As a country, Kazakhstan has achieved many accomplishments in our first 25 years as an independent nation. Living standards for our citizens have improved dramatically, for example, and the respect we have built up as a global champion for peace and disarmament has seen us become the first Central Asian state to be elected to the United Nations Security Council.
No achievement, however, has been more important than the way in which a stable and harmonious society has been built from our very diverse population. A combination of factors including our geographical location and an often-troubled recent history resulted in people of different backgrounds and faiths living within our borders. We have worked hard to ensure every group is respected, able to make their full contribution to our society and co-exists peacefully.
This is certainly the case with religious beliefs. Although the majority of people in Kazakhstan are considered to be Muslims, our state is secular and followers of all the world’s great faiths are guaranteed freedom of conscience and equality before the law. The Islam traditionally practiced in Kazakhstan has always been linked and gone hand-in-hand with our ethnic habits and ways, and is moderate in outlook with no tolerance of religious fanaticism.
Within our borders, there are 2,550 operating mosques and 294 Russian Orthodox churches to serve the two largest religious groups. Moreover, there are also 108 Catholic churches, 495 Protestant churches, seven synagogues, two Buddhist temples as well as prayer houses for the Hare Krishna and Bahai communities.
Kazakhstan has played its part internationally through successful initiatives such as the Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions to increase understanding between different faiths and to unite efforts in fighting extremism in the name of religion. We are proud of the good relations that exist between faith communities and the state and, importantly, between every citizen. This respect and understanding has been a major part of our success as a country.
Nevertheless, as it is the case with many other countries, we face increasing threats from outside our borders to this stability and harmony. Last year, Kazakhstan experienced two terrorist attacks, which had their roots in violent religious extremism and radicalism.
We have also seen small numbers of our young people, as has happened throughout Central Asia and Europe, attracted by the savage ideologies of groups like the so called ISIL. We need to step up our efforts to prevent our youth from radicalization.
Linked to these serious threats, Kazakhstan has seen, as is again the case in many other places, the import of more extreme interpretations of religion into our country. These radical beliefs are entirely alien to our moderate national traditions. They undermine the secular nature of our state and risk inter-faith tensions.
It is to counter these threats and protect the right of the overwhelming peaceful and moderate majority to worship freely that Kazakhstan has developed a new framework for the relationship between religion and the state formulated in the Concept for State Policy in Religious Affairs up to 2020. The Concept has two goals:
– To formulate a system of views and approaches of the state in its interaction with religious organisations;
– To send a clear message to the population of Kazakhstan on the Government’s attitude to religion.
The Concept will be the basis for policies and practical steps. The aim is to define more clearly boundaries and responsibilities, and put in place new programmes, so our country continues to be known for its harmony and stability, respect for religious beliefs and tolerance between different faiths.
We believe that it is not the government’s role to interfere in the internal workings of religions and there is no intention to do so. The framework clearly declares the continued freedom of conscience for individuals and the right for freedom of associations for over 3,500 faith organisations in our country. However, it is the responsibility of all governments to ensure that a platform is not given to those preaching hatred and violence.
Though the framework rests heavily on our own culture and experience, it was also drawn up after examining how partners such as America, the European Union, China and Russia are responding to similar challenges. It has helped shape the adoption of policies, in particular those which will lead to greater transparency over finances in order to help prevent the misuse of religious donations to fund extremism.
There is, however, no single system of interaction between government and religion. Even within the Islamic world, there is no uniformity in the interpretation of religious dogma. We believe that we have a right to develop our own model which balances the importance of faith for moral and spiritual health with the preservation of our historic and ethnic traditions. Our secular government structure itself is a part of this tradition.
We are also employing new methods to prevent religion being used as a justification to flout the law or divide communities. We should expect all marriages, for example, to be registered legally. Nor should religion be used as an excuse to damage the education of children or put their health at risk by preventing vaccinations. We will not allow, either, the clock to be turned back on gender equality.
If we are to succeed in countering religious extremism and preventing division, new rules must be coupled with improved education programmes. In particular, we need to inform young people about the distortion of religion as well as increase their understanding of what the different religions have in common. We are keen for the involvement of all 18 faiths represented in our country to help us ensure these education initiatives are as effective as possible.
It is clear that Kazakhstan is not the only country which faces these threats to the security and stability of society. Many countries across the world are also struggling with the same challenges.
We have worked very hard as a country to build a stable and tolerant society and we do not want to see it threatened by religious extremism and fundamentalism, whether it is from beyond or within our borders. The steps we are taking are aimed to protect the stability of our country against those who abuse faith for their own perverted ends while protecting the moral and spiritual values in our national life.
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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