During the Communist era, people in the West were brainwashed into believing that citizens of the Soviet Union and eastern bloc countries were members of the world’s great downtrodden – oppressed and depressed.
True, they did not enjoy the rights and privileges that went hand in hand with Western lifestyles. They often suffered from food shortages and their clothes were hardly fashionable, but they laughed and they danced, wrote books, composed music, got married, raised families and, in many respects, were not much different from human beings anywhere else the world.
The interesting thing is the speed and the extent to which they adapted to Western norms once the Soviet Union was dismantled.
A case in point is Kazakhstan’s ambassador to Israel, Doulat Kuanyshev, 58, a veteran diplomat who was born and raised under the Communist regime. Though a very serious and widely experienced diplomat who has been his country’s ambassador to Israel since December 2014, Kuanyshev is far from the stereotyped image of the Soviet public servant. He is suave and sophisticated, and in possession of admirable social skills.
Kuanyshev has been a diplomat for close to 30 years. He speaks English fluently with only the faintest trace of an accent.
His other languages are Kazak, Russian Spanish, Portuguese, Turkish and French.
He is a graduate of the Peoples’ Friendship University in Moscow, where he studied from 1977 to 1984. The venue and the timeline beg the question: Was this Russia’s famous school for spies in which students were trained to speak foreign languages in the accents and dialects of particular places so that they could easily integrate into those communities?
Kuanyshev – who early in his career while still a student had worked as an interpreter for the Trade Representation of the USSR to the People’s Republic of Angola – finds the question amusing.
“In the West, our university was called the school for spies or the school for propaganda,” he admits, but says this was an erroneous assumption. It was in fact a school to develop openness with the aim of preventing bias. It had a multi-ethnic and multi-religious student population.
As for his personal evolution, he did not actually become a diplomat until the end of the 1980s, and like many young people of his generation at the time, he was not all that blindly steeped in communist ideology.
His first diplomatic posting in October 1991 was to Moscow.
Up until that time, he had done 18 months of compulsory military service in the Soviet Army and had worked as a junior research fellow at the Institute of World Economy and International Relations at Moscow’s Academy of Sciences.
Then came the transition period, when Kazakhstan was on the road to independence and democracy and reaching out to the world at large. People with any kind of international experience and those who spoke foreign languages became the first generation of young diplomats who gained the confidence of President Nursultan Nazarbayev and the government, with Kuanyshev among them.
How did he shake off whatever there was of pre-independence ideology?
“I’m not sure I changed,” he reflects.
There had been several years in which there had been a thaw. It was a watershed period in which there had been what he calls “a moral and humanitarian uprising,” which brought Kazakhstan and some other Soviet Republics closer to the outside world.
“We were under the influence of Western pop culture,” Kuanyshev said. “Access was limited, which made it so attractive, simply because it was inaccessible. We imagined something bigger than it was. When we were children, chewing gum was a dream.”
Change gradually came to Kazakhstan as something that was universally welcome.
Kuanyshev remembers that there were difficulties in the development period. There was a new market economy, and many people did not know how to cope with the situation.
Before the change, “we had a welfare state that provided everything.” For many people, the past looks rosy, he says, because they were not dealing with the challenges of today.
Relating to the young people who aimed for new horizons in the first blush of independence, he explains, “We didn’t have enough expertise. We felt like pioneers. It was easier then to accept a challenge.”
Kuanyshev was initially in international relations, promoting foreign investment and economic relations, and this is what led to his diplomatic career.
Nazarbayev is always interested in finding people with expertise in economic entrepreneurship and investment, says the ambassador, especially because Kazakhstan is so rich in natural resources and commodities.
Israel was among the first countries to recognize and establish diplomatic relations with the newly independent Kazakhstan, and relations between the two countries have been good, even though Kazakhstan is a member of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation.
Nazarbayev has twice paid official visits to Israel, first in 1995 and then in 2000.
