When Kazakhstan took its first steps in the world as an independent country 25 years ago, it had many challenges to overcome. At home, the economy was in a bad state, public services were seriously under-funded and the ethnic and religious mix of the population could have been a recipe for tensions in a society where problems had, for many years, been swept under the carpet.
Looking beyond Kazakhstan’s borders, the future seemed no less daunting. Despite its huge size, few people outside the region could point to Kazakhstan on a map. Even fewer would have given any thought to how the new country might make its own way in the world.
The country was located in an area which was considered remote, unstable and had large, powerful neighbours. It had to contend with an unwanted nuclear legacy in terms of both the arsenal it had inherited and the health and environmental damage a half century of nuclear weapons testing had caused.
These challenges at home and abroad explain why Foreign Minister Erlan Idrissov, addressing the United Nations General Assembly in September, was characteristically honest when he spoke of international doubts that the new country could survive, let alone, thrive. There was nothing inevitable about Kazakhstan’s progress over the last 25 years.
It was a gentle reminder of the background against which Kazakhstan today should be judged. It was also an important reason for confidence that the country can overcome the undoubted barriers to its ambitions for the future.
A symbol of the distance Kazakhstan has travelled since its birth as a modern, sovereign nation is in the countries to be represented at a high-level conference in Astana next week, “25 Years of Independence of the Republic of Kazakhstan: Outcomes. Accomplishments. Vision for the Future.” Senior politicians and leading academics from China, Russia, the United States, Germany, Finland, Turkey, Poland and Sweden among others are coming together to share their thoughts on Kazakhstan’s 25th anniversary.
Each of these nations are among those which have forged strong economic and political partnerships with Kazakhstan. In fact, the strength and breadth of these relationships has been one of the most striking achievements of the last quarter of a century and will provide an interesting area for the conference to discuss.
Looking around the world, it is hard to think of many countries that can match Kazakhstan’s success in building such close ties with such a wide range of countries. They have been the building blocks of a foreign policy which has enabled Kazakhstan to play an increasingly influential role on the world stage and will see the country take its place on the United Nations Security Council in the new year.
They are ties, too, which have been based on Kazakhstan’s strong commitment to cooperation, dialogue and peace. It is a commitment all the more powerful for having repeatedly been seen in action as well as in words.
Kazakhstan’s commitment to peace, for example, was shown in the early decision to close the Semipalatinsk test site and to renounce nuclear weapons. It has given Kazakhstan the authority to help lead the international campaign to end nuclear testing and move towards a world free of nuclear weapons.
Kazakhstan’s commitment to dialogue has been shown by Kazakhstan’s repeated willingness to act as a mediator to defuse conflicts as well as the country’s efforts to bring the great religions together. Here, too, one can point to the young nation’s success in having shaped a stable and harmonious society from people of so many different origins and faiths.
Kazakhstan’s commitment to co-operation has been highlighted by the unwavering support it has given to the United Nations and to other international bodies so countries can come together to find solutions to Kazakhstan’s common problems. Kazakhstan’s invitation to host the IAEA low-enriched uranium fuel bank, accepted by the international community, is just one example where co-operation has been turned into practical action.
Kazakhstan’s world, of course, is very different than in 1991. We have seen huge political, economic and technological changes which show no sign of slowing up. But this uncertainty makes the goals of peace, dialogue and co-operation even more important. As the conference will discuss, they must remain the guiding lights for Kazakhstan as we prepare for the next stage of our development as a nation.