Articles - November 2016

Ambassador Kairat Umarov

Years of Independent Foreign Policy Built From Scratch
by James A. Winship, Ph.D.

Sitting astride the European and Asian continents, Kazakhstan has always been a crossroads of trade, culture and peoples. Its former capital, Almaty, was an important stop along the Silk Road from China through Central Asia to Europe. Historically, Kazakhstan had to learn to live in the shadow of its large, powerful, expansionist neighbors, Russia and China, as well as the advance of Muslim civilization from the South. Its steppes, grasslands and high plateaus, have offered a superhighway for trade and cultural interaction and provided Kazakhstan with a rich natural environment.

Today, that is none the less true. Kazakhstan shares long borders with both Putin's Russian Federation and Xi Jinping's China. It shares its Islamic faith with neighbors to the South and East. It shares values and close contact with both the European Union and the extended NATO security architecture to the West. Diplomatically, Kazakhstan has a foot in all of these camps. That is the legacy of its geopolitical location and its cultural diversity. In turn, that legacy has been carefully parlayed into a coveted seat as a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council beginning in January 2017.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 Kazakhstan, which had been a part of the Soviet empire since 1920, declared itself a sovereign nation state, one with nuclear weapons from birth. Moscow had long exploited the resources of Kazakhstan, open space coupled with sparse population and extensive natural resources, to expand agricultural production, develop an industrial base intended to supply both the Russian economy and the Soviet military, and to open the USSR's space center at Baikonur and a nuclear testing site at Semipalatinsk.

At independence, however, Kazakhstan made a conscious decision to denuclearize, voluntarily giving up nuclear weapons in favor of security guarantees and closer economic ties with the West. The decision was made easier by President Nazarbayev's strong leadership and because of the significant human and environmental damage suffered during decades of "secret" Soviet nuclear testing on Kazakh territory. Missiles and bombers were repatriated to Russia. In cooperation with the United States under the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) program, nuclear weapons infrastructure was eliminated and weapons-grade nuclear materials were removed. Kazakhstan's example remains a landmark in nuclear nonproliferation efforts.

Ambassador Kairat Umarov graduated from what was the Almaty Pedagogical Institute of Foreign Languages and is today the Kazakh Ablai Khan University of International Relations and World Languages. He began his professional life as a faculty member and a translator of literary classics and academic papers. While his academic career offered many opportunities to work with foreigners, it was his work in the International Relations Department of the Kazakh Trade Union Federation's Council that opened the door to his diplomatic career.

His first "adventure into the world of international relations," recalls Ambassador Umarov, "came when I was given a role in Nevada Semipalatinsk, an anti-nuclear movement seeking the closing of the Semipalatinsk nuclear test site in Kazakhstan and one of the first non-governmental organizations in the Soviet Union." He was an active participant in trying to forge links with anti-nuclear NGO's across the world and was part of conversations regarding nuclear testing in the United States. "I actually visited all the states on the West Coast of America talking to people, meeting at universities, and talking to television and radio stations. It was quite a good experience for me."

The Semipalatinsk nuclear test area was closed even before the collapse of the Soviet Union, and when Kazakhstan became independent, Ambassador Umarov was present at the creation of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs serving in a variety of capacities before being appointed First Secretary and then Counsellor at the Kazakh Embassy in Washington in 1994-1996. After a two year stint at the Foreign Ministry from 1996-1998, Ambassador Umarov returned to Washington as Minister-Counsellor from 1998-2003. From 2004-2009 Umarov served as Kazakhstan's Ambassador to India and Sri Lanka, returning home to serve as Deputy Foreign Minister (2009-2012) before being named Ambassador to the United States in 2013.

Outside the Kazakhstan Embassy in Washington, D.C. stands a statue of the "Golden Warrior" astride the figure of a winged snow leopard from Kazakh folklore. The "Golden Warrior" is a replica of a gold plated suit that clothed the skeleton of an ancient prince and was discovered as part of the 1969 excavation of a burial mound from nomadic Scythian-Saka civilization (VII BC). The statue is not only an icon of Kazakhstan's independence but a patriotic reflection of the country's proud history of defending its lands from invaders, ancient cultural heritage, accomplishments and hopes for a peaceful, secure and prosperous future. This year it also marks an important anniversary, 25 years of Kazakhstan's independence.

Ambassador Kairat Umarov embodies the legacy of the Golden Warrior tradition pursuing peace and security as he seeks to extend his country's diplomatic presence in Washington, D.C. He was kind enough to extend "Diplomatic Connections" an in-depth interview.

Diplomatic Connections: How did the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 affect Kazakhstan's diplomatic efforts? It was suddenly a very different proposition no longer to be a Soviet republic but to be an independent state.

Ambassador Umarov: Exactly. We had to build our foreign ministry from scratch. All the rest of the ministries had more or less existed as part of the regional government dealing with local issues within the framework of the Soviet Union. But, becoming an independent country meant that it was necessary to deal not only with regional issues but with the whole range of global issues. That was a very difficult and challenging time.

