Of the five Central Asian states – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan – Kazakhstan was the last Soviet Republic to leave the USSR. This was most likely due to its close economic ties to Russia.
It is also known for being a secular, modern, prosperous, and racially tolerant country. For a state as young as Kazakhstan, the progress the country has made is nothing short of miraculous despite its history of suffering, tragedy, colonization, domination, crackdowns, and brutality.
Kazakhstan has a highly controlled and centralized polity and, as is commonplace for this type of government, has a reputation for being wasteful and corrupt. However, its leader Narsultan Nazarbayev – who has been in place since the country’s independence – is quite popular. In fact, recently, he was ranked as one of the top five great leaders of the world. His vision and policies has resulted in stability and higher standards of living in Kazakhstan’s short life. Even while dealing with some tension from separatists among the ethnic Russian population, Kazakhstan has managed to remain exempt from many of the problems experienced in the other former Soviet Republics.
Because of its stability, deregulation, and more liberal trade regulations, Kazakhstan has attracted foreign investors – some of which come from Britain, the United States, and France – who seek to capitalize on its vast reserves of resources such as oil, uranium, and minerals. New oil pipelines have been built which have allowed Kazakhstan to reach markets it could not access before. Previously, Kazakhstan’s oil and gas industry depended on Russia’s demand for crude oil. However, since the breakup of the Soviet Union, there has been a drop in production from Russian refineries. Now, with projects such as the Caspian pipeline that links the Tengiz oilfield across the Caspian Sea to the Russian Black Sea port of Novorossiysk and the Kazakhstan-China pipeline that pumps oil to Alashankou and western China, Kazakhstan has become one of the largest producers of oil in the world. It is also quite possible that, in time, Kazakhstan will also become the world’s foremost producer of uranium.
While Kazakhstan’s future certainly seems very bright, it still faces many challenges. Thanks to the Soviet industrial period, it is one of the most polluted nations in the world. The pollution from industrialization combined with the demands placed on the environment from the extraction of natural resources, agricultural demands, increasing urbanization, and previous Soviet nuclear testing have forced the country to attempt to alter its economy and revamp its entire economic infrastructure. Kazakhstan is aware that sites associated with former defense industries and test ranges are radioactive and chemically toxic and pose a serious health risk to the local population and wildlife. The country has been very proactive on this issue and has signed international environmental agreements with the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, the UN Conference on Environment and Development, and the Kyoto Forum on Climate Change. It is very committed to becoming more eco-friendly and recently announced that its Green Economy Concept policy is to become part of its comprehensive national development.
Another problem Kazakhstan faces is the drying up of the Aral Sea. This tragedy is often described as one of the world’s worst environmental disasters. This was once a rich and fertile body of water that supported traders, hunters, and fisheries. In fact, it was the fourth largest lake in the world. Now, it is composed of three smaller separate lakes that are toxic to the people and wildlife that once depended on it. It is saturated with chemicals from pesticides and fertilizers. Kazakhstan and its neighbors – who are also affected by the disaster – are trying to reverse the trend as part of their efforts to become more environmentally conscious.
Following the break from the USSR’s state-controlled employment system, Kazakhstan had to undergo an enormous challenge to construct a functioning economy within a moderately short period of time. Kazakhstan’s giant step from being a socialist economy to becoming a free market economy was fraught with all kinds of challenges. In the few years following independence, the country floundered and finally hit rock bottom in 1994-1995. Then, in 1996, things took a turn for the better when the country’s economic policies started to bear fruit. The spirit of entrepreneurship took hold in this new economic climate and demand for goods and services increased. The country has continued to make positive steps on the road to economic independence ever since.
The country must now deal with a typical obstacle for states that find themselves suddenly very prosperous: wealth inequality. Even though the country has grand designs for the future in regards to addressing the wide poverty gap and lack of access to health care and essential services like sewage, clean water, and central air, the reality is that only people living in large urban cities are enjoying the benefits of Kazakhstan’s sustainable development. To address the issue of people living in remote regions, the country has a plan to diversify its economy by moving into areas such as light diversity and banking. This will help realize its more grandiose plans to become a regional financial and trading center and maybe even aspire to return to its ancient Silk Road roots to become a hub for international commerce (for more on this see Crosston’s article in this issue).
Politically, Kazakhstan is sluggishly dragging its feet in becoming more democratic. President Nazarbayev has been very vocal in his belief that democratic change must be a slow process or else the country risks being damaged by hasty or ill-considered decisions. The plan does include strengthening the parliament, reforming local government, improving judicial and law enforcement agencies, and developing political parties. But the focus remains on the economy being the country’s first priority. During a speech to the Joint Session of the Chambers of the Kazakh Parliament in 2007, the President promised that “the next stage of democratization and reform would include reforms to enhance the effectiveness, transparency and accountability of the executive branch, anti-corruption measures as well as steps to decentralize state administration and develop local government.”
