ASTANA – Washington-based Caspian Policy Center hosted Jan. 4 a roundtable discussing the bilateral ties between Kazakhstan and the United States and the regional dynamics. U.S. Ambassador to Kazakhstan Daniel N. Rosenblum participated in the discussion.
Rosenblum underlined that the United States has prioritized two things in its relationship with Kazakhstan – stability and sovereignty. The United States was one of the first countries to recognize Kazakhstan’s independence in 1991.
“What is our national security interest? I tend to summarize it in two words: stability and sovereignty. The main strategic goals we have had since 1991, since independence for this region, is to ensure that the countries of the region are stable and do not become failed states that then result in other spillover effects that come back to hit us and directly affect our national security,” said Rosenblum, who began his mission in Kazakhstan in October 2022. Before that, he served as the U.S. Ambassador to Uzbekistan from 2019 to 2022 and as Deputy Assistant Secretary for Central Asia in the State Department’s Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs from 2014 to 2018.
Four lines of effort
U.S. efforts to help the region maintain stability and sovereignty have four main lines of effort, noted Rosenblum.
“One is on the political and diplomatic front, where we work to try to find common interests where we can, together with the countries of the region, advocate for certain policies internationally. Probably the best mechanism we have to do that today is the so-called C5+1 diplomatic platform,” said the ambassador.
The second line of effort, he noted, is in security, including border security, counterterrorism, and addressing transnational threats.
“The third line of effort is economic one. That’s all about building more trade and investment ties, helping countries and helping Kazakhstan in this case with any internal reforms that it undertakes, but where we can provide technical assistance and other things to help that be more successful,” said Rosenblum.
One of the lines of U.S. engagement in Kazakhstan also focuses on the human dimension. Rosenblum mentioned the human rights action plan signed by President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev in December.
“The President announced in December a new human rights Initiative for the next two years that will focus on a lot of issues that we care about, including domestic violence and trafficking of persons,” said Rosenblum, urging, however, greater political competition and political pluralism in the country.
He noted the reforms the country’s leadership has undertaken since the unrest in January 2022.
“I think from the government’s perspective, most of those reforms have already been implemented. They had to do with constitutional changes, changes in the electoral system, and holding the presidential and then parliamentary elections. Some of them are longer-term things that have to do with decentralization and giving more power, resources and authority to local governments. That’s still unfolding,” said Rosenblum, who had a meeting with President Tokayev on Dec. 22 in Akorda.
He acknowledged a “hearty debate” internationally and in Kazakhstan, about whether the political reforms changed anything regarding the political power balance.
“I think we have to give some time to see it. Of course, one of the most significant things that President Tokayev talks about a lot is the only once seven-year presidential term,” he added.
He also underscored the increased attention to economic reforms in Kazakhstan, referring to Tokayev’s state-of-the-nation address in September 2023, which primarily focused on the economy.
Ambassador Rosenblum noted “significant progress” across all areas with Kazakhstan, with a culminating moment being the C5+1 meeting in New York in September.
The C5+1 diplomatic format commenced in 2015 with an overarching goal to enhance dialogue and cooperation between Central Asia and the United States.
“To be honest, it was a day that I never necessarily thought what I would see. I was involved in the first C5+1 meeting in Samarkand back in 2015. We’ve come a long way, and since then a lot has changed in the region. But the fact that we were able to get the leaders sitting at the table, and also issuing a joint statement, which was very substantive and had a lot of specific initiatives, is an amazing accomplishment,” said the ambassador.
Before the presidential summit, the dialogue platform advanced through engagement at the ministerial level, expert meetings, and thematic working groups on the economy, energy and environment, and security.
Rosenblum noted Kazakhstan’s crucial role as a “catalyst” in this effort.
“It is not always easy to overcome some of the tensions and the conflicts that exist among the countries and get them all to sit down together. It takes someone pushing. Kazakhstan has been that consistent pusher before 2015,” said Rosenblum.
Trade and investment
Rosenblum is optimistic about trade and investment dynamics. Though final figures for the year are yet to become available, he noted the two countries reached a $3 billion mark in bilateral trade in 2022.
According to Kazakhstan’s Bureau of National Statistics, bilateral trade between January and October last year hit $3.25 billion, with exports reaching $1.1 billion and imports – $2.2 billion.
The United States is the second largest investor in Kazakhstan after the Netherlands. The ambassador said American investments reached $5 billion in Kazakhstan in 2023.
“We put a big focus on 2023 and began to make progress together with other partners on developing the so-called Middle Corridor, the Trans Caspian route. That was another economic priority for the government and us, as well,” said Rosenblum.
The development of the corridor, which starts from Southeast Asia and China, runs through Kazakhstan, the Caspian Sea, Azerbaijan, and further to European countries, has been under increased attention over the past few years, particularly since Western countries began to look after alternative routes bypassing Russia.
The volume of cargo transportation along the route surged by 88% in the first nine months of 2023, reaching two million tons.
“The key challenge to developing the Middle Corridor and making it a viable alternative is to increase the speed of goods moving to lower the costs. Obviously, those are the two elements that make it competitive,” said Rosenblum.
He emphasized the need to prioritize regional cooperation in achieving these goals, adding that such coordination, “will require the countries of the region to cooperate and harmonize their standards and their procedures for the movement of goods.”
It is up to the countries of the region to reach the necessary agreements, but what international partners, including the United States, can do is assist in developing the infrastructure necessary to facilitate the movement of goods.
In June 2023, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development published a study that identified key priority infrastructure investment needs in all five Central Asian countries to improve the route significantly. The experts estimated the investments at €18.5 billion ($20.2 billion). These investment needs relate to railway and road network rehabilitation and modernization, rolling stock expansion, port capacity enhancements, improvements to border crossing points, and multimodal logistics centers.
“On the hard infrastructure, there’s a lot of interest on the part of the international financial institutions. (…) The European Union has a huge interest and stake in that,” said Rosenblum.
The EU is expected to host the Global Gateway Investors Forum on Sustainable Transport Connectivity between Europe and Central Asia on Jan. 29-30 in Brussels discussing the Middle Corridor.
“The United States will be there participating in that forum. The hope is that countries will actually make pledges towards specific projects at that event,” said Rosenblum.
Regarding the Western sanctions imposed against Russia, Kazakhstan has made a visible effort to comply with U.S. and international sanctions against Russia, Kazakhstan’s key trade partner.
“Since the sanctions were first imposed, back in 2022, Kazakhstan’s record is a good one, both in terms of their ability to prevent sanctions evasion and, also, making sure that they are complying with all the sanctions when it comes to their domestic companies, relationships with Russian companies, Russian banks, and so on,” said ambassador Rosenblum.
Ambassador Rosenblum sees the United States headed in two directions.
“One is maintaining that level of engagement. Having another leader-level meeting. I know that Kazakhstan is quite interested and pushing us to commit to the same thing at the next UNGA. [United Nations General Assembly]. It will be complicated because it’s an election year for us. Hopefully, that can happen, and then it becomes a sort of a tradition,” he said.
The second direction, Rosenblum added, is to see that the “substantive commitments get realized, and then grow into other things.”
Specifically, he highlighted the proposed B5+1 meeting, “which is sort of a private sector parallel structure [to the C5] of business associations and U.S. businesses,” to discuss Central Asia as a regional market.
The other commitment is a critical minerals dialogue, where the United States also has a “very strong strategic interest.”