Diplomatic Connections: What was it like to join this fledgling Foreign Ministry?

Ambassador Umarov: When Kazakhstan became independent a set of rules and principles was presented to those entering the Foreign Service. One of those rules was that a diplomat must work for the good of the state and its people; but at the same time, a diplomat is expected to facilitate relations between states in order to avoid conflict and ensure peace and stability.

We continue to cherish those goals in our Ministry of Foreign Affairs. We hold them in very high esteem. I am very glad that today we have a highly professional foreign service which has more than 70 diplomatic missions all over the world, where 25 years ago there was nothing.

Diplomatic Connections: Kazakhstan occupies a unique geostrategic space, literally between Europe and Asia. How does geography affect Kazakhstan's diplomacy?

Ambassador Umarov: Geography plays an important role in our foreign policy. Kazakhstan is at the heart of Eurasia. We have the world's longest border with Russia, longer than the border between the United States and Canada. We have a long border with China. Our neighbors are Central Asian countries, and we are in close proximity to India, Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan. We are at the crossroads of civilizations serving as a bridge between East and West, North and South.

Our position from the very first days of our independence was to develop friendly relations, cooperative ties with our neighbors and with our major trading and security partners. We stand for mutually beneficial relations that can jointly help to develop our economies. There is a golden rule of diplomacy that in order to succeed it is necessary to be mindful not only of your own country's interests but of your diplomatic partners' interests as well.

Diplomatic Connections: Kazakhstan's foreign policy is often described in official publications as "multi-vectored." What is meant by that term?

Ambassador Umarov: The world today is not a simple one. Relations between states are made up of complex interdependencies. As my President Nursultan Nazarbayev defines it, multi-vectored diplomacy means a balanced, well-conceived, predictable and responsible foreign policy aimed at avoiding conflicts by building trust and mutual understanding in pursuit of peace.

In April 2016, during a visit to the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, D.C., President Nazarbayev unveiled his vision for a secure world in "Manifesto. The World. The 21st Century." There he actually "declared war on war" appealing for a new mentality that would eliminate war as a way of life and underscoring the responsibility of leading world powers to achieve a nuclear-weapons-free-world in this century.

At the beginning of our independence, of course, people could not understand what this sort of policy would mean. How could a country like Kazakhstan develop strong relations with such different countries as the Russian Federation, China, the United States as well as organizations like the EU, NATO and the OSCE? But, at the end of the day, we can say this policy has proven itself right. The policy has made Kazakhstan more stable and more secure.

Diplomatic Connections: How does this multi-vectored policy play out in the real world?

Ambassador Umarov: For example, Kazakhstan is a member of the NATO Partnership for Peace program; at the same time, we are part of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, which includes many former Soviet republics. We are a member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and at the same time we hosted a summit of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. We have chaired the Council of Foreign Ministers of the OIC ‐ the Organization for Islamic Cooperation. And, we have a country program with OECD ‐ the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

My point is that we can and should be part of any regional grouping or world organization where we can seriously contribute to peace and sustainable development. Every country, every organization looks at Kazakhstan as an asset and not as a problem. Our multi-vectored foreign policy helps us to maintain this balance of relationships with many countries.

Diplomatic Connections: How would you characterize the relationship between Kazakhstan and the United States today?

Ambassador Umarov: Our relationship is strong and enduring. We are strategic partners and meet regularly to discuss a wide range of issues, including nonproliferation cooperation, energy, economic concerns, human rights, science and technology, security and military-to-military cooperation. It is a very wide and deep set of recurring discussions.

Today we have a very robust strategic partnership that we anticipate will expand and grow. We cooperate to bring peace and stability in our region and around the world. For example, in the case of Afghanistan, Kazakhstan provides free passage for flights by the American military as part of the international force carrying supplies into that country. And, when overland supply was needed, we were instrumental in creating ground access routes to Afghanistan. We have sent Kazakh troops to Iraq to assist in demining efforts.

We have also cooperated with the United States to launch a new regional platform, the C5+1, meaning the five countries of the Central Asian region: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and the United States. This diplomatic platform is intended to explore the challenges of building a connected and prosperous Central Asia and identifying areas where the United Sates might help to promote that process.

Diplomatic Connections: Kazakhstan has been elected to a two-year term (2017-2019) as a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. What does Kazakhstan expect to bring to the Security Council? What will the experience of sitting and voting on the Security Council bring to Kazakhstan?

Ambassador Umarov: Membership on the UN Security Council brings the Central Asian region into the focal point of international affairs. Very often the issues of our region, which is becoming vitally important for stability and sustainable development in Asia and beyond, are being neglected. We hope that, as a result of our presence, key problems and issues of relevance for Central Asia and the Asia-Pacific region Kazakhstan was elected to represent will be brought to the table.

Kazakhstan has gone through many difficulties. In 25 years of independence, we have gone from 700 USD per capita GDP to 13,700 USD per capita GDP. That is an increase of almost 16 times over. From an unknown country, we have become an important player in regional and international affairs. We have gone from a constituent republic of the former Soviet Union that nobody knew to a respected country and a member of the United Nations Security Council.