The United States has looked favorably upon these reforms. Even though President Nazarbayev will remain in office for life, the US State Department believes Kazakhstan is taking a step in the right direction. In fact, even though it is still relatively speaking in its political infancy, Kazakhstan has proved that it can withstand the strains resulting from rapid political and economic change. The general global consensus regards it as the most stable of all the Central Asian states.
Thus, Kazakhstan is unique in that it has found itself faced with the monumental task of building an independent nation, a market economy and democracy all at the same time but has largely remained stable and positively-viewed by the world community. So far, it has managed to beat the odds. For a country that aspires to become one of the top 30 competitive developed countries in the world by 2050, Kazakhstan seems to have achieved the foundation necessary to begin such a lofty goal.
Preventing Violent Extremism through Education in Central Asia
The UNESCO Almaty Cluster Office in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan and UNESCO Headquarters, in collaboration with the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), held a Sub-regional workshop on the prevention of violent extremism through education on 13-15 November in Almaty.
UNESCO’s approach to preventing violent extremism through education is related to its work on Global Citizenship Education (GСED). Based on its long-standing commitment to peace and human rights education, the GCED strives to foster respect for all, create a sense of belonging to humanity and help students become responsible and active citizens. Thus, the GCED creates conditions for strengthening students’ commitment to renouncing violence and peace and creating conditions for protection from hatred, discrimination and violent extremism.
The workshop was organized within the framework of the partnership of UNESCO and UNODC on “Education in the spirit of global citizenship in support of the rule of law”. It strengthened the capacity of education stakeholders to implement educational measures and approaches to prevent violent extremism in an effective and appropriate manner. More specifically, the workshop provided a common discussion platform for a clearer understanding of the issues of violent extremism in the Central Asian region, as well as discussed new tools and innovative approaches and drew up a plan for further action to prevent violent extremism through education in Central Asia.
During the workshop, the participants also had a chance to visit the Nazarbayev Intellectual School and Almaty State College of Tourism and Hospitality Industry and observe open classes on global citizenship education and values.
The workshop brought together education stakeholders from all over Central Asia, including representatives from the ministries of education and community development, universities and research institutes, as well as youth organizations and civil society. International experts from France, UNODC, UNESCO as well as other UN agencies and international organizations also took part in the event.
Developing the IT sector will make Central Asia more united and independent
This September marked the second anniversary of the death of Islam Karimov, the former President of Uzbekistan, and the de-facto accession to power of Shavkat Mirziyoyev (who was later officially elected to the presidency in December 2016).
In record-breaking time President Mirziyoyev solved border disputes with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan – which had previously been considered unsolvable, significantly strengthened relations with Kazakhstan, conducted sweeping economic reforms, and opened Uzbekistan to foreign investments.
The activity of the new reformist president led to positive changes not only in Uzbekistan itself, but in the region as a whole. The change of power in Uzbekistan – the most highly populated Central Asian country, located right in the middle of the region – marked the beginning of the Central Asian Spring, which, in contrast to the Arab Spring, has been characterized by gradual reforms and, above all, economic liberalization.
In March 2018, for the first time since the beginning of the 2000’s, a summit of the Central Asian countries’ leaders took place in Astana, Kazakhstan. It was attended by presidents of every country in the region (except Turkmenistan which was represented by the Chair of the country’s parliament). This summit, along with a notable strengthening of connections between the two most prominent countries of the region – Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan – laid the ground for talks regarding the creation of a new regional union, the goal of which would be to strengthen the economic independence of the Central Asian region, and later its political independence as well.
The first attempts at economic unification of Central Asian countries date back to the mid-1990’s, and were being undertaken as late as the mid-2000’s. However, each time those attempts were beset with insurmountable obstacles – the position of the late Uzbek president Islam Karimov who basically isolated Uzbekistan from any foreign influence, the border conflicts between Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan, and the personal ambitions of the Central Asian countries’ leaders.
It is rather ironic that Uzbekistan – which for а long time halted the process of regional integration – is today, along with Kazakhstan, its primary moving force. Riding the wave of “the Uzbek thaw,” and highlighted against the backdrop of problems associated with the functioning of the Eurasian economic Union, for the first time in many years the conditions for the creation of a regional union are favorable.
For now, the countries of the region are treading very carefully when it comes to this idea. There have been too many unsuccessful attempts at unification in the past, and interstate contradictions are still too strong, as well as the differences in the countries’ approach to issues. Besides, such unification may not be well liked by the “Big Neighbors” of the region – Russia and China – who may put forth efforts to prevent the emergence of a strong and independent regional player.
The geographic location of Central Asia also provides its opponents with an advantage: each country individually (and the region as a whole) is landlocked, and as a consequence the operation of logistical and energy chains is fully dependent on the goodwill of the “Big Neighbors.” Only fundamental changes to the very structure of the regions’ economy can help overcome this dependence. Such changes are now underway.
Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are striving to abandon the natural resource-dependent model and develop innovations. An example of that is the “Astana Hub” – a financial and technological center which has the capabilities to speed up the technological upgrading not just of Kazakhstan alone, but the entire Central Asian region.
The simultaneous development of an IT ecosystem of innovations in the countries of Central Asia will create new possibilities for regional collaboration, as well as for collaboration of the Central Asian IT sector with global centers of the IT industry.
Central Asia’s old economic model relied on each of the countries having different and separate economic relations with its “Big Neighbors” and – facilitated by those “Big Neighbors” acting as intermediaries – with countries of the West. The new Central Asian model envisions the five countries – Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkmenistan – being integrated into a common economic market and having direct connections with Western markets, bypassing the intermediary function of the “Big Neighbors.” As shown through the success of the European Bank’s ‘Investing in Central Asia’ forum which aimed to highlight opportunities for business expansion into the region, Central Asian countries will become integrated into the world ecosystem both in the information and economic realms.
However, in order to implement this plan both the Western business world and the political decision makers have lots of work ahead of them. As the new “IT tiger,” Central Asia may be interesting to the world industry’s giants only as a united region, and they must view it as such already, by extending a certain credibility to the new economic initiatives originating in that region. This means opening regional offices in the local IT clusters and entrusting them first with outsourcing and then with R&D, serving as evangelists of the new economy in contacts with representatives of the Central Asian countries’ governments, and considering the possibilities of investing into local startups jointly with governments. Western policymakers will need to get ready to provide the most favorable environment to the IT industry for any trade and economic relations with countries of the region.
As energy exports are the foundation of economic well-being for the majority of the region’s countries, it places those countries in the position of competitors who are dependent on their neighboring states, above all Russia and China. Developing advanced technologies, attracting Western investments and Western experience, and creating a Central Asian IT market will serve a dual purpose: in reducing the Central Asian countries’ dependence on their neighbors, and in becoming the catalyst for unification processes in the region.
Turkmenistan, the heart of the Silk Road
Over 140 years have passed since Ferdinand von Richthofen, a German geologist, geographer and traveler and the president of the Berlin Geographical Society, coined the term Silk Road. Several more decades had passed before scholars in different countries became seriously interested in this phenomenon of the antique and medieval world and began to study specific routes of caravan trade where Turkmen land had an important place. The Silk Road era, which lasted for more than 15 centuries, has left thousands of monuments and landmarks along the entire route from the Mediterranean to the Far East. Many of them are located on the territory of Turkmenistan.
In the modern era, the legendary route is being restored in a new quality, carrying the idea of revitalizing and strengthening trade, economic, humanitarian, and cultural ties between states and peoples. In his book, “Turkmenistan, the Heart of the Silk Road,” Turkmenistan President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, citing facts of national history, ancient tales and legends, as well as events and developments from the country’s modern life, notes that a fundamental role in the evolution and active use of the Silk Road, each of its branches being on the UNESCO List of World Heritage Sites, belongs to, among others, the Turkmen people.
Thus, as our state carries out major transport projects of the century, a modern history is being written and the idea of restoring the Silk Road – the heart of which is independent and neutral Turkmenistan – is being revisited.
The Kazakhstan-Turkmenistan-Iran transnational railway line that has been put into operation can carry up to 10-12 million tons of cargo and makes it possible to connect to transport infrastructure in the east and south, gaining access to dynamically developing markets. Turkmenistan believes it is essential to focus efforts on ensuring that the opportunities for Central Asian and Caspian states arising in connection with these major transit projects be used to the maximum degree possible.
Convenient and safe international corridors using rail, motor, air, and water transport ensure the sustainable development of the entire region, foster neighborly relations between nations, strengthen cooperation, expand the volumes of trade turnover and help address a number of social issues. As a strategic goal defining the contours of a new, large-scale format of cooperation on the continent, they help create wide-ranging and promising geoeconomic configurations. In this context, it is important to note that an international sea port in the city of Turkmenbashi is due to be put into operation in the very near future.
The state invests heavily in modernizing the material and technical base of the transport sector and improving management through modern technology. High priority is given to developing sea and river transport infrastructure. Active work is under way to improve passenger and cargo transportation, develop ports and port facilities, and streamline state oversight over the safety of shipping and navigation.
Central and South Asia is a space for active international cooperation. Ancient trade routes passed across these territories for centuries, bringing Asia and Europe closer together. At present, countries in these regions play an important role in expanding global economic partnership. The implementation of projects in these areas opens up great prospects for the optimization of transport, energy and cultural ties in the Eurasian space. Therefore, as Turkmenistan President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov noted, our region is emerging as a major link in the formation of a new trade and economic partnership model on the continent, which, in turn, opens up opportunities for creating a platform for more wide-ranging cooperation. This is a vivid example of deeply innovative thinking in the global geoeconomic configuration and a vision of strategic perspectives for its development.
First published in our partner International Affairs
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