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Q & A with Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Cairo, Asharq Al-Awsat- Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev has affirmed that his country opposes any military strike against Iran. He cautioned against subjecting the region to a new war. At the same time he urged Tehran to seek to dissipate any suspicions about its nuclear program.

In an interview that Asharq al-Awsat conducted with him during his visit to Cairo last week, Nazarbayev pointed out that Kazakhstan’s decision to get rid of its nuclear arsenal brought a lot of benefits to the country, helped to ease the neighboring countries’ fears, and opened new prospects for cooperation with Kazakhstan.

He said: If we had not taken that step, we would have found ourselves surrounded by enemies on all sides.

At the same time he noted that Kazakhstan’s geopolitical location places it between global powers like Russia and China and said that in the south it borders on volatile regions like south Asia and the Middle East. Additionally, he said, it is a landlocked country that has no access to the seas and oceans, which makes it face challenges of a special kind.

Nazarbayev expressed great annoyance at the slow pace of restoring peace to Iraq. He said that Kazakh military engineers working in Iraq had already defused 400,000 explosive devices over the past few years.

Commenting on his country’s position on the issues of Palestine, Darfur, the dialogue among religions, and the relationship of religion to politics, the Kazakh president told Asharq al-Awsat that his country supports the Palestinian people’s right to self-determination. He declared that a permanent solution to the crisis in Darfur in western Sudan might be reached on the basis of the “customs and traditions” of that region.

Asked if his daughter would succeed him as head of state, he said that she is free to do what she wants but if she asks for his advice, he would counsel her not to do so.

Nazarbayev remarked on the common factors between his country and the Arab world, noting that this can promote cooperation and joint work between the two sides. He cautioned countries against using religion as a tool in political struggles, declaring: It is the worst possible thing for religious affairs to interfere with political issues.

Following is the text of the interview:

(Asharq Al-Awsat) US fleets are mobilizing in the Gulf at the same time that the United States is apparently making political moves to isolate Iran or perhaps begin military actions against it. Do you fear that military actions will be taken against Iran? What is your view on the global struggle between two possibilities, either nuclear monopoly by seven or eight nuclear powers or an uncontrolled spread of nuclear weapons in the hands of many countries? The future of the world against the background of this struggle might perhaps appear vague and worrisome. Do you agree?

(Nazarbayev) Kazakhstan opposes any military action against Iran. Peace can be achieved through dialogue. Iran should be told that the entire world community is against it. However, it would be a grievous mistake to launch an attack on it because this will endanger the entire region. The Iranian president should understand this. We are a nation that lives close to Iran. We are Muslims and wish the Iranians well. They should be aware of their responsibilities.

(Asharq Al-Awsat) A few years ago you made a fateful decision to get rid of your nuclear arsenal, which was the fourth nuclear arsenal in the world. Today Kazakhstan is surrounded by nuclear neighbors, Russia, China, India, and Pakistan. Are you not worried? Do you not regret that you alone got rid of your nuclear weapons and let the other countries around you continue to have them? What, in your opinion, is the alternative? What is the solution in a world where many countries insist on acquiring weapons of mass destruction?

(Nazarbayev) We absolutely do not regret getting rid of our nuclear weapons. It was the only right step. If we had kept our nuclear arsenal, we would have found ourselves from the first day of independence surrounded by enemies who looked at us with suspicion. They would have stepped up their acquisition of such weapons and deployed missiles around us on all sides. What benefit would that have brought us? We opted for another type of logic based on dialogue rather than confrontation. We are confident that we can occupy a status that is worthy of us in the world without maintaining a devastating military force like nuclear weapons.

It is well known that nuclear weapons are an evil thing, bringing a greater evil in their wake. Kazakhstan looks on countries that possess weapons of mass destruction with dissatisfaction and believes that the solution to a more peaceful world is for all countries to get rid of their nuclear arsenals. As to your question what is the alternative, it is difficult to answer this question. However, it is clear that a positive way of extricating the world from this situation does not merely require a radical solution of the global situation but also hinges on changing the way humanity thinks.

(Asharq Al-Awsat) You have referred to Kazakhstan’s commitment to the principle of adopting a multilateral foreign policy. What is meant by that? Does it mean building various alliances with more than one major power as we witnessed in your relations with China and Russia? Are you for example willing in this context to build an alliance with NATO or the United States, which has now come very close to Kazakhstan’s borders?

(Nazarbayev) The principle of a multilateral foreign policy was dictated to us by our geopolitical situation. Kazakhstan is located among global powers like Russia and China. On the south we have borders with volatile regions like south Asia and the Middle East. We are far from any seas or oceans. We are a landlocked country. Furthermore we have energy resources which are of interest to the West. For this reason Kazakhstan is active in numerous bodies like the Commonwealth of Independent States. We have a traditionally strong relationship with Russia. Among our foremost relations are our ties with China, the United States, and the EU. We have strategic relations with the neighboring Central Asian countries that used to be part of the former USSR. We have relations with the Islamic countries generally.

