‘The future of Kazakhstan-Israel ties is very bright’
26.06.2019, Israel and the World
Newly elected Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev has very big shoes to fill. The 66-year-old career diplomat, former foreign minister and prime minister, who was elected to lead Kazakhstan earlier this month, has succeeded Nursultan Nazarbayev, 78, a political heavyweight who is considered the founder of modern Kazakhstan, and who led the rich Central Asia oil exporter for three decades.
The presidential elections were organized within weeks of Nazarbayev's decision to step down, which was announced in March. This expediency sought to preserve continuity and prevent political chaos that could destabilize the state, as similar transitions did to its neighbors.
Despite the conservative nature of Kazakh politics, which draw from a very centralized government, the elections boasted budding political pluralism: seven people vied for the presidency, including four opposition members; in a first for the country, the list of candidate included a woman – something that cannot be taken lightly in a Muslim society that, while demonstrably secular, is still very conservative; and Tokayev won only 71% of the votes. His predecessor, who last ran for president in 2015 against only two candidates, received about 98% of the votes.
Astana officials talk about "a gradual, peaceful” transition of power and members of the opposition, diplomats, and Western observers seem understanding of the need to maintain stability in the world's ninth-largest country, which is flanked by superpowers – China and Russia – that covet its many natural resources.
An orderly transition of power is doubly important given that various fundamental Islamic elements continuously push to radicalize the Muslim majority in Kazakhstan; efforts that have proven successful in neighboring Kyrgyzstan. The Kazakh administration, however, is determined not to allow religious radicalization.
These circumstances have made the presidential elections highly sensitive. The campaign and election day saw hundreds of opposition activists demonstrating near polling stations arrested by the country’s security forces, prompting the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to issue a report lamenting the “missed opportunity to install political reforms."
Tokayev understands the winds of change well. He was the first Kazakh politician to use Twitter, sometimes in less than a diplomatic manner. At the first press conference he held after his victory, he made amusing remarks that made the press burst out in laughter – very unusual behavior considering the formal nature of the event.
The fact that President chose to give his first interview with a foreign news outlet to an Israeli newspaper attests to the great importance he lends to his country’s ties with Israel – tied he said he plans to develop further as part of his desire to bolster Kazakhstan’s standing in the international community.
Tokayev, who served as director general of the United Nations in Geneva and speaks Russian, Chinese, English, and French, said he would also seek to reinforce ties with the country’s regional neighbors. “We have a lot to do. I said immediately after my election that with regard to foreign policy, we would prioritize cooperation with our neighbors – Russia and China, of course, and other Central Asian countries. Kazakhstan is open to a policy of cooperation with foreign countries, and this policy will continue."
Q: Now that you have been elected president of Kazakhstan, what do you see as your main goals and priorities for the coming years?
“I think that I have to solve a lot of problems relating to the social sphere first of all, because people are anticipating the solution of problems that concern them, especially those that relate to the standing of each country.
“Kazakhstan is a rich country, we have a lot of resources here and of course, our capital Astana [Nir-Sultan] is one of the leading countries in the post-Soviet Union era. Kazakhstan is number two after Russia. At the same time, we need to be more attentive to the socio-economic concerns of our people.”
Q: How would you describe the role of Kazakhstan in a regional and international context?
“Kazakhstan has been recognized as a leader of Central Asia, so my task is to sustain this role. We want to increase Kazakhstan’s leading role in this region, as well as beyond. I think that we have a lot of things to do, and are very positive toward cooperation with our immediate neighbors here in the region.”
Q: There are mounting disagreements between the United States and China, and between Russia and the EU. What are the implications for Central Asia?
“Kazakhstan is a very important actor in the foreign policy arena and of course, we are concerned about the confrontation between major actors like the United States and China as well as Russia, because our economy is subjected to the trade wars. We have an open economy and, of course, we feel some negative effects of the trade wars that unfortunately do occur between those countries.”
Q: How do you see the future of relations between Kazakhstan and Israel? Will you be visiting Israel soon?
“Yes, of course I will visit Israel. I had the privilege to lead the delegation from Kazakhstan to Israel when it marked the 60th anniversary of independence and establishment of the State of Israel. I was very impressed by what I had seen during the celebrations.
“I used to have a very close friendly relationship with late President Shimon Peres when he was foreign minister and later president, he received me one time in Jerusalem. I think that we have a very bright future.
