A Good Chance to Become Better Known as a ‘Good Country’

The results of a recent European opinion poll commissioned by the Eurasian Council on Foreign Affairs show some positive trends in the perception of Kazakhstan in five key European powers, finding more support than opposition for Kazakhstan’s bid for a UN Security Council seat and finding fewer respondents who reported being completely unaware of positive changes in the country. Respondents were also more likely to view the country more positively when they were told of positive actions Kazakhstan had taken in nuclear nonproliferation, environmental recovery and institutional reforms.

The poll, conducted by London’s ICM Research, interviewed 1,000 18-64-year-olds in France, Germany, the U.K., Italy and Spain in September of this year. The results were announced last month, and compared with the results of a 2013 EU Opinion Research project commissioned by Kazakhstan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, it seems that Kazakhstan is becoming, if not better known, at least less unknown, with fewer respondents reporting that they knew nothing of the country at all (31 percent, down from 36 percent last year).

Kazakhstan continues to be more positively perceived than its Central Asian neighbours, the poll found, and only slightly less positively perceived than Georgia and Russia. (Subjects felt slightly more warmth for Kazakhstan than they did for Iran, slightly less than for fellow secular Muslim nation Turkey.) Respondents showed more interest in visiting Kazakhstan than any other Central Asian nations, but less than in visiting Russia, Turkey or Georgia. There is room for improvement in the country’s image as a tourist destination.

Respondents were asked specifically about Kazakhstan’s bid for a seat on the UN Security Council, and, in good news for the country, slightly more respondents (16 percent) said they supported Kazakhstan’s bid rather than opposed it (14 percent). The majority neither supported nor opposed the bid. Opposition was highest in Germany (23 percent), while support was highest in Italy (25 percent). All members of the United Nations will be voting for Kazakhstan to take the Security Council seat.

Respondents who reported being aware of Kazakhstan were more likely to choose negative than positive terms to describe the country, unfortunately. “Unknown” was the clear winner out of the 28 terms, with 31 percent of respondents choosing it to describe the country. It was followed by “none of these” (22 percent), “struggling” (21 percent, down from 27 percent), “unstable” (20 percent, down from 26 percent) and “troubled” (19 percent, down from 22 percent). However, 19 percent described the country as “improving.” Seventeen percent of respondents also called the country “backward,” most (29 percent) from Germany, where Kazakhstan seems to have an image problem.

Germany, a major trading partner and a country often cited as a role model in environmental and educational initiatives, is relatively active in business in Kazakhstan, particularly in environmental technologies. The dynamic cooperation between the two countries raises the question of whether Kazakhstan’s less-than-positive image is due to ignorance or instead arises out of their interaction – and, if so, what can be done to increase understanding and appreciation between the populations of the two partners.

Perhaps the most interesting subject the poll covered were statements presented about Kazakh government initiatives to change respondents’ views about Kazakhstan. Subjects were more willing to improve their opinions of Kazakhstan in this year’s poll, and responded most positively to being told that Kazakhstan was a global leader in nuclear nonproliferation, with 34 percent of respondents saying that make them feel much more positively about the country.

Taking steps to increase water levels in the Aral Sea also caused a significant leap in perceptions of Kazakhstan among respondents. Other big opinion-makers included being told that Kazakhstan was cooperating with NATO on democratic, institutional and defence reforms; that the government intends to transform the country into the education hub of Central Asia; and that the country has a long tradition of religious tolerance.

With EXPO 2017 coming up, Kazakhstan has a chance to make good on its burgeoning image as an environmentally conscious young country, balancing its hydrocarbon reserves with a commitment to sustainability and renewable resources. With construction underway, the Expo City housing the event infrastructure is intended to be the world’s first energy-positive city, a great achievement in an oil-dependent nation.

Kazakhstan has recently set the relatively modest goal of getting 3 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2020 and a much more significant 50 percent by 2050. Trumpeting its environmental achievements would seem, at least according to this poll, to be as effective a way to burnish the country’s international image as are its efforts in the nuclear safety sphere.

However, wind farms in Kazakhstan are being commissioned even as the massive Russian-Kazakh Eurasia hydrocarbon exploration project is being launched in Kazakhstan’s oil rich Caspian region. With the recent government restructuring splitting the functions of the former Ministry of Environment and Water Resources between the Ministry of Agriculture and the new Ministry of Energy, questions remain as to how some environmental protection activities will now be undertaken.

In an Oct. 31 article for the International Institute for Environment and Development, researcher Saule Ospanova, a World Bank consultant and former UNDP programme coordinator, asks how key economic decisions will be assessed for their social and environmental impact, given the lack of instruments and existing agencies tasked with doing this job, and how dissolving a state environmental agency will affect the establishment of a cadre of environmental professionals, among other questions.

The Ministry of Energy is responsible for implementing the road map for the country’s transition to a green economy, Ospanova noted. “To what extent its activities, decisions and processes will be accessible or transparent to the public, including community and wider range of civil society organisations, remains to be seen.”

Given that environmental initiatives in Kazakhstan, like rehabilitating the Aral Sea, are a potent tool for elevating international opinion, it must be hoped that these efforts will be genuine, effective, and not only transparent, but publicised.

The fact that the country has nearly 40 billion barrels of oil in reserves, while clearly of great interest to energy companies the world over, was not a great source of goodwill among the European public, who were less positively moved by that fact than by learning that the country has a thriving film industry. Forums, chairmanships, conferences and athletic competitions were also least likely to have a positive impact. This finding dovetails with recent discussions in the Kazakh media and legislature about the efficacy of hosting large forums and conferences.

The poll shows that Kazakhstan is having some success in drawing the world’s attention to its remarkable transition from a struggling, post-Soviet state to a middle-income country currently developing its own official development assistance programme. The country has taken a clear moral stand on nuclear nonproliferation, and is beginning to reap the dividends from that decision. As it seeks to take a larger role on the world stage, publicising similarly humane, transparent and effective policies on environmental, educational and democratic development can be expected to have the same results.

Taken together, the results of the poll show that Kazakhstan is making some, if not yet definitive, progress, in making people in other countries more aware of what it does for the world, or, as Simon Anholt, the author of a Good Country Index puts it, what it does as a good country. Clearly, more work needs to be done both in terms of contributing more for the common good of the world and in terms of telling others what Kazakhstan is doing.