Kazakhstan Time Zone UTC+06:00
Capital City Astana
Currency Kazakhstani tenge
National Day 25 October (Republic Day)
New Ambassador of Kazakhstan His Excellency Mr Magzhan Ilyassov arrived in early October following a stint as his country’s Permanent Representative at the UN (2020-22). Born in 1974, Mr Ilyassov holds a bachelor’s degree from the Kazakh State University of World Languages and International Relations and a master’s degree from the Kennedy School of Public Administration at Harvard University in the United States. He is married and has three children. Mr Ilyassov has previously served in various advisory rolls to the President of Kazakhstan, including as Head of the Foreign Policy Centre, before a posting as Ambassador in the Netherlands (2016-20).
The Ambassador arrives in London at a testing time for Kazakhstan. Not only is his country finding its feet after the civil unrest in January 2022, but then came the conflict between its neighbouring Russian Federation and Ukraine. But Mr Ilyassov is candid about what has taken place and also what lies ahead.
“Kazakhstan experienced significant challenges last January that were the catalyst for our country’s transformation.” He refers to a series of mass protests that began after a sharp increase in liquefied gas prices. Demonstrations turned into violent riots, and it was reported that 227 people were killed and over 9,900 were arrested. “These events shook our country, and the investigations into what happened still continue. We wish this didn’t happen, but our President used this crisis to implement major positive changes. In his National Address on 16 March, he proposed far reaching reforms, which required amendments to one third of the country’s constitution. As a reflection of Kazakhstan’s democratic credentials, the amendments were put to a national referendum that took place on 5 June. Our citizens voted in favour of the reforms, which has led to a greater democratisation of the system of checks and balances between the branches of state power.” He continues: “Key reforms include a redistribution of powers from the President to Parliament, and the establishment of a Constitutional Court from this January. These are substantial changes, which are altering the very fabric of our society, political system and governance.”
Furthermore, the seventh Presidential elections (since independence in 1991) took place in December. “These elections were the most important in our nation’s modern history: six candidates participated, including two females running for the first time in our history. Over the years, Kazakhstan has been taking major steps towards gender equality. Elections were conducted under the highest international standards, with 641 international observers.” President Tokayev also proposed a constitutional amendment to limit the presidential term from two five-year terms to a single seven-year term and initially planned to submit his proposal to Parliament after the election. Mr Ilyassov describes this as “a breakthrough in determining democracy in Kazakhstan. The country has overcome some significant challenges in our part of the world, and all this has been done in the context of a tense geopolitical situation, which is a major achievement. The trajectory of our country looks positive, but it takes partnership, understanding and hard work.”
And Ukraine? “Kazakhstan does not approve of the causalities and warfare that has been used in Ukraine. We call for a ceasefire and attempts to find a diplomatic solution. That is our message, and we don’t know if it will be heard, but when it comes to recognition of Donetsk our president was very clear: we do not recognise this quasi state. We respect the territorial integrity of every nation as per the UN Charter.”
However, he’s pleased to clarify that Kazakhstan is helping with the humanitarian side of things. “Our government has sent three planes of humanitarian aid to Ukraine, and a lot more help has been sent by our citizens in a private capacity.” Also, over 200,000 Russian citizens crossed the border into Kazakhstan in the first two to three weeks after the mobilisation. “Many of our citizens were waiting for these people at railway stations, providing them with SIM cards, offering them a place to stay or a free ride somewhere. It was a very humane, people-to-people approach. Most of these people have transited through Kazakhstan and gone on to different destinations. Although some 55 international businesses have relocated their businesses to Kazakhstan.”
Has the war made Kazakhstan more wary of its neighbour Russia? “Although we have major concerns about the situation, we are also neighbours to the Russian Federation, and are in regular touch with their Ministry.” He continues: “Kazakhstan has been a trade and economic partner of the Russian Federation and will continue to be for many centuries to come. We are a multi-ethnic community, where Russians, Kazakhs, Koreans and Ukrainians and have all lived in peace for 31 years. We believe we are an example that you can co-exist in one society.”
Focusing on his role in London, the Ambassador reminds us that 2022 marked 30 years of bilateral relations with the UK. “We have some good foundations. Despite the challenges the world currently faces, these diplomatic relations have a good chance to upgrade on trade, economy and political ties. Here in London, we are receiving positive signals and the British Ambassador in Astana is very active.”
Indeed, Kazakhstan’s Deputy-Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Mukhtar Tileuberdi visited London and met with UK Foreign Minister James Cleverly on 20 December, in “an important event that outlines the roadmap for the next 30 years of productive activities.” The Ministers confirmed their intention to further enhance the close bilateral relationship, through: “strengthening cooperation in the political, trade and economic spheres, and also signing a new Strategic Partnership and Cooperation Agreement between Kazakhstan and the UK in 2023; holding the ninth annual session of the Kazakh-British Intergovernmental Commission on Trade, Economic, Scientific, Technical and Cultural Cooperation in London in February; and promoting inter-parliamentary cooperation in different fora, and in particular the planned visit of British parliamentarians to Kazakhstan in 2023.” The Ambassador clarifies, we want to “double the trade volume, increase investment, build stronger political ties, increase the number of British joint ventures in Kazakhstan and the number of Kazakh students studying in British universities.”
Mr Ilyassov highlights that Kazakhstan is “a trade partner that protects the rights of our investors. We are the only country in our part of the world that has established an International Financial Centre in Astana, which is governed by British Common Law.” He continues: “Our mentality is modern Eurasian. We are a multi-ethnic community and have a very open mind. One of my missions in London is to stop people in London calling Kazakhstan a former Soviet Republic. We are Eurasian.”
Since the war started, is Kazakhstan looking more Westward? The Ambassador explains: “We have found that our Western partners are looking towards us at a faster pace. But geographically, Russia will always be our neighbour, and we look to be proactive with all our partners and build on our diplomatic relations. And if you look at our neighbourhood, Kazakhstan is promoting political transformation. In many ways, we are trailblazing in Central Asia.”