I would like to start by thanking the Chairman of the Senate, Mr. Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, for having invited me to your beautiful country and the capital city of Astana. Mr. Tokayev has called Switzerland his home for the last two and a half years where he assumedthe crucial and trusted responsibility as Director General of the United Nations Office at Geneva. He has done a brilliant job.
I have only two and a half days to discover Kazakhstan. But I already know that I must come back. Since ice hockey is part of my life, I absolutely have to see a game of Barys Astana as soon as possible. Barys Astana and Hockey Club Ambrì-Piotta which I preside, bear almost the same blue and white dresses. But whereas Ambri and Piotta are two tiny villages situated 1,000 meters above sea level in the subtropical Swiss Canton of Ticino and with some 500 inhabitants, Astana is located 350 meters above sea level and has already 1,500 times more inhabitants.
In ice hockey, as in life, it is crucial to consistently anticipate where the puck is going to be and execute the right move at the right time. Already after a brief stay here in Astana, I can clearly see where the puck is going to be. I must say that I am truly impressed by the city that strongly moves towards the future. Twenty years ago known as Akmola, Astana now appears to visitors like me as a state of the art “Manhattan” in the heart of Kazakhstan.
Capital relocation has been done hundreds of times throughout history. But hardly any relocation has so swiftly achieved so much in sustainable political, social and economic benefits as Astana. And this Capital City is still younger than the average age of the Kontinental Hockey League players! I can only imagine the political vision and determination it took to achieve this beautiful project. In this regard, today’s Astana epitomizes the impressive evolution of your country over the last two decades as an independent nation.
But Astana not only reflects the domestic achievements of Kazakhstan, it also testifies the increasingly important role of your country in the international arena. Both regionally and globally, Kazakhstan has become a strong and reliable partner. And Astana, as its capital, is today well known for hosting important international congresses and initiatives in particular fields. This was illustrated for example by the 2010 OSCE Summit in the newly built Palace of Independence and also by the Congress of World Religions in the elegant pyramidal Palace of Peace and Reconciliation. Astana has both the attraction and the capacity to bring together people from all over the world. With its fine Eurasian architecture which again and again has involved world class architects and with its harmonious combination of different cultural traditions, it symbolizes a genuine bridge between West and East. This potential to build bridges, Astana has in common with Geneva, which of course reflects the role of Switzerland in the international arena.
Let me add one more important characteristic of this city: Astana also stands for the bright future of Kazakhstan. I would especially like to point out the World Exposition, which will take place here in 2017. By choosing the topic of “Future Energy: Action for Global Sustainability”, your country has proven to be aware of both the challenges and the responsibilities that come with the ongoing evolution towards becoming a leading economic nation.
Switzerland is a neutral country. The concept of armed neutrality dates back to 1515 and its international usefulness was officially recognized in 1815 as being in the interest of the big European powers. Committed neutrality has become key for Switzerland’s domestic and foreign policy. In 1848, after a short civil war, Switzerland adopted its federal constitution. It guaranteed an over-proportional parliamentary participation of the defeated party and showed a sense of equilibrium and balance that is also deeply rooted in the concept of active Swiss neutrality. This equilibrium can be felt in International Geneva and I would like to thank Kazakhstan for its ongoing support in favor of a strong International Geneva as one of the main centers of global governance.
Switzerland enjoys a long-standing tradition as a welcoming country that fosters humanism, cultural exchanges and commerce. A number of geopolitical reasons behind this tradition can also be found in Kazakhstan: The Swiss Alps and the Kazakh plains have developed in its inhabitants a spirit of freedom and independence which is even encapsulated in the etymological origin of the word “Kazakh”. Both countries are located at the crossroads of historic communication routes and both are landlocked with no access to the open sea. They are market economies, open to the outside, dependent on exports and therefore on market outlets and adequate transport routes.