PRESIDENT SHIMON Peres visited Kazakhstan in June 2009 and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was there in December 2016.
In addition, prominent Israeli figures attend Nazarbayev’s annual Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions in Astana, which became the nation’s capital in December 1997 following relocation from Almaty, the former capital. At the most recent Congress in October this year, Israelis in attendance included the two chief rabbis David Lau and Yitzhak Yosef.
Also among the participants were Theophilos III, the Greek Patriarch of Jerusalem, and Dr. Joshua Lincoln, secretary-general of the Haifa-headquartered Baha’i International Community.
At the congress, Yosef castigated the religious leaders of other faiths for their failure to condemn acts of terrorism against Israel.
Although Islam is by far the dominant religion in Kazakhstan, the nation’s constitution ensures “freedom of conscience” in religious affiliation and practice, and Kazakhstan characterizes itself as a secular country.
Like most heads of foreign missions in Israel, Kuanyshev lives in a spacious house in Herzliya Pituah. Whereas the standard photographic display in the residences of most ambassadors may have one family group photo, one of the ambassador with his or her monarch, president, chancellor or prime minister and one of the ambassador presenting credentials to President Reuven
Rivlin, in Kuanyshev’s residence, there are many more photographs featuring his adult daughter Medina and teenage son Dariman at various stages of their lives. There are also family photographs that include Kuanyashev and his wife Gulmira, plus photos from different countries in which he has served, illustrating the milestones in his career.
In 1992, he served as third secretary at the Kazakhstan Embassy in Turkey. Back home two years later, he was a counselor in the Foreign Ministry’s directorate of political analysis and planning, and from there became press secretary to Nazarbayev and head of the president’s press service.
After two years in this position, he partially returned to his first love, which was promoting foreign investments in Kazakhstan. He did that in the capacity of director of the state committee on investments, and subsequently as deputy chairman and later chairman of the Kazakhstan Investment Agency.
Ten years after his first diplomatic posting, he was appointed vice minister of foreign affairs, and two years after that as ambassador to France. Next stop was Austria and concurrent with his role as ambassador in Vienna, he was also Kazakhstan’s permanent representative to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), as well as other international organizations that were stationed in Vienna. And if that was not enough on his plate, he was simultaneously the non-resident ambassador to Slovenia and Croatia. Another two years passed, and he was appointed Kazakhstan’s ambassador at large.
That happened to be a three-year stint, and then he was appointed ambassador to India and non-resident ambassador to Sri Lanka. Once again, it was a two-year assignment. The period that he has served in Israel is on the whole longer than anywhere else. He is also non-resident ambassador to Cyprus, and by sheer coincidence his residence is next door to that of the ambassador of Cyprus to Israel.
Kazakhstan has huge reserves of energy – probably more than any other country in Central Asia. It also has the most robust economy, part of the credit for which goes to the efforts of Kuanyashev.
Whether it’s classic diplomacy or economic diplomacy, Kuanyshev says, “To be involved in the international arena is a must in order to consolidate our role as an independent state.”
Kazakhstan values not only its own independence, but that of its neighbors, and is active in safeguarding borders between countries.
This can be difficult when it also involves a large water mass that is both a sea and a lake. After 20 years of negotiations, Kazakhstan is among the parties that will sign an agreement which defines and delineates economic zones, fisheries and environment issues of all the countries bordering the Caspian Sea.
With regard to Israel, Kazakhstan is now in the process of finalizing a double taxation agreement. It has waived visas for Israelis who are visiting for 30 days or fewer, and is trying to get Israeli reciprocity.
It had never occurred to Kuanyshev that he would be posted to Israel, but he enjoys being here, almost to the extent of feeling at home. The reason: Most of the countries that are part of the Commonwealth of Independent States are represented in Israel by immigrant communities who have brought their culture with them, and of course this is a culture with which Kuanyshev is familiar and which he appreciates.
Reviewing his time in Israel overall, he says that his posting here “was a gift because it has enriched me.”
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