, the report said.

ADB began supporting Kazakhstan in 1994 and has since approved over $5 billion in sovereign loans, nonsovereign loans, and guarantees. ADB operations in Kazakhstan are helping open up transport routes, foster private enterprise, address inequalities, promote inclusive growth, and deliver knowledge products and services. ADB also contributes to Kazakhstan’s participation in the Central Asia Regional Economic Cooperation (CAREC) program.

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