Regarding NATO, we have no plans to join it now or in the near future. This, however, does not mean that it is not possible to cooperate closely with this organization. Generally we hope to strengthen our ties with all global powers without causing any loss to any third party. Maintaining a balance is very important to us.

(Asharq Al-Awsat) You discussed with the Arab leaders whom you met issues of mutual interest. What is your countries position on the Arab causes in Palestine, Iraq, Sudan, and Lebanon?

(Nazarbayev) Kazakhstan supports the Palestinian people’s right to self-determination. It supports the search for a just settlement of the refugee question and the establishment of an independent Palestinian state. It opposes all forms of demographic changes in the occupied Palestinian territories. At the same time we denounce all forms of terrorism. We support Israel’s right to live within secure borders. Kazakhstan supports an expeditious establishment of security in Iraq. Our military engineers who work there have so far defused around 400,000 explosive devices. They have trained 250 specialists to do the same. They have also provided medical services to thousands of Iraqi civilians. At the same time we do not hide our anxiety about the slow process of restoring peace to Iraq. We believe that the United Nations should play the chief role in solving the Iraqi crisis.

Regarding the Darfur issue, our country supports the establishment of peace there and the preservation of Sudan’s territorial integrity. The difficulty of the Darfur problem lies in the fact that it has special characteristics that are different from problems in other parts of the world. The world finds it difficult to understand the Darfur issue. However, as we see it, a permanent solution might be possible on the basis of respecting the tribal customs and traditions in that region.

(Asharq Al-Awsat) When the Soviet Union collapsed, there were both Islamic republics and republics with Slavic or European cultures. The latter countries have succeeded in quickly developing democratic systems of government while the former Soviet republics that had an Islamic culture did not quickly adopt pluralistic methods of transferring power. They did not open up to the Western style of government. Does this reflect the special character of the Islamic culture in government and administration?

(Nazarbayev) We are different from the Slavic countries because we did not have a democratic tradition from the start. Kazakhstan was under Russian control for 150 years followed by 70 years under the control of the Soviet Union. Nevertheless it did not lag behind the Slavic countries in political and economic reforms. It did not lag behind Belarus or the Ukraine. Our neighbors in Central Asia were somewhat slower in this respect. Meanwhile we always like to explain that Kazakhstan is a Muslim country with special customs, traditions, culture, and history. We cannot accept the models of other countries. Independence was the most important issue for us. We had to think of that. The other things could come later.

(Asharq Al-Awsat) Where were you on the day that the USSR collapsed? How did you react to the sudden collapse?

(Nazarbayev) It was not a surprise to me. I had made preparations for that day. At that time I was prime minister of the Kazakhstani Soviet Republic. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev offered me the post of Soviet prime minister but I refused. I knew that the USSR had very little time left and that the hour of collapse was imminent. We declared Kazakhstan’s independence and I became its first president.

(Asharq Al-Awsat) Did you have any apprehensions before you made that step? Did you consult with your family at that time?

(Nazarbayev) I felt no fear at all. The matter was clear to me. I did not consult with my wife. There are times in a man’s life when he has to make decisions alone and in line with calculations that no one else might understand.

(Asharq Al-Awsat) You have three daughters, I believe. The eldest is Darija, the middle daughter is Dinara, and the youngest is Aliya. Do they work in politics?

(Nazarbayev) Yes, I have three daughters. In my opinion each of them has succeeded in finding her own path in life. The eldest, Darija, graduated from Moscow University. Her field is history. She started working with the media, got interested in politics, and is now a journalist. As you know, this profession teaches you independence in thought and behavior. In time she got involved in politics and wishes to help me. She has succeeded in this. She formed a political party called Asar, which has enriched the country’s party life. Last year this party merged with Otan, the party that I lead. It is the biggest and ruling party in Kazakhstan. Darija now has a senior post in the party and is a member of parliament.

The middle daughter, Dinara, is not interested in politics but in educational issues. She is very active. Her chairmanship of the education fund has contributed to the development of high-quality education in middle schools. She is also interested in developing higher education in the country. The youngest daughter, Aliya, belongs to the new generation. She finished her schooling in Switzerland and went to college in the United States where she studied economics and business administration. She now hopes to work in administration. Perhaps as she grows older she might become more inclined to work in politics. This is not clear so far.

(Asharq Al-Awsat) If Darija, for example, runs for president, would you object?

(Nazarbayev) How can you prevent your grown-up children from doing what they want? According to my information, she is not thinking of this now. I have a piece of advice for her: Do not seek political office.

(Asharq Al-Awsat) According to Kazakhstani reports, your country achieved a 10 percent growth rate last year. It has also succeeded in attracting foreign investments totaling $31 billion since 2005. You also succeeded in raising the per capita income to nearly $3,000. How did you succeed in doing this after many years of centralized Soviet rule?