“I will be doing my best to increase and facilitate the cooperation between our countries. A couple of years ago, I had a meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu when he came here on his first visit, and he was really impressed with Kazakhstan. I had a nice talk with him about a number of issues that are on the agenda of our mutual cooperation. My assessment, my attitude to Israel is absolutely positive.”
Q: In what fields would you like to see more cooperation between both countries?
“I think that we should have more cooperation in the area of technology. Israel is one of the leading countries in the world in terms of advanced technology and Kazakhstan, I think would be very delighted to enjoy some real products of the technological developments of Israel, so I believe that this kind of cooperation would be quite helpful. … Kazakhstan is very open to cooperation.”
Q: You have been active in the United Nations, you probably are aware that Israel is not very happy with the UN’s position toward it. Could good relations between Israel and Kazakhstan affect the Kazakh position on Israeli issues in UN institutions?
“We have close contacts between both delegations in the United Nations as well as in other international institutions. When I was foreign minister [from 1994-1999 and 2002-2007], I changed the voting position of Kazakhstan to be in favor of Israel. You know that there a lot of countries – including EU countries – which vote against Israel in the UN.
“Looking at the voting results and having consultations with some Jewish organizations in New York as well as with the Israeli government, I did not have any reason to be negative toward Israel. On four resolutions, our stance in the UN has been changed regarding Israel. I made the decision at the beginning of this century.”
Q: Many Jews found refuge in Kazakhstan during World War II. Do you see a special relationship between your country and the Jewish people?
“Yes. First of all, I graduated from a school where there were so many Jewish teachers in Almaty. Many were children of those who were exiled at the time by [Soviet leader Joseph] Stalin to Kazakhstan. They were excellent and still there are many excellent teachers. Until now, I am very grateful for them. Until now, I still remember their names.
“In regard to other people who were sent to Kazakhstan [during the exile], I think we have great personal links with them too. In Kazakhstan, there was never any anti-Semitism, ever. I think it is a natural sentiment or feeling for Kazakhs to be absolutely tolerant to all nations and nationalities, including Jews. We like Jews here and we have synagogues. One of the richest men in Kazakhstan is [Jewish], Mr. [Alexander] Mashkevich and I know him quite well.”
Q: The conflict in Syria concerns Israel very much. Do you see a future solution to the Syrian civil war?
“Kazakhstan has been involved in resolving the crisis in Syria. Astana, our capital, hosted the negotiations on Syria. They came out to be quite successful, in terms of giving additional input for solving the Syrian crisis. During the Geneva II Conference, along with the director-general of the UN, I was personally involved in this process and I’m proud that the meeting of foreign ministers in 2012 came out to be quite successful as well.
“The only document relating to the Syrian conflict was engineered here. Until now, we have no documents or resolutions in Syria, so Syria is a matter of concern to us. We will be cooperating with leaders from all over to bring peace to this country.”
Q: Tensions with Iran are growing. You were very active in the non-proliferation area. What would you recommend to do in order to deescalate the situation?
“Iran is a good partner to Kazakhstan, first of all, in the economic area. We are neighbors, right across the Caspian Sea and I think that Iran has been influenced by international cooperation. At the same time, of course, Iran should become a good partner – a reliable partner to the international community.
“We are very concerned about the lack of understanding that exists with regards to Iran. Iran is a very important actor in the Middle East, but at the same time, Iran has been positive in its cooperation with its immediate neighbors in the Arab world, as well as with other countries. But, at the same time, I don’t believe that Iran will take any steps toward [recognizing] Israel.
“I remember around 15 or 20 years ago, in a meeting with a foreign minister of Iran, he said that his country will never recognize Israel as a state. I said, okay, you might not recognize the moon or the sun, but they do exist. It’s the same with Israel. Israel does exist and is an independent state. It is a very important actor and country – the only country which is a democracy in the Middle East – so you need to recognize Israel and have cooperation with it, as we do, for example.”
Q: And what did he answer?
“He gave no answer,” the president said, laughing. Q: Kazakhstan has robust interfaith dialogue. We have seen religious tensions around the world, in Europe and in parts of Asia. What can be done in order to stop this violence?
“I think that the Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions in Astana was very important in bringing up dialogue between a variety of religions and denominations. This will continue.
“We believe that these kinds of meetings are important and bring together people, [especially those who] represent religions and different denominations. Kazakhstan is making its own contribution to this very important cause. I think that this kind of cooperation and through these kinds of activities – Kazakhstan is [setting] a great example – we have so many types of religions and denominations. We have Orthodox churches, Catholic churches, mosques, etc.”
by Eldad Beck