We have gone through all of that, and we understand the issues of nation building. We have achieved denuclearization and we have achieved water, food and energy security. Those themes were precisely the pillars on which we built our campaign for a Security Council seat.

Diplomatic Connections: Could you explain how Kazakhstan's efforts to be elected a member of the Security Council proceeded?

Ambassador Umarov: To be a Security Council candidate today requires a great deal of preparation and very detailed work. Our campaign for a non-permanent seat, representing the Asia-Pacific regional grouping, began six years ago. Over that time we talked to a wide cross-section of United Nations members. You have to convince the countries involved that you can really make a difference. We worked tirelessly on building up the substance of our proposal in order to explain what we would like to bring to the table.

Take food security as an example. Kazakhstan is creating a food bank within the structure of the Organization for Islamic Cooperation (OIC). This gives us a recipe for how to deal with food shortage issues. Where nuclear security is concerned, our legacy of denuclearization is well known, and we would like to work further on nonproliferation issues. We would like to move forward the agenda that there should be a nuclear weapons free world. Water security is a pressing issue today. In many parts of the world there is no access to fresh water. We have first-hand experience with this issue. Energy security is a difficult issue, but exciting new horizons are opening. Every country should have access to cheap, sustainable resources of energy.

Diplomatic Connections: Kazakhstan will host a global energy conference "EXPO 2017" in Astana. Kazakhstan is a major energy producer. Some might think it odd that your country is looking beyond fossil fuels to promote alternative energy sources. What are the goals of the conference? Who will be attending that conference?

Ambassador Umarov: Over 100 countries have confirmed their participation in EXPO 2017, which will take place in our capital city, Astana, from June 10 to September 10, 2017. The fair will be a truly multinational event, and we have built new infrastructure, including hotels and roads, designed to accommodate an influx of foreign visitors. Several thousand events, including cultural presentations, concerts and festivals are planned. We welcome visitors who are interested in the theme of the event and who are interested in learning more about our country.

Fossil fuels, oil and gas, will continue to play an important role in global energy supplies well into the future. Still, the whole world today is thinking about climate change and hoping to live in a cleaner, better environment. We believe the future is with clean, renewable fuels. By 2050 Kazakhstan would like to have 50% of its energy produced by renewable sources.

The theme of Expo 2017 is "Future Energy." Everything is being done to show that we can sustain high technology and at the same time employ highly efficient renewable energy sources. Energy companies from around the world will showcase the latest technologies in renewable energy, in energy conservation and in carbon capture methods. The entire site will be divided into corporate and national pavilions.

The whole "Expo Village" site will be completely run by green technologies. It will be a model of clean energy, making extensive use of solar and wind. All facilities are designed to incorporate the latest technologies for energy efficiency and conservation as well as for recycling. The entire site will employ smart grid technology for energy distribution and generation.

Diplomatic Connections: What are Kazakhstan's goals for "EXPO 2017"?

Ambassador Umarov: The main idea of EXPO is that energy is a right for all. Everyone has the right to have it. We would like to assure that all countries have access to the latest and best technologies.

After the exhibition is concluded, the entire site will be used for educational purposes, for international organizations like the United Nations Green Technology site. We are also going to have their Astana International Financial Center, which will become the heart of Green financial operations in the region and beyond. The site will continue to be a symbol of best energy practices which we can use and learn from well into the future.

Diplomatic Connections: At the beginning of our conversation this afternoon, you talked about creating a diplomatic role for Kazakhstan. Based on your diplomatic experience, literally being there at the modern day birth of your country, what lessons do you want to pass on to a new generation of Kazakh diplomats?

Ambassador Umarov: The people of Kazakhstan have accomplished a great deal in only 25 years of independence, but we have to do even more in the coming years. Kazakhstan is a strong and reliable international partner, a forward looking country willing to contribute to the good of this world. It depends on each and every one of us what kind of a world we leave to our next generation. We have to prove that together we can make our future and the future of our children safer and better.

Diplomats play their own special part in this effort. The lesson that we have learned is simple: the fate and the future of your country is closely connected to the fate and the future of the world. You cannot be an island of happiness in a sea of misfortune and despair. That is why, my diplomatic colleagues, all of us are called to represent the best interests of our people and our country. But, we must also keep in mind how to match the interests of our country with the best interests of the global community.

Diplomatic Connections: It is fascinating to hear you state the diplomatic calling in that way, Mr. Ambassador, because what you are saying is that there is not just a political, an economic and a security dimension to being a diplomat, there is an ethical dimension as well.

Ambassador Umarov: Absolutely. You have to have high moral values and an ethical view both of statecraft and of your responsibility to humankind as well as to the biodiversity and the ecosystems of the planet. You must have a vision not only for your country and its people but for the world.

Diplomatic Connections: That is a perfect place to end, Mr. Ambassador. Thank you for your time and your insights into
your country's unique position in the world.
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