16 December will mark 20 years of Kazakhstan’s independence. Two decades ago, 15 new sovereign states emerged from the collapse of the Soviet Union, each with its own identity, potential and distinct set of challenges.
Since that time, as one of these states, Kazakhstan has undergone a peaceful and stable transition from a little known Soviet republic to a fast growing economy, a recognised leader in the Central Asian region and a reliable international partner. At the outset this outcome was not a given. With a huge territory, a sparse but ethnically diverse population and much of the economy needing to be rebuilt after the breakdown of the Soviet system of economic integration, the challenges facing our country were substantial. However, thanks to steady economic development, political stability and a balanced and pragmatic foreign policy that included the voluntary surrender of the world’s fourth largest nuclear arsenal and the facilities to maintain it, we have achieved much more than we could have possibly hoped for two decades ago.
These achievements are the result of the vision and consistent leadership of President Nursultan Nazarbayev over the past 20 years who identified a path for consolidating Kazakhstan’s independence through rapid economic growth aimed at improving living standards while maintaining harmonious relations with the outside world.
Kazakhstan has the world’s sixth largest reserves of natural resources, and we have greatly benefited from them. We have attracted considerable foreign investment, with over US$13 billion invested by foreign companies in Kazakhstan in 2009, a sharp increase from US$1.2 billion in 2000. We have raised living standards and multiplied our per capita GDP by 12, from just over US$700 in 1994, to over US$9,000 in 2009. We have developed infrastructure, introduced market reforms and improved the business climate, gaining 11 places this year alone in the World Bank’s 2011 Doing Business survey, which put Kazakhstan 47th out of 183 countries. By 2016 we aim to join the so-called high income countries, increasing GDP per capita to US$15,000. At the same time, we recognise that our economy cannot continue to be based so heavily on raw materials. We need to develop light industry and other sources of value added production.
We remain convinced that Kazakhstan’s path to long-term success lies in economic diversification, regional integration and active participation in global processes. For this reason, Kazakhstan is looking ahead to the next ten years with a modernisation plan based on promoting the development of new industries, upgrading our education system and improving the business climate. For this reason too, we have joined Russia and Belarus in a Customs Union that increases the size of our market from 16 million to 170 million people. Similarly, we are working hard to achieve membership of the World Trade Organisation and hope to join by 2013. It is largely thanks to investments by foreign companies – particularly in oil, gas and mining – that we have achieved such strong economic growth and development. They provide an invaluable platform for knowledge transfers and capacity building in our domestic market. Foreign investors have contributed significantly to the modernisation of Kazakhstan’s economy and will continue to do so as we focus on diversifying investments into other economic sectors.
The UK has been a particularly active business partner for Kazakhstan over the past two decades, and has contributed substantially to our progress so far. Over 500 UK companies – from small and medium- sized enterprises to global players – generate around 7 per cent of the country’s total foreign investment. These companies and joint ventures are present across the economy, from the extractive and manufacturing industries to financial services, education and civil aviation. Our political relations are also deepening and strengthening and people-to-people contacts between Kazakhstan and the UK continue to grow. Every year, increasing numbers of students from Kazakhstan come to study in the UK, and when they return to Kazakhstan they take with them not just a degree but also friendships and a deeper understanding of Britain that will help bring our countries closer together.
Central to Kazakhstan’s development is its multi-vector foreign policy. Situated at the crossroads of Europe and Asia with three of the four BRIC countries on our doorstep, we recognise the realities of interdependence and the role our country can play as a bridge between east and west. With Russia, we share a common history, a common language and many common economic priorities. With Europe and China, we are successfully building closer economic, political and trade relations. Kazakhstan’s ‘Path to Europe’ programme has been a key element in bringing us closer to EU countries. China is an important strategic partner and we hope that the size of the Chinese market as well as Chinese investment in Kazakhstan will accelerate our efforts to diversify the economy.
In August 1991 Kazakhstan made the historic decision to shut down the nuclear test site at Semipalatinsk. Just three years later, Kazakhstan had rid itself of nuclear weapons and voluntarily given up the capability to manufacture, test and deploy nuclear weapons. No other country has matched this bold initiative, and Kazakhstan remains at the forefront of the drive for global nuclear disarmament. However, we strongly believe in the peaceful use of nuclear technologies and in particular the role of atomic energy since it is clear that global warming and other energy security pressures are going to make nuclear power an important part of the global energy mix.
Our geography and our cultural diversity are strengths rather than weaknesses. In 2010 Kazakhstan chaired the 56 nation Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the first time that a former Soviet republic had assumed this role. In 2011 we are chairing the 57 country Organisation of Islamic Cooperation. In both cases, we have been pursuing the same goals of closer regional cooperation, interreligious and intercultural dialogue, regional security, and economic development with an emphasis on finding practical non-military solutions to the problem of Afghanistan. Kazakhstan has also been a committed player in regional security organisations including the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) and the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-building Measures in Asia (CICA).
The regional security challenges facing us in Central Asia are diverse and require intense co-operation with neighbours as well as international organisations. They range from ethnic tension, as witnessed last year during the tragic events in Kyrgyzstan, to transnational crime such as drug trafficking, religious extremism and illegal migration. Some of these are directly linked to the security situation in neighbouring Afghanistan. That is why Kazakhstan is committed both through bilateral aid and regional security structures to peace-building and reconstruction in Afghanistan.
Looking back over these two decades of independence, it is fair to say that Kazakhstan has achieved some impressive results, both in its economic development and in securing its place on the international stage. We still face many challenges, but we believe that domestic political stability, steady economic reform, a balanced foreign policy and regional integration – the pillars of our success since 1991 – will continue to provide a robust framework for the country’s continued evolution over the next 20 years.