As the largest economy in Central Asia, Kazakhstan continues to experience strong economic growth. On its vast territory, it boasts immense riches in terms of natural resources. It possesses enormous oil reserves with the potential to become a world-class oil exporter in the medium term. Kazakhstan is rapidly becoming a factor of energy security in Asia and Europe. It has a strategic geographical location to control oil and gas flows from Central Asia to China and Russia and Western Europe. Thus for instance, Kazakhstan has covered part of temporarily falling oil imports from the Arabic world to Switzerland. Swiss companies are active in Kazakhstan not only in the energy sector but also in the production of tools, in textile industry as well as in financial and insurance services, to name just a few. In total there are over 40 companies present. This year, a Swiss-Kazakh Business Council has been founded. I am confident that it will help boosting our mutual investments.
At the same time, Kazakhstan is a leading producer of many mineral commodities, including uranium where it is the world’s leading producer. It also has considerable agricultural potential with its vast steppe lands accommodating both livestock and grain production. It has a developed space infrastructure, which took over all launches to the International Space Station from the Space Shuttle. And Kazakhstan’s service and industrial sectors are diversifying from the extraction and processing of natural resources.
I have to admit – this is not a similarity you share with Switzerland which has only water, a bit of salt reserves and some limited farm land. Our wealth for centuries has rather been in the field of education.
There is a specificity that has contributed to comparably low unemployment rates. It is the Swiss system of vocational training. The majority of young people in the mid-teens does not choose the rather lengthy academic route when finishing the obligatory school but opts for the vocational education and training It is a dualtrack system whereby students attend classes on a part-time basis while the remaining time is spent doing an apprenticeship at a host company. This allows them to acquire on-the-job experience and practical skills. This system produces specialized individuals who work with their hands, not just with their heads. This quite often favors autonomous and fast track careers as well as business startups. It is one of Switzerland’s comparative advantages.
Last but not least, both countries have strong and important neighbors with which good relations are of utmost importance. Kazakhstan plays a key role in Eurasia as a builder of bridges: Its neighbors not only include a number of Central Asian countries but also Russia, China and Mongolia as well as the Caucasus and Iran over the Caspian Sea. Through its many contacts with all these different neighbors, Kazakhstan is in a unique position at the heart of Eurasia. It makes an important contribution as a factor of stability and equilibrium in the region.
Stability and equilibrium are similar to health: We only really become aware of it when we lose it. However, we are very much aware that Eurasian stability was a prerequisite for the prospering silk roads and similarly Switzerland was thriving in a stable European environment. So it is only evident that Kazakhstan will continue its path towards a Eurasian center of global governance with Astana as its capital.
Switzerland in 2014 and Serbia in 2015 will chair the OSCE. We are very glad that we can draw from Kazakhstan’s precious experience of its OSCE presidency in 2010. This is particularly important in the Eurasian context that is facing multiple and considerable geopolitical challenges. I know that the evolution of Afghanistan is at the forefront of the current preoccupations. At the same time, I am convinced that the overriding interest in peace and development after so many years of conflict will eventually prevail. The future is for the moderates and this is where the puck is moving.
Kazakhstan and Switzerland are also members of the same constituency group in the International Monetary Fund and in the World Bank. This is another most welcome means for deepening our partnership. Our constituency unifies countries from Europe and Central Asia. We strongly believe that this forms an indispensable bridge between the two regions. This is not only in the interest of the countries involved but also of the international community.
Considering these similarities and the advanced state of our relations, parliamentary cooperation between Switzerland and Kazakhstan should be further promoted. This would allow addressing practical challenges of mutual interest. I would love to see much more mutual parliamentarian visits to start with.
I am not only interested in fostering relations between our two parliaments but also in the hockey rink. I am happy to say that a team from Karagandy, Saryarka, has played in the ‘Torneo di Biasca’ organized by HC Ambrì-Piotta as a part of its pre-season preparation in August this year. I hope that next time we will also see Barys Astana play in my home Canton – which has ice and palm trees.
The author is President of the Council of States of Switzerland. This is an excerpted speech he delivered to the Senate of Kazakhstan on Nov. 12.