The Kazakh Journey to Success: Turning Great Games into Great Gains

The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step, so said the Chinese philosopher Laozi . He was a wise man. For those who heeded his advice, successful journeys along the famous “Silk Road,” the vast trade network started during the Han Dynasty, amassed many fortunes. The thousands of miles across Central Asia provide bountiful opportunities once again for those willing to take the first steps.

C_Naseer_Ahmad“Location, location and location,” said a wise woman at a recent event in Washington, DC. She ought to know: after all, Madeline Albright travelled the journey to the pinnacle of success as the UN Ambassador and later the US Secretary of State. Secretary Albright provided lucid arguments backed by undeniable facts about the strategic importance of Kazakhstan – based on her personal experience.

For any journey, you have to start somewhere. The intellectual journey – “Working together for a Secure Future,” the theme of the 2nd annual Kazakhstan-US Convention could not have begun at a better place. The historic Willard Intercontinental was the site of the Peace Congress in 1861, where President Abraham Lincoln stayed before the inauguration, where General Ulysses S. Grant hung his hat after the successful effort to preserve the Union and end the bloody Civil War, where Julia Ward Howe wrote the lyrics to the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” and where Martin Luther King wrote his “I have a dream” speech.

The dreams and aspirations of a young nation like Kazakhstan were articulated well by Foreign Minister Erlan Idrissov in his opening remarks. “My country remains a staunch supporter of nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation,” said Ambassador Kairat Umarov in his message entitled “Shared Goals.”

Closer and increasingly dynamic are US-Kazakhstan ties. It is a view espoused by Furkan Kosar, President of the Council of Turkic American Associations, and shared widely among the participants of the conferences as well as the speakers. Promoting purpose driven ties is the idea honed well by Fred Kempe, President, the Atlantic Council, who moderated a thoughtful session featuring speakers such as Anne Harrington, Deputy Administrator, National Nuclear Security Administration and Dan Poneman, former Deputy Secretary of Energy with a deep understanding of both the history of Kazakhstan, the region as well as the challenges and opportunities that exist along every mile.

The reward for good work is more work, said Richard E. Hoagland, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs, US Department of State. Stated another way, the journey towards success along the “new Silk Road” will take continuous and unrelenting steps towards progress.

Sidebar conversations provide useful insights often. During a conversation over coffee, a retired US Agency of International Development (USAID) executive said: “President Nazarbayev is a wise man” and went on to explain the wisdom of the decisions taken at the inception – the birth of modern Kazakhstan – and in the subsequent years to steer the country forward with a multi-vectored foreign policy and a domestic policy measured to the conditions in the world economy. “What a difference a year makes,” he continued to acknowledge the increase in confidence compared to the conference last year. His words mattered more because he was not selling anything.

Conference speeches are extremely beneficial as they educate us about things we did not know before. Good speakers engage our minds and motivate us but nothing touches our hearts more than a man who physically cannot touch us because he has no arms. If you spoke to Karipbek Kuyukov, the gifted artist who paints with his feet, like I did a couple of years ago in this very building on Kazakhstan’s National Day, you would understand the wisdom of President Nazarbayev in taking his country on a path toward progress as long distance travelers cannot afford to be weighed down by distractions or terrible risks to their people.

Talking to the youth is both refreshing and beneficial because through their prism one gets the glimpse of the future. The visiting Rumsfeld scholars from Kazakhstan as well as other Central Asian countries provide us their views of the future from their research papers and conference presentation. The most useful insight, however, came over a coffee with a bright young Kazakh wrapping up her internship in Washington. Neither the Stalinist era repression faced by her Korean grandparents nor losing her mother at age nine nor the hardships faced by her father of Ukrainian origin left any scars of resentment. Quite the opposite, the cheerful demeanor translates so well in her LinkedIn page with the simple goal “to be a part of an innovative organisation, where I can utilise my scholastic, finance, and analytical background to help people rise out of poverty and become self-sufficient.”

The prospects of reaching the journey along the new Silk Road and to reach the goals of Kazakhstan 2050 become brighter by the day with Karipbek Kuyukov and Yelena for they have the fire in the belly that despair cannot extinguish. They are the ones who will keep Kazakhstan linked in – not landlocked. And, they are the foot soldiers who will help turn great games into great gains for Kazakhstan and the region in this journey to success – step by step.

The author writes for the Diplomatic Courier and PakistanLink and is a member of the Boards of the Embassy Series and Interfaith Voices, a National Public Radio programme. He is a member of the National Press Club in Washington, DC.