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Remarks for the Atlantic Council Conference on Twenty Years of Kazakhstan’s Independence and U.S.-Diplomatic Relations

Robert O. Blake, Jr.
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs
Washington, DC
January 31, 2012

It is an honor and a pleasure to join you today for this discussion and celebration of Kazakhstan’s twentieth anniversary of independence and the wide-ranging and deep cooperation between the United States and Kazakhstan.

The United States and Kazakhstan have enjoyed twenty years of dynamic and growing partnership. We have worked closely and cooperatively together, starting on December 25, 1991 when then-Secretary of State James Baker visited Almaty to meet with President Nazarbayev and establish diplomatic relations between our countries.

Twenty years later, we have accomplished much, but see great scope to do more. When they meet tomorrow, Secretary Clinton and Foreign Minister Kazykhanov will discuss how our two nations can strengthen further our strategic partnership in the years to come.

Cooperation on Nuclear Nonproliferation and Energy

From the very first days, our relations with Kazakhstan focused on integrating Kazakhstan into the world community and helping it to deal with the many challenges of a new nation. First among those was nuclear non-proliferation since newly independent Kazakhstan inherited responsibility for a broad array of nuclear weapons and other arms.

Many people feared in the collapse of the Soviet Union the potential for a new and increasingly dangerous era that could have triggered a wave of nuclear weapons proliferation, creating untold dangers, instability, and risks.

Thanks in part to our close cooperation that did not happen. Key to this outcome was President Nazarbayev’s firm decision to make Kazakhstan the first country voluntarily to relinquish nuclear weapons and protect stockpiles of other dangerous materials. Not only did Kazakhstan transfer those weapons out of Kazakhstan in a responsible way, but it ratified the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Since then, we have worked to reduce other risks of nuclear proliferation, including helping decommission the Soviet-era nuclear reactor in Aktau that produced weapons-grade plutonium, and moving tons of spent fuel, which could easily be used to produce nuclear weapons, to secure, long-term storage.

Today Kazakhstan remains a key player in non-proliferation cooperation as it meets the challenges of the 21st century, both bilaterally with the United States and increasingly multilaterally.

It serves as a model to the world of how a country can gain — not lose — security as a result of ridding itself of nuclear weapons.

Energy is another important building block of our bilateral relationship. As the Soviet Union began to dissolve, U.S. energy companies took what, at the time, was an economic and political risk by investing in oil and gas development in Kazakhstan. The risk paid off, producing a partnership between a stable, responsible government and international energy firms with the necessary capital and expertise to help unlock Kazakhstan’s energy resources.

Early Reforms Spur Economic Growth and Investment

Again, President Nazarbayev recognized the challenge and opportunities for his young country and initiated macro-economic reforms that set the country firmly on the path toward a market economy. The decision was not an easy one, and the country went through a painful period of adjustment in the 1990s. However, these reforms created what is today one of the strongest economies in the former Soviet Union.

For twenty years, Kazakhstan has also attracted considerable international investment, particularly in the extractive industries, that has created jobs and prosperity. Kazakhstan stands out in the region for substantially reducing poverty and laying a solid foundation for the creation of a real middle class.

The Kazakhstani government’s wise decision to create a National Oil Fund has served to protect the country against the effects of the financial crisis and to help ensure oil revenues are invested for the future of Kazakhstan’s people.

To further diversify its economy and stimulate further economic reforms, Kazakhstan soon hopes to join the World Trade Organization and recently announced it will adhere to the principles of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s (OECD) Declaration on International Investments and Multinational Enterprises.

WTO accession and participation in the OECD will help and encourage Kazakhstan to make the structural changes necessary for it to take advantage of regional and global integration efforts, and to spur its own domestic output and exports.

The Bolashak Generation

Kazakhstan recognized economic success would rest on investments in education, particularly higher education. The Bolashak scholarship program has provided thousands of young Kazakhstani undergraduates and post-graduates education in high-quality universities around the world, including many in the United States.

The academic success of these young Kazakhstanis and Kazakhstan’s growing economic and regional weight made it of interest to American universities. It was no surprise, then, that the newly established Nazarbayev University in Astana has partnered with top- tier international universities, including Duke, Rensselaer and other U.S. institutions, to provide students in Kazakhstan with education that meets international standards.

The close partnership that both Nazarbayev University and the Kazakhstan Institute of Management have with top-ranked U.S. universities as well as with two Department of Energy national laboratories speaks volumes about the robust nature of the ongoing cooperation and government focus on investment in education and the development of Kazakhstan’s youth. The planned opening of a Carnegie International Institute for Peace program at Al Farabi University represents yet another example of advanced scholarly cooperation.

The United States has been fully supportive of Kazakhstan’s commitment to international education. We are pleased to host Kazakhstani students at our many excellent colleges and universities, and we look forward to Kazakhstan’s continued considerable investment in international education to complement the large investment we have made through our own professional and educational exchange programs, such as the Fulbright, Muskie, Future Leaders, and International Visitor Leadership programs.