(Nazarbayev) Our government estimates that the per capita income in 2007 will be $6,700 according to domestic, not global estimates. The economy has been growing at the stable rate of 10 percent for the seventh successive year. The size of foreign investments has reached $50 billion. Kazakhstan is rebuilding its economy. The citizens are becoming more active in small and midsize projects. Furthermore we need to take the human factor into account. Our citizens have a high level of education. After years of a closed government system the people are now able to fulfill their potential and we have become an optimistic society. All these factors have played a dynamic role in our economic development.

(Asharq Al-Awsat) You were once a member of the Komsomol, the Communist Youth League. You grew up in it and rose in the ranks until you became a senior member of the Kazakhstani Communist Party. How did you succeed on the ideological level in changing from a senior communist party official, who believed in communist thought and worked to implement its theories, into a leader who believes in openness and adopts free market economic policies? What happened and how did it happen? Did you undergo an ideological transformation or did you not believe in the Soviet experiment from the start?

(Nazarbayev) I grew up in a rural family. My parents were poor and I was always preoccupied with helping them. The path that I followed as a young man was the only path that was open to all young men then. The transformation was very difficult. I chose a difficult path from the start. I studied at a technical college and then I studied in the city of Dnipropetrovsk in Ukraine, where I obtained a diploma in mineralogy. I worked for several years at the Karjenda smelting factory. Later I graduated from Moscow’s School of Political Studies, the place from where the rising elite of the Soviet Communist Party came. We studied economics and political science. I then embarked on official party work. If I had continued on the same path after independence, we would not have achieved what we have done in Kazakhstan today.

After the Soviet Union was dismantled, and learning from my background in the Soviet Union, I laid down the rule of “seek learning all your life.” I invited advisers from the United States, Europe, and all the Arab countries. I worked with them constantly. I studied economic rules all over again and acquainted myself with the economic system of other countries. For this reason we did not lag behind. I had not previously studied, however, how to lead a recently independent modern country. I succeeded by practicing the work in actual fact as president of Kazakhstan.

(Asharq Al-Awsat) You have visited the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Now you are visiting Egypt for the second time. How would you describe Kazakhstan’s economic and political relations with the Arab world?

(Nazarbayev) President Hosni Mubarak made an official visit to Kazakhstan in the second half of last year. Now I am making an official visit to Egypt. We arrived at positive results in the fields of economy and direct air transport. We are exporting wheat to Egypt. We have a joint businessmen council and are planning to form joint companies. I met with many businessmen here and we will form a joint economic committee. There is no disagreement in the field of politics or the economy.

(Asharq Al-Awsat) The size of trade between Kazakhstan and the Arab countries does not yet reflect the significant importance of Kazakhstan and the Arab world’s economic potential.

(Nazarbayev) Yes, this is true. I am making this visit to increase trade with the Arab countries and develop relations with them.

(Asharq Al-Awsat) Are there any clear prospects to develop the volume of trade with the Arab world in the coming year? Could you talk to us about that?

(Nazarbayev) The volume of trade between Egypt and Kazakhstan is $9,000,000. We expect this to reach $100 million this year, that is, a tenfold increase. We expect trade to grow with the other Arab countries as well.

(Asharq Al-Awsat) In earlier remarks you stated that you can submit initiatives to carry out rapprochement between the east and West through a dialogue of cultures. What type of initiatives will these be? Would you please submit some ideas through Al-Sharq al-Awsat? What in your opinion are the factors that help Kazakhstan to carry out this role?

(Nazarbayev) Kazakhstan is the proponent of an initiative to hold a conference of religious leaders based on the idea of reducing frictions among the adherents of the different religions. I think that Kazakhstan, where the followers of various religions live, is the suitable place to hold such a conference. I think I am right. When we held the first conference on religions in 2003, 17 delegations attended. When we held the second conference last year, 28 delegations came from various countries. For your information, religious leaders were not opposed to the fact that a secular leader should conduct the dialogue. Indeed it was more useful.

(Asharq Al-Awsat) I understand then that you caution against mixing religion with politics and believe that Iran’s religious inclinations stood behind its tendency to arm itself. You favor the idea of separation of church and state, is that not so?

(Nazarbayev) It is the worst thing when religion intrudes into political affairs. After the revolution, Iran began to mix political power with religion. The same thing happened when the Soviet Union entered Afghanistan. Politics became mixed with religion then. Religion does not change. It is politicians who change. How can you mix changeable things with something eternal? We need to explain our attitudes to US politicians and other politicians in the West. We have our own culture, customs, and traditions. We cannot become like the Americans or other Westerners. Every nation seeks to develop but every country has its own special characteristics. The most important thing to us here is to maintain our stability and entrench our independence.

(Asharq Al-Awsat) To what extent do your views agree with the official Arab position regarding Iran’s nuclear file? In your personal view, how can this problem be solved?

(Nazarbayev) Like any other country Iran has the right to develop nuclear power for peaceful purposes. There is no dispute over this. Today the international community has suspicions about Iran’s nuclear program. Heightening tensions in this region threatens global peace. It will also complicate matters in the Middle East and lead to an arms race.