Kazakhstan seeks role as capital of ‘New Silk Road’

Hosting major international fora, Astana is becoming an important venue for Euroasian economy.

A general view of downtown with Kazakhstan's national oil company KazMunayGas (KMG) headquarters (front) in Astana, Kazakhstan. (photo credit: REUTERS)
A general view of downtown with Kazakhstan's national oil company KazMunayGas (KMG) headquarters (front) in Astana, Kazakhstan.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
ASTANA – Being situated between Europe and Asia wasn’t always a benefit for the Kazakh people.
Invasions by Mongols, Turks and others often destabilized the great land. But recently an old dream is coming true in Kazakhstan – becoming a central hub for economics, business, environmental innovations and diplomacy on the ancient Silk Road.
In May 2013 at Nazarbayev University in Astana, Chinese President Xi Jinping announced his vision of building the “New Silk Road,” a route that would connect China to the West.
For the local Kazakh audience, it became an historic event.
The Republic of Kazakhstan began investing all its efforts to become a dominant global player – the capital of the Belt and Road Initiative and benefit from its location, being northwest of China.
In the past, the area of southern Kazakhstan was a part of the original ancient Silk Road that used to transfer goods, commodities and also culture – from China to Rome.
President Nursultan Nazarbayev has already foreseen this vision over a decade before. In 1997, six years after the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the declaration of Kazakhstan’s independence, Nazarbayev decided to disband the old capital in Almaty, and move it to the northern city of Astana.
Since then, the city is going through an accelerated process of advancement that includes new government buildings, advanced infrastructures, shiny green parks and modern hi-tech centers that were designed to attract entrepreneurs and businessmen from all around the globe.
Another means to advance efforts to attract global attention is to hold international forums.
In mid-June, more than 4,000 participants from 100 countries attended 10th annual Astana Economic Forum. The forum focused primarily on renewable energy and green economy under the theme “New Energy – New Economy” as well as discussions of sustainable economic growth, world trade and infrastructure.
The forum hosted some notable key speakers, such as Jacob Frenkel, chairman of JPMorgan Chase International and former governor of the Bank of Israel, and Igor Shuvalov, first deputy prime minister of the Russian Federation.
During the forum, open panels and round tables were held, discussing a variety of topics regarding the future of Kazakhstan and the region.
Among them were sustainable economic growth, world trade and infrastructure and innovations and “green economy.”
The forum was held at the start of three-months-long Expo 2017 in June, which features a theme of future energy, and is hosting exhibitions from some 115 different countries and 22 global organizations.
In the middle of the round-formed facilities that hosts country-based pavilions, stands Nur Alem (Kazakh for “the light of the world”), the Kazakh eight-floor exhibition. Each floor has its own theme regarding the use of renewable energy, and ancient and local traditions that are relevant to the topic. For instance, the floor that shows the different uses that can be done with wind to create energy shows a global wind map side-by-side with Kazakh ancient beliefs about the power of wind.
Kazakhstan, which is rich with oil and gas, said it sees finding prominent solutions for future energy as one of it main goals.
“We hold that learning and researching the topic of renewable energy is at the heart of the solution of the global environmental challenges,” said Roman Vassilenko, deputy minister of foreign affairs.
“In Kazakhstan, renewable energy is a part of our long-term strategic vision. By 2050 we plan to satisfy our energy needs by 50% [by using renewable energy]. Now it’s only 1%.”
Vassilenko stated three sources Kazakhstan will use to create renewable energy: Wind, solar and hydro.
But energy is not Kazakstan’s biggest concern.
Bordering Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and not far away from Afghanistan, the largest ex-soviet republic in the region sees itself as an anchor of stability.
Kazakhstan, like its bordering republics, is mainly Muslim, with 65% followers of Islam.
“The biggest challenge, or threat, to Kazakhstan’s security is the need to ensure sustainable development in Central Asia,” said Vassilenko.
More specific, Vassilenko said Kazakhstan must make sure the situation in Afghanistan stays stable. All Central Asian republics must unite to make that happen.
“It is obvious that the situation there is precarious. We call on all of the international community to work with us to keep the situation there stable and end the conflict.”
Vassilenko added that Kazakhstan has invested some $15 million in a program that brings Afghan people to study in Kazakh universities.
“We are teaching them peaceful professions and we hope that this program could be expanded.”
Radical extremism is a main challenge for Kazakhstan’s security, he said. As a secular state, officials in Kazakhstan thought that the republic is immune from this phenomenon.
In June 2016, seven Kazakhs were killed in terrorist attacks on two weapons shops and a military unit in Aktobe in the west. Reports said the attackers, Kazakhs, were influenced by Islamic State ideology.
Vassilenko said despite the fact security forces handled the attacks well, Kazakhstan is promoting plans to encourage its citizens to neglect such ideas.
“Social cohesion and the expansion of welfare would be a hurdle for people who feel discontent with the country,” he said.
Kazakhstan is also promoting legislation that would deter Kazakh nationals form joining ISIS in Syria and Iraq, he said.
“Some 300 people from Kazakhstan went to join ISIS forces, including women and children,” he said.
“Our law enforcement agencies have worked in the past five years to stop the flow of such people, going outside the country for these purposes, and also dealing with those who come back.
“We have amended our legislation to make it illegal to fight in foreign wars,” he added. “There are also discussions now over a bill that would prohibit citizenship to those who committed serious crimes against the national interests or participated in armed conflicts in other lands.”
Not only in an effort to block ISIS and radical extremism, Kazakhstan is promoting dialogue between religions and ethnic groups. Vassilenko said that in 2016, Kazakhstan established a ministry for religious and civil society affairs. He stressed that it is not a law enforcement agency, but it is there to “promote moderate religion ideas.”
It will also serve a country that is not only diverse by religions, but also by ethnic groups. Kazakhstan is a home for Kazakhs, Russians, Uzbeks, Tajik, Kyrgyz, groups of Germans and others.
Vassilenko said that such diversity was created between World War I and World War II, when Kazakhstan served as a “dumping ground” for exiled ethnic groups.
In this perspective, Vassilenko explains the Kazakh culture of warm hospitality, tolerance and nonviolent resolutions’ dispute.
“The Kazakhs shared with those who were exiled their last crumbs of bread,” he said. “This is the foundation of the modern mindset of the Kazakhs, they try to be tolerant to others. We believe in compromising and finding the ways for mutual benefits for all side.”
Practicing this belief, in recent years Kazakhstan hosted some forums that brought together (or aimed to bring together) longtime rivals. In the Shanghai Cooperation Organization Summit, which took place earlier this month in Astana, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif conducted a meeting.
Also, President Nazabayev was the main mediator in reconciliation between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, following the Russian Sukhoi Su-24 shoot-down in 2015.
Another example is the Syrian peace talks. After hosting talks among Syrian opposition in groups in 2015, Astana managed to bring both parties, opposition and regime, to several rounds of talks.
Vassilenko concluded by saying that all of these initiatives and events, that places Kazakhstan as a player in the global arena, comes along with some thorough changes in the republic with the intention to modernize it.
“Our president announced a reform in which we intend to diversify the economy, develop industries such as agriculture, transportation, real estate market, education, healthcare and social protection of the population,” he said.
“These reforms comes with great respect to our traditions, but also embracing new technologies and innovation.”