A focus on education, technology, and innovation continues to be a priority in Kazakhstan. Kazakhstan was the first country in Central Asia to sign a bilateral science and technology agreement with the United States. Our bilateral science working group held its first meeting in 2011, and is now developing ideas for cooperation.

Kazakhstan Emerges as Leader in International Community

Progress on education and innovation are part of Kazakhstan’s welcome efforts to position itself as a leader in the international community. Kazakhstan has assumed a much more prominent role on the world stage as the 2010 Chairman-in-Office of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the Chair in 2011 of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation.

Kazakhstan increasingly is assuming an important role as a donor with considerable assets and expertise. It made a very significant contribution to stabilizing Iraq by sending troops to assist the coalition’s efforts with demining. Today, Kazakhstan is supporting ISAF in Afghanistan by facilitating ground transportation and over-flights. It is also contributing to U.S. and international efforts to stabilize and rebuild Afghanistan through its investment of $50 million dollars to educate in Kazakhstani universities Afghanistan’s next generation of leaders.

Additionally, last October, Kazakhstan delivered over 5,000 tons of food and other supplies to Turkey after the devastating earthquake in that country. We look forward to working with Kazakhstan as it develops its work through KazAID and other mechanisms.

At the Istanbul Conference last November, Foreign Minister Kazykhanov affirmed Kazakhstan’s commitment to improving regional cooperation, especially in support of Afghanistan’s stability. Regional leaders agreed on a set of ambitious confidence building measures and a process of regular consultation to ensure implementation.

At Istanbul, Kazakhstan also took a lead in supporting the New Silk Road vision, with projects such as constructing the Central Asia Regional Economic Cooperation transportation corridor across Kazakhstan that will link China with Europe, and a north-south highway linking Central and South Asia.

We welcome Kazakhstan’s ratification of an agreement with the Asian Development Bank January 16 to finance reconstruction of 790 kilometers of the CAREC transportation network that will connect Kazakhstan with its Central Asian neighbors, Russia, Azerbaijan, and Turkey, across the Caspian Sea.

Such transport and other networks will help spur the trade and investment that can catalyze the regional integration everyone agrees will be essential to helping Afghanistan move to a trade — rather than aid — based economy and expand opportunities for the citizens of Central Asia.

Political Reform

Despite’s Kazakhstan’s undeniable progress over the last 20 years, there remain important steps that must be taken to fully ensure Kazakhstan’s long-term stability and prosperity. President Nazarbayev has often spoken about the three goals he set for the country when Kazakhstan became independent: to build a truly sovereign and independent state, to jump start the economy, and to liberalize the political system.

Kazakhstan has advanced rapidly in pursuit of the first two goals, although the country still faces challenges with respect to economic diversification. But the third goal remains largely unmet, despite Kazakhstan’s stated commitments to reform and to uphold human rights and democratic principles.

At the OSCE Ministerial in Vilnius December 6, Secretary Clinton stated that even as the United States seeks cooperation with Kazakhstan and other Central Asian nations on Afghanistan, energy, and trade, we will continue to encourage our Central Asian partners, both governments and civil society, to pursue democratic reforms and improve respect for fundamental human rights.

We believe a prosperous, peaceful future for Kazakhstan – and an increasingly deep bilateral relationship between our two countries – will benefit from meaningful progress to institutionalize democracy and ensure respect for the human rights of all Kazakhstan’s citizens.

A more open and dynamic political system would reflect the maturity of the country, and provide the institutional basis for long-term stability, predictability, and development that the people of Kazakhstan deserve.

We hope that Kazakhstan’s newly-elected multi-party Mazhilis will shape a legislative process that reflects the needs and desires of all Kazakhstani people. Through transparency, lively debates, and public hearings, the Mazhilis can take bigger steps toward political openness by considering the opinions of all political factions and segments of society. Respect for freedoms of expression, association assembly, and religious belief is necessary to undergird social dialogue and vibrant democratic as well as economic development.

We also hear and support important voices from within and outside of the government of Kazakhstan calling for greater independence of the media and the judiciary, space for civil society to operate without undue hindrance, and an electoral system and laws to ensure fair elections that fully meet international standards.

President Nazarbayev has the opportunity today to demonstrate the same far sighted leadership to build democracy that he showed in renouncing nuclear weapons and initiating market reforms. The people of Kazakhstan will be the first beneficiaries, but Kazakhstan would also be a powerful example for the wider region.


In conclusion, over the past twenty years, the United States and Kazakhstan have developed a genuine and increasingly strategic partnership. President Obama and President Nazarbayev reaffirmed that strategic partnership in April 2010, declaring our two nations’ commitment to a shared vision of stability, prosperity and democratic reform in Central Asia and the broader region. A partnership is an ongoing process. I am confident that our foundation is solid, prospects are bright, and that it will continue far into the future.